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One Missing Document, and the Problem of Documenting History in the Imperial Archive

Read Maura Dykstra’s research article “A Crisis of Competence: Information, Corruption, and Knowledge about the Decline of the Qing State” here.

Maura Dykstra

California Institute of Technology

It began with a simple desire to find a report in the Qing imperial archive.

The law of the dynasty, after all, insisted that such a report should exist. The Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1722–1735), himself, had decreed it in the first year of his reign:

Each official who presides over a forum for judging affairs… shall record the findings and judgments, the [plaints] permitted, the [suspects] detained [for interrogation or pending resolution], and the day and month resolved. Each month a register [containing these contents] shall be sent to the supervising prefectural, circuit, and gubernatorial offices for examination.[1]

In black and white, just like that. County magistrates were required by law to write these reports each month. And yet I could not find a single one.

I was a graduate student. It was 2011. I was living in Chengdu and working in the Ba County (巴縣) Archives – the archive of the magistrate who presided over the city of Chongqing during the Qing dynasty. I was researching commercial disputes to understand how issues pertaining to debt and liability were litigated. Having been trained by several economic historians, I could not rest with purely anecdotal evidence so long as the possibility of a full accounting of the dates, contents, and outcomes of the entire field of local cases existed. Diligence was due. I craved that elusive high n: others had built monographs on hundreds of cases. What if I could analyze reports of thousands, or tens of thousands?

I couldn’t possibly collect all of the data from the commercial disputes in Chongqing myself. After a year of typing up plaints, counter-plaints, and interrogations every day in the archives, I only managed to transcribe three hundred and twenty-two cases (thousands of pages, but still only a tiny fraction of all documents in the archive). I set myself the goal of finding these monthly case reports. I began to call up anything that claimed to be a report on anything, rooting even for the most tangential clue. By the end of my dissertation research, nothing had surfaced. For years, and in multiple archives, I continued the search.

I looked in the Toyo Bunko of Japan, where several unique collections of documents from county and prefectural offices throughout Qing China are preserved. I haunted the stacks of the Tokyo University collections. I looked in the Dan-Hsin archives of National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan. I pored over the published reproductions of the archives from Turpan in Xinjiang. I searched in the First Historical Archives of Beijing. I even skimmed through the archives of the Guangdong governor’s office that were looted by British soldiers during the opium war, hoping to find an example of these reports among the pile of papers abandoned by the governor fleeing enemy troops. I began to familiarize myself with all manner of reports, record books, accounts, and memoranda. I started to develop an expertise in the lost art of Qing administrative accounting. But still I could not find those elusive reports!

I could not find any evidence at all, in fact, that the vast majority of local cases were reported according to central regulations. It wasn’t until January 2020 that I found a cache of monthly litigation reports. It was the second-to-last day of my last research trip to China before the COVID-19 pandemic ended access to field research. It was nestled in the archive of Nanling County (南陵縣) in Anhui province – over a thousand kilometers away from where I had begun my search in the Ba County Archives. And it was from the late nineteenth century – over a hundred years after the report had been mandated.

A Register of Litigation under the Jurisdiction of the Nanling County Magistrate from 1897. Anhui Provincial Archives 434001-Q046-001-02320-001.

The puzzle of these missing reports was not mine alone. Fourteen years after the original codification of this regulation, in 1736, the Qianlong Emperor had remarked that in spite of the requirement to file these reports, “Of late it has been seen that, in locations throughout every province, every time a suit falls under the jurisdiction [of a local official], they in fact do not report it to superiors and, furthermore, the presiding superior officials never pursue or investigate the matter.”[2] Not even the emperor managed to get his hands on these reports that I had been searching out for so long. Maybe I hadn’t been able to find examples from the eighteenth century because they never existed to begin with? Maybe it took a century for this regulation to finally come into effect? I was intrigued by the possibility.

The problem of the long and unclear journey from regulations about reports to actual reporting, it turned out, was an issue that the Qing itself struggled with in the eighteenth century. It was such an intractable problem with such a long history, in fact, that my quest for a single report eventually turned into a manuscript project on the history of central-local archival processes. The resulting monograph: Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine: The Administrative Revolution of the Eighteenth-Century Qing State is now slated for publication with Harvard University Asia Center Press in the fall of 2022. What started out as a simple paper chase – merely a historian trying to establish the soundest possible evidentiary basis for her work – turned into a much larger project about the first hundred years of Qing efforts to generate and track information about local administrative activities.

A turning point, not just in my paper for this special issue but also in my larger manuscript project tracing the history of reporting county-level cases to the central state in Beijing, happened when, at a meeting in Berlin with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science working group on Histories of Bureaucratic Knowledge in 2019, Kathryn Olesko asked how I distinguished between the two terms “information” and “knowledge” in my work. Not a historian of science by training, my response was one of surprise and ignorance: did it matter? Startled, I opened my laptop and searched for the two terms in the draft of the article.

All of a sudden, I realized that Kathy’s question pinpointed a key distinction in my work: the difference between observing changes in flows of information about phenomena and changes in phenomena themselves. In my paper for the special issue “Histories of Bureaucratic Knowledge,” I sketch the rough outlines of the process by which the Qing state first sought information about corruption and, after over a century of efforts, was caught off guard when knowledge about the prevalence of corruption suddenly seemed to appear without warrant. By reconstructing the time-consuming, often multi-generational, processes by which information was slowly converted into knowledge, my paper considers how the space between information about itself and knowledge of itself took the last Chinese dynasty by surprise.

[1] The full text of this sub-statute, originally a proposal by the Ministry of Punishment that was approved by the Yongzheng Emperor in 1722, and Xue Yunsheng’s assertions about the date of its codification can be found under the second sub-statute of the law on Not Accepting Plaints (Gaozhuang bu shouli 吿狀不受理) in the Du li cunyi (讀例存疑), available on Professor Terada Hiroaki’s Kyoto University Law School page here.

[2] The text of this 1736 edict was preserved in the historical statutes section (linian shili 歷年事例) of the Qing Code under the law on Not Accepting Plaints (Gaozhuang bu shouli吿狀不受理). The text may be accessed via the Legalizing Space in China project online here.

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