ICHORA 2020, DAY 4: Yi Lu, “Gleaning History in Contemporary China”

Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “Expanding Notions of Users and Use.”

In “From the Dustbin: Gleaning History in Contemporary China,” Yi Lu (Harvard University) discusses the methods in which records from the “dustbin” contribute to scholarship in modern China. Tracing the ways in which Chinese state secrets became available in markets through their evolution as scholarly materials, Yi argues that even the most marginalized in society are connected to the highest levels of power. The fact that these government documents are making their way quite literally to the public streets does not indicate a crack in the administration, according to Yi, but instead reflects conscious choices and the adaptability of the current regime.

Yi gives a brief history of archives and records in China. Prior to the 21st century, material records were not always retained. New monarchs published annals of previous dynasties and then would often burn the original documents. This attitude changed in 1921 when a scandal erupted after the archives of the Qing dynasty were sold for waste paper. Yi highlights the efforts of Wang Guowei and Luo Zhenyu, but aims to expand the cast of characters who worked to preserve China’s archival history. The practice of gathering “stray written papers” originated with the imperial elite, who burned the scraps to protect literacy. Eventually the practice trickled down to the urban poor, who used waste papers to supplement their livelihoods. 

Paper remains from the Mao-era have become nostalgic materials for their promise of exciting state secrets and memories they evoke from a bygone time. Yi describes that the world of paper collection is very hierarchical with waste recyclists at the bottom. They sift through trash on their territory and then sell it to wholesale collectors. From there, books and archives go to urban markets to be sold to collectors, universities, and other archival institutions. Yi explains that private retention of official archives is a crime in China. For this research, Yi followed a university buyer to experience the full life cycle of these recycled records from waste to scholarly sources. 

The dealers of paper archives that Yi encountered called themselves “grassroots collectors” or “people’s archivists.” However, they often will dismember records, for example, by removing signatures of important figures, which disconnects context and provenance. [1] The Chinese government censors the use and collection of archives in public but is still allowing the sale of these paper collections. As Yi explains, the government sometimes funds the universities which purchase these collections that could have been included in the official record, but instead are sold at market. Yi expounds on this dichotomy by putting it in context of the longer history of knowledge recycling in China. 

Institutions, such as Fudan University, are digitizing the paper collections they purchase from the paper gleaners and using tags and keywords to help with identification and description. However, digitization has enabled the government to censor materials in a more deceptive  way. In Chinese archives, gaps in collections are represented by a red dot—the larger the dot, the larger the information void. Yi explains that using analytical techniques, data maps can show redactions in collections. This can be used to determine what is being declassified by the Chinese government. Yi hopes to use this metadata as a way to continue studies in censorship and political communication in China.  


[1] By itself, this practice of dismembering historical materials may not be all that different from autograph hunting in 19th-century North America.



Natalie Worsham, MLIS, MA

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