Surprise, Surprise, Tumen Municipal Archives

This morning I rode a bus an hour from Yanji to Tumen, a small Chinese city bordering North Korea. While I originally intended to just take a stroll along the Tumen River and catch a glimpse of life over in the DPRK, immediately after arriving I impulsively decided to walk over to the archives.


Tumen has historically played an important role as a Chinese gateway into North Korea, a place for the exchange of goods, peoples, and ideas between the two countries. The city’s location and connectivity to the DPRK do make it a sensitive environment (especially for research), but Tumen is nevertheless a pleasant place to visit.

I had an address for the archives–it turns out it is inside a busy government service center. I walked in and felt a bit intimidated, until some man, coming down a flight of stairs, spotted me and said with a big grin, “what are you looking for?”

I told the man I wanted to go to the archives. He laughed, but then brought me up the stairs and took me into one of the offices on the 2nd floor. There it was: the 图们市档案馆Tumen Municipal Archives.

I have no idea who the guy was—did he just want to help a dumbfounded foreigner or was he an employee? Either way, I was in the “archives,” a small room with a couch, a photocopier, and a few desks for staff.

I spoke with a woman who worked there, trying to explain that I wanted to look at historical documents and it would be helpful if I could see the catalogs for each fond (全总号). There was a lot of back-and-forth in which she tried to tell me they didn’t have any documents about my research project and maybe I should go to the Yanbian Prefecture Archives in Yanji.

This was not necessarily obstructionism. I learned that Tumen Municipality is a relatively recent invention, having only been established in 1965 (previously it was part of 龙井市 Longjing). This means, the staff explained, the archive does not have any documents from prior to 1965.

IMG_20150909_114344I said that was great—I would be delighted to see materials from the 1960s and 1970s. We continued debating for a while and for some reason I mentioned how China has a declassification rule in which most documents should become available so many years after their creation. The woman, seeming to relent a little, said “you know your stuff” and took me down the hall to another room.

I immediately spotted the bookcase with all the catalog binders for each fond and asked if I could go through them. She eventually agreed that I could look at fond 10, or the record group for the Municipal Government (市政府). Before leaving me by myself in the room, she said to jot down the year (年), catalog number (目录号), and folder number (案卷号) for anything that looked relevant.


I quickly perused the book and wrote down information for six folders. I went back down the hall, handed my requests to the staff, and then waited. A few minutes later, the woman emerged with all of the folders.

She handed me five of them and said one of the folders, from 1971, was stamped “secret” (机密) and I couldn’t view it. But the others were OK, and she left me alone again.

I opened one folder, allegedly dealing with some sort of meeting between officials in Tumen and officials from a sister city in North Korea, and found that it was an empty. There was a short handwritten note that said because it was about Sino-North Korean relations it had been transferred to another archive.


After this hiccup, I found that the other folders were in fact full of materials, some relevant to my dissertation research on the resettlement of Shanghai youth to other parts of China in the 1960s.

Did I find anything breathtaking? I’m not sure I did. But after getting nothing from the Yanbian Archives, it was a pleasant surprise to get to see, hold, and make copies of documents in Tumen.

By now it was lunchtime, and the staff were going to take their breaks. I left and took a stroll down to the Tumen River, ate a quick lunch, and hurried back to the archives at reopening time.


Unfortunately, the woman who had helped me in the morning was nowhere to be seen and I was interfacing with someone new. This person was not nearly as enthusiastic about me looking at materials. Without hesitating, she shot down my request to me view the catalog for the local Party Committee (市委), fond 1, and she almost didn’t even let me see the municipal government fond catalog again.

And then, not five minutes after starting to browse the catalog for fond 10, she said in fact I could not look at it or see any more archival materials. But I was welcome to browse published books such as the local 文史资料…

At this point, I decided it was time to get out of Tumen. My luck had run out. But maybe, when I try again next year, I’ll be surprised again.

The Tumen Municipal Archives is located at 吉林省图们市友谊街30号. It is on the 2nd floor of the 政务服务中心.


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