Taiwan: An Ideal Place to Conduct Research on the Qing Dynasty

Written by  John Gregory, Ph.D. Candidate, Georgetown University Friday, 05 September 2014 07:12

 

     As a PhD candidate in late imperial Chinese history, already four months into a ten-month Fulbright grant period in Taiwan, I have two goals for this brief essay. First, I want to set forth the reasons why Fulbright Taiwan has provided an ideal environment for my research. Second, I want to suggest that Taiwan is an excellent place to do in-country research on the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Given the vast trove of archives now open to scholars in mainland China and given that various Taiwanese institutions have digitized many of Taiwan’s archival collections and generously placed them on-line (in some cases, accessible from anywhere), some scholars may no longer consider Taiwan a worthwhile destination for in-country research on Chinese history. To the contrary, my experience has been that the combination of nearly unrestricted access to superbly curated archives, a vibrant and welcoming intellectual community, an incredible system of libraries and research centers, close proximity to mainland China, the concentration of excellent scholars and academic institutions in one place, a clean and modern environment, and Taiwan’s own history as a Qing frontier combine to make Taiwan an ideal location for in-country research on the Qing. After four months, I can enthusiastically recommend Taiwan to other scholars of the Qing.
 
     Fulbright Taiwan (FT) refers to student grant recipients – typically doctoral candidates – as “Fulbright Fellows.” From my experience, FT takes care of its Fellows from start to finish. I was notified of my grant in April, a full five months prior to the start of the one year grant period. Fulbright Taiwan made all the pre-arrangements with the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs for my family’s and my resident visas. The visa fees were waived. They also took care of all the travel arrangements. All we had to do was make sure our passports were updated and mail the appropriate documents to the right Taiwan representative office in the United States (the main TECRO office in Washington, DC, or the various TECO offices in major US cities) and get ourselves to the airport. In addition, FT actively sent out helpful reminders and advice as we prepared for departure. For instance, they reminded me that all accompanying dependents must have their birth certificates validated by the appropriate Taiwan representative office in the United States. Fortuitously, this gave me time to correct mistakes in one of my child’s birth certificates.
 
     Once we arrived in country, FT picked us up from the airport, provided us initial funding to get settled in, and made sure that our family was well-situated. They offered assistance finding housing and enrolling my children in school, as well. Their cultural orientation and tours were excellent introductions to Taiwanese society. On the intellectual side, they have facilitated opportunities to present my research and get very useful scholarly feedback. On the social side, we have enjoyed the warm camaraderie of our fellow Fulbright grantees and the FT director and staff at a welcome banquet, the National Day Ceremony (bring a black suit), and a delicious Thanksgiving Dinner sponsored by the American Institute in Taiwan (which serves the functions of a US embassy). We will soon attend our midyear conference which will be yet another great opportunity to engage in scholarly exchange (it’s also nice that it will be held at a spa resort).
 
     Fulbright Taiwan requires that all Fellows have a formal affiliation with a local Taiwanese university or research center. They also provide a letter which essentially verifies one’s credentials as an academic. I am affiliated with the Institute of History and Philology (IHP) at the Academia Sinica (中研院史語所). The Academia Sinica is really an extraordinary institution. It is basically a large research university where the only students are graduate-level researchers. It houses numerous diverse, largely-independent research institutes focused on both humanities (as well as law) and the hard sciences. The separate institutes have their own impressive libraries, and for the most part, the library system is sufficiently integrated that a researcher affiliated with any one institute can check out books from any other institute’s library. 
 
     For studying Qing period history, the two most relevant institutes are the IHP and the Institute of Modern History (IMH), both of which have extensive Qing collections. The Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy (ICLP) also houses copies of many Qing-era resources. In addition to the extensive collections of firsthand documents and original manuscript copies available at the IHP library, another advantage of working at any of these institutions is that between them, they have purchased nearly everything Qing-related that has been published in the mainland, including large archival collections. Academia Sinica’s support staff and researchers are among the best in Taiwan (and the world) and there are many well-known visiting foreign scholars constantly rotating through. Lectures on important historical topics are common. Just during the last few months, I have attended conferences on law, military, Manchu education, historical methods, and other topics important to my research. 
 
     The application process to become a “visiting scholar” (fangwen xueren訪問學人) at the IHP was simple. The most important thing is to pay attention to the deadlines and follow the on-line instructions. The IHP provided me with a research office with a desk, bookshelves, and internet access, a computer lab with printers and scanners, and a library card with which I can check out up to 50 books at any given time. It also boasts a great gym (with a very modern pool and workout equipment), as well as a discounted cafeteria and bookstore.
 
     Because Taiwan is geographically tight-knit, no institution here can be considered “far flung”. Meeting with scholars and participating in activities at various locations is very easy. On more than one occasion, I have come across a scholar’s work and then had the opportunity to meet with the author within a couple days. My Manchu language class is only a taxi ride away. The public transportation across the island is excellent. I live in a district on the opposite side of Taipei from the Academia Sinica, but with Taiwan’s impressive network of subways, trains, and buses, I have never felt the least need to drive. 
 
     For those conducting archival research on the Qing, it will of course be necessary to spend some time at some of mainland China’s many archives and scholarly centers. While this is true, it is no reason to rule out living in Taiwan. Because Taiwan is geographically close to the mainland (two and a half hours to Beijing) and provides sufficient access to nearly every type of important archival document, I have found it convenient and productive to conduct research in Taiwan and fill in the gaps with strategic trips to the mainland. 
 
