Archives and Histories in Twentieth-Century China
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Although the existence of state archives has been traced back to the fourth and afth centuries BC in the West and perhaps all the way back to the Shang dynasty in China,1 the establishment of permanent, public, national archival institutions dates only from the French Revolution, with the creation of the Archives nationales in 1790. The immediate reasons for founding such institutions , such as the British Public Record Oface (established 1838), the National Archives of the United States (1934), the Academia Historica (Guoshiguan) of the Republic of China (1947) or the Central Archives (Zhongyang dang’anguan) of the People’s Republic of China (1959) have varied, but in their broader purposes they appear to have had several aims in common: to increase bureaucratic efaciency, by centralizing the storage of government records; to assist and protect the government by providing an ongoing record of its own activities and commitments; to preserve the cultural/political heritage of the nation, as deaned by the state; and— anally—to preserve the records of the past for present and future historians.2 (Arguably, only this last was a main aim of the original Guoshiguan, the State Historiographer ’s Oface under the Qing, with the aim above all to manage the dynastic story for posterity.)3 Although designed primarily to serve the authorities, modern archives have been best loved by historians. Not long after the founding of the Public Record Oface, a report complained: “Our Public Records excite no interest, even in the functionaries whose acts they record, the departments whose proceedings they register; or the proprietors to whose property rights they furnish the most authentic, perhaps the only title-deeds.”4 At the same time, amateur and professional historians in Europe were developing an obsession for unlocking the presumed secrets of archival collections. Thus Ranke wrote passionately of his desire (Lust) for the data in archival manuscripts, which he imagined as “so many princesses, possibly beautiful, all under a curse and needing to be saved.”5 The tension between the purposes of the state, some of which are meant to be kept secret, and the insatiable Forschungslust of the modern historical profession, has of course never been resolved. But the very existence of public archives has changed the way historians work. Historians have come to take it for granted that access to archives storing the “primary” materials of history, what Marc Bloch called “the evidence of witnesses in spite of themselves,”6 is essential to their craft. This is not because primary materials are always superior to narrative sources of earlier generations; nor it is because they are necessarily true—indeed they may be full of lies and distortions . But, as Bloch reminds us, theirs is the “kind of distortion [that] has not been especially designed to deceive posterity.”7 From the point of view of historians, many of the great advances in archival access in the twentieth century have come when governments have lost their ability to deceive posterity, notably by collapsing in war and revolution. After the First World War, European governments competed with each other in the selective publication of documents designed to show how each was innocent of “war guilt”; but it was only after Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, when its archives were seized and microalmed by the Allies (an event that in turn prompted a fuller opening of Allied archives), that a comprehensive archival investigation of the origins of the arst war was 436 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Archives and Histories in Twentieth-Century China William C. Kirby ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ possible. The more recent, sudden demise of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies—the archives of which had been largely off limits to scholars—is already having a far-reaching effect on historical research and seems likely to promote greater openness in other archives .8 Although many governments have adopted policies of unveiling archival materials after regular intervals (commonly thirty or afty years), the historian’s best friend remains the government that ceases to govern. This, after all, is one reason why research in Qing archives has faced fewer political obstacles than has scholarly work on either Nationalist or Communist China. But as the case of the Qing archives demonstrates, the support of governments is essential to the archival endeavor , for the defeat or disappearance of a regime does not by itself open its archive. Early Republican governments were positively lethargic in their approach to records, including their own. The Lishi Bowuguan (Historical Museum) founded in the late Qing...