China’s archives are being erased. Much is at risk of being lost

Society & Culture

This Week in China's History looks at an outhouse murder of 1721, a case that would have been lost to history — along with all the interesting lessons it offers about 18th-century Qing society — if not for China’s deep and broad archival record. That record, unfortunately, is currently under threat.

Illustration by Alex Santafé

This Week in China’s History: November 19, 1721

It’s been a year of profound historical events, so many and so obvious that they need no enumeration. As we grapple with the fallout from the U.S. presidential election, this week is a reminder that all human societies are built on relationships between people, and sometimes the most mundane of causes can lead to tragic consequences. And also perhaps a reminder that although it seems that 2020 feels uniquely bad, there is plenty of historical precedent for people acting shitty.

On the afternoon of November 20, 1721 — the illustrious 60th year of the Kangxi Emperor’s reign! — Ruì Méishēng 芮梅生 had been drinking. He was annoyed with his neighbor, Ruì Miǎn 芮冕 (the two men were related, but only distantly) because although they had gotten along well for many years, now their relationship stank…literally. Rui Mian had recently renovated his home, and in doing so he had reoriented his outhouse so that the door, which used to face inward, toward his house’s front door, now faced outward: opening right onto Rui Meisheng’s entryway.

Rui Meisheng didn’t appreciate that every time he entered or left his house he had to confront his neighbor’s sewage, and had confronted Rui Mian several times, asking him to fix the situation. Rui Mian would do nothing. The formerly peaceful neighbors had been quarreling for nearly a year because, as Meisheng put it, Rui Mian “was stubborn and refused.”

On this late autumn Anhui  afternoon, the tension boiled over. Drunk, Meisheng walked — perhaps stumbled — out of his front door and “smelled a foul air that hit hard” from the outhouse. He crossed the alley and confronted Rui Mian. The two began arguing until Meisheng pushed the outhouse over. It crashed to the ground, leaving the pit latrine it covered open to stink up the entire neighborhood. Now, a small crowd was gathering. Meisheng’s brother came out to join the argument, and punched Rui Mian in the face. In response, Rui Mian picked up a beam from the destroyed outhouse, but Meisheng snatched it away and swung a heavy blow against the side of Rui Mian’s head, knocking the 55-year old man to the ground, unconscious.

At this point, Rui Mian’s son, Renju, returning home from working in the fields, came upon the scene. Meisheng and his brother fled, leaving Renju and a cousin to carry Rui Mian inside the house. He died a few hours later.

Rui Mian’s murder was not, for those beyond his immediate circle, a momentous event. I’ve exploited it to provide some levity — at the Rui family’s expense, for which I apologize — in a moment of profound seriousness in the United States and beyond. But even using the case for entertainment, it reveals important aspects of the study and understanding of Chinese history, and in the process points out additional tensions facing scholars.

To begin with, the case is recorded in a concise and accessible collection, True Crimes in Eighteenth-century China, compiled by Robert E. Hegel. Hegel gathers 20 cases, from the 1690s to 1809, that shed light on all manner of Qing society, part of a rich tradition of legal scholarship in Chinese history. The Chinese (in this case, the Qing) judicial system is extensive, and its elaborate archives have yielded rich sources, for pathbreaking studies, some of which — like Philip Kuhn’s Soulstealers or Eugenia Lean’s Public Passions — I’ve already written about, and others I am sure to visit in the future.

Within China’s deep and broad archival record, judicial archives are among the most important. Diplomatic records and imperial diaries are valuable, but they focus on a thin layer at the top of society, one dominated by powerful men. Judicial records sometimes do that too, but because they delve into the lives of anyone who comes into contact with the courts, they open windows onto a much greater range of lived experience. One of the landmarks of Chinese history in English, Jonathan Spence’s The Death of Woman Wang, is able to give us a glimpse into the life of a poor, rural woman in 17th-century Shandong because of her interaction with the courts: first to do with her troubled marriage, and then with the circumstances her eventual death (no spoilers!).

For decades after the founding of the People’s Republic, scholars had little access to mainland Chinese archives. This was especially true for foreigners, but even historians within China found practical, political, and bureaucratic obstacles. Generations of historians made use of the extensive Ming-Qing archives that were taken by the KMT government when it fled to Taiwan in the 1940s. The archives on Taiwan were extensive, but just a fraction of the total that remained on the mainland; When the PRC opened its doors to foreign researchers in the 1980s there was an explosion of historical research. Documents from the #1 Historical Archives — the Ming-Qing archives — in Beijing, and the #2 Historical Archives in Nanjing, covering the Republican era, fueled thousands of dissertations, articles, and books.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the wave spread. Provincial, local, and municipal archives opened up. It became common for doctoral students to pick a previously little-used archive and make it the basis of a thesis. And the central archives, in Beijing and Nanjing, continued to support research.

This is not to say research was easy. In many places — my own experience was in Harbin — bureaucrats with lots of responsibility but little authority put up roadblocks to access. Procedures were Kafkaesque, but luck, hard work, and time could yield amazing research finds. By 2010, a researcher from abroad could show up in some archives–Shanghai’s municipal archives was one– with no advance notice and nothing but a passport and within a few minutes be working with the collection.

Those days, though, are largely past.

Even before the Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 era, access began rolling back, but under Xi the trend became overwhelming. Historian Maura Elizabeth Cunningham observed as early as 2014 that “Many archives in mainland China have been tightening access and imposing new restrictions on scholars.”  Academic exchange came under suspicion and repositories that had been freely accessible became more restrictive. Many archives closed down altogether, sometimes for “digitization,” or to enhance security, but sometimes for no clear reason. Some documents that had been consulted in the past have been reclassified and are no longer accessible (and in a few cases are claimed to never have existed). One of the starkest examples was the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archives, which closed down entirely in 2012 and reopened a year later with 90% of what had previously been available removed from its catalog. Charles Kraus, writing about archives in the PRC for the Wilson Center, describes that the PRC attitude toward these documents is to “defend the archives for the Party; defend history for the nation.”

COVID-19 has not helped either, of course. Many archives have stopped accepting foreign researchers altogether for the time being, but even when they reopen, it’s likely that access will be far more restrictive than it was.

The news is not all bad. Digitization efforts have made some documents available to researchers without traveling at all. This includes the Beijing and Nanjing central archives, as well as some important local and municipal ones. But digital access is always at the mercy of what is digitized, and the recent political environment makes it hard to have confidence in what has been made available. Overall, the chill in Chinese relations with North America and Europe has extended to historical research, and the prospects going forward are, at best, uncertain.

But what of Rui Meisheng?

The investigation of the crime was quick. “Judicial torture” was unnecessary, as

there was consensus on the details of Rui Jian’s killing. According to the law, Rui Meisheng was sentenced to death by strangulation — a relatively lenient form of execution because it was considered less painful and left the body intact — and the sentence was upheld by successive levels of review above the district level. It is likely, Hegel asserts, that the emperor would have commuted the sentence at the “autumn assizes” — a period during which capital cases were reviewed by the top bureaucracy, including the monarch — but because the last pages of the case are lost, it is impossible to know Rui Meisheng’s eventual fate.

That we know anything about the story at all is a testament to the importance of archives, the wellspring of historians and scholars around the world. It would be a shame if the one in China dried up.