     Of course, each scholar’s interest will determine the relative importance of different resources. I am investigating the application of criminal law in the Qing Dynasty military, in particular how Qing law addressed the cases of soldiers who fled their units without permission, what we now refer to as the crime of AWOL (absent without leave). Because AWOL was an issue so central to Qing military administration and because, in my opinion, the military was to a large degree at the heart of Qing governance, I began looking to these cases to better understand both how Qing law addressed military matters and to see what these cases could reveal about the structure and development of Qing law generally. In this research, I have been relying primarily on three groups of archival sources: first, normative legal material such as codes, regulations, and Qing-era legal scholarship; second, criminal case memorials; and third, palace memorials relating to AWOL cases. For me, the most important archival destination in the mainland has been the First Historical Archives (FHA), located in Beijing. Next in importance have been collections of local cases, some of which are also available at the FHA, but others of which are located far from Beijing. 
 
     Before going into more detail on sources, I want to suggest why it is so easy to use archives in Taiwan. Unlike the mainland, institutions in Taiwan generally do not require letters of introduction from local institutions to access their collections. Unlike the US Library of Congress, no archive in Taiwan requires specially-issued ID or taking a belt off to go through a metal detector. I really cannot imagine how Taiwan archives could be any more open. All digitized documents have summaries that are keyword-searchable and are usually relevant and accurate. Printing is virtually unlimited, and usually only costs about US 3 cents per page. When I last visited the mainland last month, the FHA had in place a fifty page per year limit on copying (although printing was free, which was nice). Since a single xingke tiben can be fifty pages long, this means that you hand-copy most of your research notes at the FHA (no personal computers allowed in the reading room).
 
     The three main places to conduct research on the Qing in Taiwan are The National Palace Museum (NPM), the National Central Library (NCL), and Academia Sinica. For the portion of my study dealing with normative Qing law, these centers provided all the published legal codes, regulations, and Qing-era lüxue (律學, study of law) manuscripts I needed. One of the most important sources for military cases – as well as many other research topics – are Taiwan’s extensive collection of original palace memorials (zhupi zouzhe硃批奏摺), including many Grand Council copies of palace memorials, referred to as lufu zouzhe (錄副奏摺). In Taiwan, most of these documents are archived at the IHP (in the form of Grand Secretariat copies) and the National Palace Museum Documents Library in Taiwan. Taiwan’s collection of palace memorials is truly excellent, although small compared to the collection located at the FHA in Beijing. Still, for AWOL cases, I was able to find well over half the material I needed in Taiwan. I have also found that because I spend so much time in Taiwan’s relatively open archives, I have a better idea of what I am looking for when I use the more restricted mainland archives. 
 
     Local case records – although far fewer than central government records in the extent Qing historical record – are important to my study because they present a view of what was going on at the provincial-and-below levels within the military cases. Taiwan has excellent local records from the Danshui and Xinzhu areas, called the Dan-Xin Collection, but this collection does not contain many AWOL cases. Taiwan has purchased some published collections of local cases from mainland China, such as the Xianfeng era (mid-nineteenth century) records from Baxian county, Sichuan, but these documents are at the extreme limit of my period. Depending on the time period one is researching, it may be necessary to do most of the local case research in mainland China. But, if your study requires the use of local gazetteers, the IHP has an amazing collection of full-text searchable (!) gazetteers. 
 
     For actual cases processed through the normal Qing criminal legal system, routine memorials on criminal cases prepared by the Board of Punishment, also known as xingke tiben (刑科題本), are the most important source. Taiwan has purchased several microfilm collections from mainland China, however, these are rather limited in scope and cannot compare to the enormous collection of xingke tiben located at the FHA in Beijing (also, in Beijing they are electronically-searchable, whereas in Taiwan, they are on microfiche). 
 
     But overall, Taiwan’s efforts at digitization have been truly impressive. Taiwan has put the Danshui-Xinzhu Archives completely on-line for any researcher to use anywhere in the world for free, so there is no need to be in Taiwan to use the collection. Also, for a fee, researchers can have on-line access the National Palace Museum’s entire collection of palace memorials. Access to the Academia Sinica’s excellent collection of Grand Secretariat archives and the massive collection of full-text digitized gazetteers are also available on-line, but one has to apply for a special password to have full access. Finally, as part of Taiwan’s national digitization effort, a single point searchable catalog for all these documents is available on a centralized platform, with sample pages scanned (not full documents). Thus, it is true that much can be accessed on-line outside of Taiwan, depending on your home university’s agreements with Taiwanese institutions, but, there are also thousands of Qing-era books (not to mention the incredible collections of actual artifacts at the National Palace Museum and the Academia Sinica) which are not available on-line. But it is the sum of the parts in one place – the combination of having complete access (not limited by subcsriptions) to all these archives in conjunction with all the other resources available at various institutions – that creates such a synergetic research environment.
 
     To sum up, Taiwan is an excellent place to conduct research in Qing history. The availability of world class scholars within a small locality is priceless. The National Palace Museum and the Academia Sinica, as well as other institutes in Taiwan, provide a superb scholarly environment. Between these institutes, nearly all published archival documents and manuscripts are available. Taiwan’s collection of original archives is very impressive, well-curated, and nearly unrestricted. Although a lot of this collection can be accessed from outside of Taiwan depending on your university affiliation and their subscriptions, the combination of everything Taiwan has to offer, as well as its proximity to the mainland to conduct strategic research trips, and the island’s friendly, warm, welcoming, and intellectual community make it the perfect place to conduct research. It is also an awesome place to improve your Mandarin.
 
 
 
 
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is a doctoral candidate in Chinese History at Georgetown University. His focus is law and civil-military relations in Late Imperial China, with a minor field in the contemporary law of the People’s Republic of China.
 
 
 
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