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  • Hidden Treasures: US State Department Diplomatic Records and their Relevance for Scholars of Late Imperial China *

Introduction: Beyond Foreign Relations

For Western scholars of late imperial China, each passing year has brought the discovery of exciting and essential research materials in archives and libraries throughout Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, 1 but in the 1990s, those discoveries have been accompanied by a discouraging diminution in funding available for the conduct of research abroad. 2 Competition for fellowships and research grants is becoming increasingly stiff, and even those who obtain research money must become more efficient in using documents available at home to lay the groundwork for research abroad, since the shrinking funding reservoir augurs fewer and more abbreviated opportunities to travel to China. The purpose of this essay is to inform students and scholars of late Qing social, economic, and political history of a rich collection of primary source materials in English and Chinese which can be consulted in the Washington DC area, and to provide a brief guide to both the content and classification of those documents.

For the historian of late Qing society, economics, and domestic politics, the diplomatic records of the United States Department of State [USDS], [End Page 82] now housed at the newly-constructed National Archives at College Park in Maryland (colloquially known as Archives II), are a vast and easily accessible storehouse of research materials. The USDS records contain correspondence to and from American diplomats and consular officials, as well as resident Western missionaries and businessmen, and include queries, complaints, and reports from local and national-level Chinese authorities. Although by no means a comprehensive or objective record of late Qing history, the USDS collection not only provides researchers with an overview of what the American government considered crucial domestic developments during a very turbulent time in China, but also includes a range of Chinese responses to American diplomatic and commercial imperialism.

Without a doubt, the most problematic aspect of utilizing the records of the US Department of State lies in that institution’s propensity to change its document classification schemes. From the mid-nineteenth century to the 1911 Revolution, no less than three different classification systems were employed, and the following is an attempt to guide researchers to valuable academic resources, avoiding what can otherwise be a frustrating and time-consuming process. 3

Content of the USDS Collection

Despite the desire of many historians of late imperial China to reassess the role of the West in an attempt to achieve what Paul Cohen termed “a more China-centered approach to Chinese history,” Western imperialism became a significant factor in late Qing politics, society, and economics, and Western diplomats not only served as important actors in the late Qing era, but also became crucial interpreters of events in China for policymakers and China-watchers back home. 4 By definition, the Department of State’s mission to facilitate diplomatic and commercial relations with foreign nations required that it process a constant stream of information from its officials on the internal affairs of those countries. However, the State Department gave precious little in the way of concrete instructions to its officers abroad, and ultimately, [End Page 83] the quality and quantity of consular reports and the analysis contained within those reports was largely dependent on the interests, as well as the intellectual curiosity, ability, and good health of individual consular officers. The observations of these Western diplomats in China, as well as those of the missionaries, adventurers, and businessmen who were their compatriots and comrades, although often unavoidably colored by their imperialist agenda, still provide valuable historical data and offer a fascinating perspective on the final decades of China’s imperial system.

Among the lesser known and most valuable elements of the collection are the inclusion of letters, petitions, reports, and other correspondence---ranging from official pronouncements to local petitions to inflammatory placards---authored by Chinese authorities, elites, and even outlaws. Thus, despite the imperialist slant of the collection as a whole, researchers are often able to glean an unadulterated glimpse at the discontent of Chinese both within and outside the official Qing bureaucracy during this time of socio...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3257
Print ISSN
0884-3236
Pages
pp. 82-99
Launched on MUSE
1998-06-01
Open Access
N
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