Zen and the Art of Archival Research in China; or Don’t let the Wenzhou Municipal Archives Bring You Down

Today I was reminded why it’s wise to never allow yourself to get worked up or angry when interacting with staff at an archive in China.

I strolled down to Wenzhou during lunchtime, on a two-hour long gaotie trip from Ningbo. I hustled over to the温州市档案馆 Wenzhou Municipal Archives as soon as I arrived in the city, getting there at about 3:00 p.m.

I presented my letter of introduction and the archival signatures of the two folders I wished to review. I also filled out a registration form asking the same routine questions as always: name, affiliation, contents of files you wished to see, and the reason why (“academic research”). The assistant initially helping me seemed to be processing my request immediately, but as she was entering my information into the computer one of her colleagues came over and motioned that, since I was a foreigner, they should check with the boss.

They took my papers and went over to a man at the end of the registration desk, who insisted that I needed a letter from the Municipal Foreign Affairs Office (FAO). This man, the boss apparently, did not explain this to me directly, but to the staff, who then returned to me and repeated his statement. When pressed, the two women said that this was a regulation of the Zhejiang Provincial Archives.

I told them I’ve been to the Zhejiang Provincial Archives, as well as several municipal archives in Zhejiang, and none of them require a letter from the FAO. My letter of introduction from my danwei was always good enough.

They went back to their boss, who said he would go call the Provincial Archives. A few minutes passed before the boss returned with a message: “no one answered at the Provincial Archives.” He disappeared at this point.

I happened to have a business card for the Zhejiang Archives in my wallet from when I visited in September, so I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the number to the main reading room. I confirmed that all I needed to do research was a letter from a Chinese university, and then handed my phone over to the staff. I wasn’t arguing yet, just trying to solve a problem. I felt like the Wenzhou staff didn’t know the provincial regulations and were just saying what they thought to be true.

After the staff talked with the authorities in Hangzhou, they relented a bit. The two girls conferred with their boss over the phone, who then said to go ahead and order the two folders I wanted to see. I thought this was the end of it, that I had succeeded in convincing them of their error…

Another staff member went down to the stacks and pulled the two folders. She brought them to my desk, but instead of leaving them with me, she pointed to the table of contents and said, “which specific documents do you want to see?” Truthfully, all of them—but I told her just a few. The staff person took the folders away and went to the photocopier. “Oh,” I thought, “they’re just going to make copies for me right now.”

Eventually the sound of the copy machine ceased, and I turned around to see that the girl was gone. Ten minutes or so later, she came back with another man (not the main boss from earlier). They both said, “these two documents are secret (pointing to the 机密 printed in the top corners of the pages). Therefore, they are not open.”

Here’s when I started to argue. I said the files were listed in the open catalog, so it shouldn’t matter whether there’s a “secret” marking on them. You declassified them already.

They didn’t budge. I said they are older than 30 years old, so although they say “secret” on them, they are not really secret and everyone knows that. They still didn’t budge.

I explained how Ningbo does things—if it’s stamped secret, researchers can see it and take notes, but not make photocopies. I pulled out my laptop and showed them a document I transcribed in Ningbo this morning, which included the oh-so-sensitive 机密 imprint on the header.  Nope, nothing.

The two staff persons mentioned national security and such to rationalize not making “open” documents available to the public…but they could not have taken this seriously, because they both read the documents while talking to me. Teenagers from Wenzhou going to work on farms in 1966? National security? Yeah, right. I got up and left after putting in a few more words of advice for the staff.

The verdict is in, and it’s not a shocker: I do not recommend the Wenzhou Municipal Archives. It’s not the type of place you can meander though files or, well, really do research.

But the bigger takeaway here is don’t bother getting to the point where you allow yourself to get worked up at a Chinese archive. I lost my cool, and it didn’t do any good. It didn’t matter how much I argued with these people, telling them that what they are doing was wrong and in contravention of their own rules and regulations. The only thing that happened is I became more and more aggravated and upset.

Some archives in China are just going to be bureaucratic. They are going to try to stonewall researchers every which way. But there are thousands of archives in China, so just move onto the next one.

The Wenzhou Municipal Archives is located at 温州市府西路81号, at the rear of the Wenzhou Municipal Library.

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