The 2017 Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Conference went from March 16th - 19th in Toronto, Canada. In this series of posts, several LRCCS students share their experiences there. This post is written by Weihang Wang, LRCCS MA student.
Grassroots Documents and PRC History Methods
Doing archival research in China can be a difficult challenge for scholars of PRC history, especially during the recent years the Chinese government has restricted and even closed some historical archives for scholarly access. However, the market of grassroots documents continues to grow when more and more scholars shift their focus from the study of elite politics to the field of everyday history. “Garbology”, collecting grassroots documents, such as dairies, police files, and self-criticisms, from online individual sellers and flea market, becomes a possible alternative to official archives in the field of PRC history.
I’m interested in archives and the use of garbology in historical research. Therefore, I’m glad that I found this gem, a panel titled “Grassroots Documents and PRC History Methods,” in those 370 AAS panels. In this 2-hour roundtable discussion, the five panelists as well as the audiences shared their experiences on gathering grassroots documents in China and discussed the various challenges they met when dealing with document sellers. One of the panelist talked about the gender issue that she noticed when searching for documents in those Chinese flea markets, where most of the documents sellers were middle-aged men and the way that this sort of “transaction” was conducted, according to one PhD student, felt like buying drugs from a drug dealer.
Many grassroots documents in China are in fact, discarded records and documents from danweis of different governmental branches. Therefore, legality was another major topic in this discussion. From a legal perspective, these documents exist in a grey area, in which the Chinese government still has the rights to recall and confiscate them. One of the panelist remembered that one time when his taxi was halted by a police in China, he thought it was the end of the world because all the documents he had just collected would be discovered and confiscated by the police. However, he felt so relieved afterwards when he found out that the police officer was in fact, traffic police. Fear and a sense of guilt have troubled most scholars who have done garbology in China. As one of the panelists said, he would return these documents if the Chinese government eventually decided to preserve them in an archive.
All of the panelists were willing to share their grassroots documents with other scholars. Professor Pickowicz from UCSD introduced his collection: diaries of a north China peasant between 1944 and 1990. This collection is ready for scholarly use. Professor Leese and his team from University of Freiburg are working on a project of analyzing “how the CCP dealt with the legacy of the Maoist past." Professor Cao Shuji introduced various collections of the local government documents, such as 地方历史文献数据库 and judicial documents 中国司法档案数据库 and Historical Maps of China 民国军事地图档案 that are available in Shanghai Jiaotong University.