Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Archives (5/19/09)

This morning I made a return visit to the Chongqing municipal archives, which houses some of my research documents. For the first two hours of my adventure I was not hunting alone, but was accompanied by a student volunteer from the university we are partnering with, Chongqing Technology and Business University (CTBU).  Wei Ming (also known as “Ella”) is an English major, and she arrived at the dorm this morning with my letter of introduction, stamped by the university’s Foreign Exchange Office: my entry ticket.  We departed in pouring rain and flagged down a cab at the front gate.  I was surprised that the driver knew our destination immediately.  Not a hint of confusion when Ella told him, in Chongqing dialect, “The Chongqing Municipal Archives.”

This is a huge municipality, and the archives are a good half hour away in decent traffic.

Ella and I chatted it up.  She’s an English major—a junior with fairly good spoken English—but she’s not confident about finding a job once she graduates:  “There are too many people who learn English now, and as an English major, I have no other specialties except for English.”  I haven’t met, in Sichuan or Beijing, the droves of English speakers she is concerned about.  Yes, many school children now study English, but most don’t have the kinds of opportunities Ella has to practice their spoken English with native speakers.  I’m more optimistic about her prospects than she is.  I asked her how she is spending her summer (a part-time job, an internship?).  Neither: “I am studying to learn to drive!”.  She will be the first driver in her family, and when she succeeds in getting her license, her parents will buy their first family car.  The remainder of our drive, as our cabbie darted in and out of slowing traffic, we discussed the comparable perils of driving in Beijing vs. Chongqing.

The cab finally arrived in the Shapingba district of Chongqing, and the driver pulled a sharp U-turn before stopping abruptly:  “The Archives,” he grunted, with a sharp jab in the air towards the mouth of a long paved lane.  We clambered out of the cab. I was loaded down with a dripping purple floral umbrella and two bags containing: one laptop; one extension cord; two dictionaries (one electronic, one bound); one notebook; four pens; one digital camera; my passport (tucked into my secret pocket); a box of business cards (many of which now have water marks); my wallet (stuffed with 100 yuan bills for my research fees); one bottle of water; and a wad of toilet paper.  Ella held a dripping blue umbrella and a small black and white checked handbag.

The surrounding sounds on the steady climb up the hill were familiar from my last visit here: the steady beat of a sledge hammer hitting a metal stake; a chorus of birds in the trees lining some of the lane; the four-count measure of music issuing from the dirt-caked open windows of a dance school.

After nearly an hour registering with the archivists, I began my initial work of thumbing through catalogues on Social Welfare for descriptions of files that might be useful for me.  Ella, who insisted on staying until lunch, sat beside me at a long wooden table, politely cursing the nearly illegible handwriting of the archivists who had catalogued this collection.  She finally gave up, puzzling over what I could possibly find interesting about this work, and busied herself with playing with my electronic dictionary.  I encouraged her to return to campus, but she wanted to help.  Every time I found a file I wanted to call up from storage, she stopped her dictionary playing and insisted on filling out the call form herself, apparently dissatisfied with my own Chinese penmanship!

Once we had two full lists of files to pull up from storage (I ignored the archivists' concerns that I could ever get through this many documents in one day), we sat and waited for my loot.  I asked Ella if I could help her with her homework, and she pulled a folded sheet of paper from her bag: excerpts from John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, “The world is very different now….”  We went through the first few lines together, my saying the words and Ella repeating.  I corrected her pronunciation and explained some of the meaning: 

“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe -- the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

Wow.  “Not from the generosity of the state”—a concept fundamentally in opposition to the party-state’s insistence that it is the State that grants rights in China.  Who assigned Ella’s class this speech?  I asked Ella what she thought of these words.  “I think Kennedy was a great man,” was her reply, “Like your American president, Barak Obama.”

I wanted to explore her thoughts on this further, but alas, one of the clerks was standing in front of me with a large stack of files.  Documents!  Thin and yellow, stamped with still-bright red seals. Bearing the dust of the past.

