I came to the archive three days in a row. No other foreign researchers were here during this time. A few Chinese students and professors shared the large reading room table with me, but mostly a lot of citizens came-and-went, just wanting to get copies of personal files.
When I arrived the first day, I presented my letter of introduction and passport to two receptionists. I also briefly told them my research topic (in broad terms, knowing they might later restrict access to only files “relevant” to my research topic).
The two girls behind the desk called over their boss, who then gave his OK. I was allowed to look at the list of fonds (an index of the various bureaus, offices, and enterprises) and request folder-level catalogs. I did so for a number of different fonds: Communist Youth League, Labor Bureau, Municipal Government, Hangzhou Distillery, Down to the Villages and Up to the Mountains Office, and the Municipal Party Committee.
With catalogs in hand, I then jotted down the specific folders that looked interesting or useful. Some folders had a 开放 (open) stamp in the catalog, while most did not. In the end I found this did not really matter. I requested both types of folders and received both every time.
Folders came to my desk quickly (I must have been perusing files within 30 minutes of first arriving). I was told by the receptionists to mark the pages I wanted to copy and bring them up for approval. At first the boss looked at my requests, but subsequently the two receptionists reviewed everything. I was allowed to photograph nearly everything I requested.
That’s right–photographing documents in a Chinese archive. No paying for xeroxing. No arbitrary limits such as 50 pages a day or no more than 1/3 of a folder. And no typing or copying documents by hand. Go wild with your camera or smart phone. I certainly did.
Occasionally the boss walked around the floor of the reading room. I tensed up the first few times he did so, afraid that he would question why I was looking at a particular folder (“this has nothing to do with your research topic!”) or notice that I was looking at something I shouldn’t be (“this file is still secret! “). In the end I found the man was just curious what I was researching–he wasn’t a censor.
All was well until the third day, when I decided to ask for the catalog of the Municipal Party Committee, fond number one. At first the staff told me I could only see the pre-Cultural Revolution portion, which was perfectly fine with me.
I wrote down 20 folders that looked interesting and requested half of them. They delivered almost all of them–two, however, were ” not open.” This was the first time I had not been allowed to see a particular folder. I believe the two folders had something to do with foreign affairs, but it’s hard to know, having not seen them.
I went though the folders that I could see quickly, finding that most of the documents were actually files sent down (下达) by the Central Committee. All were originally stamped 秘密 (secret) when they were created in 1961-1964.
I wanted copies of some of the 50-year old documents, so I took the folders back up front for review. I guess at this point the staff realized I was looking at something I shouldn’t have been. The giant red 中共中央文件 atop the first page of each document gave it away.
According to the staff, they have never received any guidance from the Central Committee on declassifying and releasing its files. Not only could I not make copies of these particular folders, I was told I couldn’t see anything else from the Municipal Party Committee fond.
Obviously this is a big problem for PRC history. If we have a hard time accessing the files of the preeminent decision-making body (the Party), there will always be a lot we cannot know.
Still, there is a lot to be gleaned from the hundreds of other fonds accessible at the Hangzhou Municipal Archives, and I will happily return there. I suggest others do the same.
The Hangzhou Municipal Archives is located at 杭州市香积寺路3号.