Field note on Archival research in the First Historical Archive at Beijing

Geng Tian

The First Historical Archive (di yi li shi dang an guan) stores a large archive treasure about the history of Qing China (1644-1911). Now the original archives are not accessible for researchers. Instead, the Archive permits researchers to view the reproduced documents: the microfilms and the digitized archives. A lot of archives are accessible in both forms, including the legal documents I am interested in. The legal documents consisted in the case reports of local officials to the imperial court, with or without inquires on the most proper punishments to be sentenced to the convicted, and the judicial reviews issued by legal experts in the Department of the Punishment in Beijing. Not all legal documents of this kind are accessible now. The ones currently open to researchers are included into the archive group called “Homicide Legal Cases –Particularly related to marriage, adultery”. Such archives are dated from the reign of Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-1795) to Emperor Guangxu (r. 1877 – 1908). The other group of accessible legal documents is composed of homicide cases (such as manslaughters) which occurred in the process of economic transactions of land. This group is thus called “Land Debt, Corruptions and Improper Transactions”. Both groups of legal archives have the same time spans.

My research interest is the adjudication of Muslim defenders in homicide cases which involved collective violence, that is, the armed fights conducted by three or more Muslims. Since the legal documents were not subdivided by ethnicities of involved persons, I had to search by browsing the titles and abstracts (sometimes) of the legal cases. This does not necessarily mean that researchers have no restricting conditions to narrow down the range of their searches. Several conditions are available to make the archive search more directed. The first restricting condition is the temporal span. In my case, I first limit the time period to the century between 1760 and 1860. The second available restricting condition is the region from where the legal cases were reported. In my research, I chose to focus on the two Northwestern provinces, Shaanxi and Gansu, before I could be ready for an exhaustive search. The two search strategies, though cannot guarantee a complete search by themselves, would skip less relevant cases which researchers should have included than searching archives by substantive keywords. This is because the geographical units (from provinces to prefects down to counties) and time spans were adopted by the Qing court while any substantive keyword researchers input is at the risk of not ever being used or considered by the Qing officials.

Another advantage of having a clear temporal frame is that the written archive catalogue, which are now placed in bookshelves just outside the reading room, were originally compiled by archivists and scholars who started the systematic cataloguing after 1949. Those catalogues were chronologically ordered. The titles and abstracts, composed decades or even half a century ago, remain informative and clear guidance to proper archives. So if a researcher has clear temporal frames, say the Reign of Emperor Jiaqing (r. 1796 – 1820)I recommend reading through the written archive lists which are dated within this reign. This way of searching is straight and probably closest to an exhaustive search.

For researchers who may need to use the legal case archives, it should be mentioned that a three-volume, gigantic compilation of the legal archives produced in the reign of Emperor Jiaqing (r. 1796 – 1820) was published in 2008. So far, this remains the only compilation of legal archives from one imperial reign with serious editorial works by professional historians. Because this imperial reign covers the important transition from late 18th to early 19th centuries, the legal archives produced in this reign will be useful for various legal history researches about Qing China.