My research is on wartime children’s homes, established in Chongqing during Japan’s partial-occupation of China—during what we usually think of as our Second World War.  China had been fighting its own war against Japan for several years before the United States entered WWII.  Japan began its occupation of China in 1931, with the creation of a puppet state in Manchuria.  The Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek chose not to fight this first wave of Japanese aggression, but by 1937, China and Japan were engaged in a full-fledged war. This resulted in what some historians recognize as the largest human migration in Chinese history, with at least 100 million civilians leaving their homes. Just before “the Rape of Nanjing” in 1937, the Guomindang moved the capital of Nationalist China up the Yangtze river to Wuhan, and then ultimately here, to Chongqing.  This hilly and perpetually overcast city—set in the lush and fertile Sichuan basin and buffered to the West by the high reaches of the Himalayas—was believed to be China’s best defense against Japan’s aerial bombardments.  If China could hang on to just a few very important provinces, the Nationalists believed, they just must survive the war.

Among these droves of refugees were large numbers of displaced children, traveling across battle lines and up river: some were separated from their families; some were still traveling with their shell-shocked parents; some were orphans who had been rescued, in groups, from behind enemy lines.  Women and men from both the Nationalist and Communist parties worked during this period (often with one another) to create relief institutions to address the needs of these wandering, hungry, and often sickly children.

It was the sickly children I was concerned with today.  And the wee-est of the wee ones: those infants, some of them foundlings, who were too young to be a part of wartime children’s acting groups and propaganda troupes, and too young to be engaged in wartime labor (all of which were activities of children in China’s wartime orphanages).  In short, I was looking for government responses to the plight of children who were less visible to the public during this period than older orphans who were frequently celebrated by China’s wartime press as child-worker-citizens.

After a bit of hunting, I found traces of these infants in pockets of files labeled “Entry Records for Infant Homes” that some clerical worker (or his or her superior) thought to save over 60 years ago.  I can’t see these babies in photographs, but I could hear them in the back and forth correspondences of government bureaucrats and orphanage directors.  A handwritten order from the Director of Social Welfare to all orphanage heads:  “Please provide my office with a list of all the starving and sickly infants admitted to your foundling home last month, their ages, and origins, their state of health…..”  Followed by a stack of responses from orphanage directors.  Director Wang: “Last month we admitted a female infant, aged 4 months, who suffers from the following illnesses and is not expected to live…”  Director Liu: “Last month we admitted a female infant of 6 months whose father is fighting in the war of resistance.  She is healthy but thin….last month 7 female infants died of the following illnesses…..”. 

It would cost me 2 yuan per page (about .30 cents) to take digital copies, and I kept a running record on my laptop of the file names I was searching and the pages I would want to photograph.  Some of the correspondences were nearly illegible to me, either due the calligraphy style of the cleric who penned them, or the material condition of the documents themselves.  But many of them were decipherable, and began to tell the story of an increasingly desperate situation from 1941 to 1943, when both skyrocketing inflation and the massive aerial bombardments of Chongqing put the youngest of the young in further danger.  The social welfare bureau sounded alarmed, as increasingly desperate institutional directors vied for limited resources. 

My wartime world was interrupted by the staff telling me it was time to break for lunch: two and a half hours of rest period, 11:30 am-2:00pm.  Chongqing is one of “China’s furnaces” with normal highs in the 90s throughout the summer,  and the custom of shutting everything down mid-afternoon no doubt stems from the need for a respite from the summer’s heat.  It wasn’t hot today, but the long break remains in place all year (extended a bit in the hottest months of summer).  A maddening custom for the researcher with limited time in the archives!  But the lull of traditional Chongqing-time is now augmented with modern conveniences: a coffee shop around the corner from the archives with wireless access, where I could search the archive website digitally from my own laptop.  I sipped Jasmine tea while looking at historic photos of Chongqing, including devastation from the wartime bombings:  (  Avoiding the pictures of corpses, I studied images of smoldering buildings, marveling at the seemingly fragile wooden city that once sat upon this now concrete landscape.  Finally maxed out and in need of a break from the war, I opened my email to engage in my own, present day correspondences.   I found an email from Jason, describing our own children, healthy and safe across the world.  I responded to an email on our school’s parent list, regarding a foundling cat, potentially in need of a home. A beautifully harmonized version of  “Puff the Magic Dragon” was playing from the café’s sound system as I asked for my bill from a waitress who could not speak standard Mandarin, but only the Chongqing dialect.  It was close to 2:00 pm when I paid my 25 yuan and headed back up the hill to the archives.  The drizzle had stopped, and steam was rising from the pavement as I walked to the clicking of mahjong tiles being shuffled on shaded wooden tables.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a window onto your research, and for evoking so well a central place where it happened/happens. The JFK/Barak connection Ella raised is fascinating. Did you ever find out which teacher gave the assignment? xox