Researching the History of the People’s Republic of China

Kraus, Charles. Researching the history of the People’s Republic of China. Washington, DC : Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Cold War International History Project, April 2016. (CWIHP Working Paper ; 79). 28 p. URL : (consulté le 4 avril 2016)


The history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as a field, is booming. This is in large measure due to the gradual opening of China’s archives. Indeed, the study of China since 1949—once the domain of social scientists drawing on newspapers, interviews, and field work observations—is now dominated by historians, political scientists, and sociologists whose work is grounded in archives and archival materials. From Frank Dikötter’s popular trilogy covering the span of Mao Zedong’s rule, to Jeremy Brown’s fine-grained history of Tianjin; from Aminda Smith’s inquiry into thought reform and the prison in socialist China, to Neil Diamant’s work on the family and marriage laws; and from Thomas Christensen’s work on alliance politics to Jeremy Friedman’s new book on the Sino-Soviet split, there are simply too many books, articles, and doctoral dissertations which have drawn on unpublished archival sources and “grassroots” materials from the PRC to mention all of them here.

Judging from the footnotes in scholarly books and articles, archival research in China is no longer a “special art,” as one handbook from the 1980s called it. Yet everyone who has researched the history of the People’s Republic of China in China would probably admit that it is not an easy enterprise. Although the archives in China are nominally open, the barriers to entry are many, access is often conditional or only temporary, and the holdings are sometimes slim. The abrupt closure of the PRC Foreign Ministry Archives in Beijing and the subsequent removal of the majority of its holdings from the public’s view in 2012-2013 demonstrated to the entire community of China specialists the tenuousness of researching PRC history in China. The chatter on H-PRC, across the Twittersphere, and at academic conferences paints a grim picture of doing archival research in China.

What can scholars do to prepare for researching in China? How can scholars mitigate the bureaucratic constraints on research, while identifying and exploiting archival opportunities? In this Working Paper, I reflect on these and other questions related to researching the history of the People’s Republic of China. My findings, inclinations, and suggestions are derived from my experiences at 25 different archives in China—covering almost all levels of Chinese government administration: sub-municipal/district, municipal, provincial, and ministry-level—over a period of several years. Although several other articles, handbooks, and research briefs have discussed how to conduct research in Chinese archives, the development of PRC history as a field and changes in archival access in China in recent years makes updating these past guides worthwhile. At the same time, because the best overviews of Chinese archives have been written by William Moss, an archivist by training and profession, my perspective, as a researcher, is different. I am less concerned by the laws on the books than by the actual situations on the ground.

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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