“I Am Looking at Documents Held in the Provincial Archives at the Sino-Russian Border and in Taiwan” – Interview with Christina Till

We regularly introduce scholars that work in the project by letting them answer three short questions. Today, we talk to Christina Till. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the China Branch Office of Max Weber Foundation and a member of the international research project “Knowledge Unbound” and the submodule “Interaction and Knowledge in the Pacific Region: Entanglements and Disentanglements“. She received a PhD from the University of Hamburg in 2019 with a thesis on the activities of “Chinese Leftist Students in Germany, 1919-1939”. Her research interests include the history of Sino-foreign exchange, the history of Modern China and the history of archives and archival practices in East Asia.

What will you be working on while being involved with the “Knowledge Unbound” project and what did you work on before?

My research within the “Knowledge Unbound” project focuses on the history of regional archives that hold documents from the late Qing dynasty, approximately from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century. In particular, I am looking at documents held in the provincial archives at the Sino-Russian border as well as in Taiwan. The history of archives in the provinces and counties of the Chinese empire has so far received only little attention, especially from non-Chinese historians. I am interested in modes of document production and preservation in the border regions, which underwent extreme changes during the late Qing. An important aspect here is the influence of migration and exchange with local peoples and cultures on the local Qing administration, which in this region recorded documents in Chinese, Manchu and Mongolian. The documents are of various provenance. For instance, they include the archival holdings of the last Qing military governor in the province of Heilongjiang as well as criminal court proceedings in the county of Xinzhu in the northern part of Taiwan. This means that I will need to concentrate on a few selected types of archival documents in a later step. At the moment, however, I am still in a stage of surveying regional archival collections and checking whether or not I will be able to access the original documents in the archives. With this question, I also hope to rely on the support of the China Branch Office of the Max Weber Foundation and its Chinese partner institutions. 

What role does the concept of “knowledge” play in your own research?

As institutions that hold and preserve documents of a great variety and provenance, archives are not just a substantial resource for historical research. With several exceptions, their purpose is to store and make (re-)accessible knowledge that was produced by government institutions. This not only encompasses bureaucratic processes that can be retraced through a study of archival documents. It also extends to information about social and geographic spaces that fall under the jurisdiction of the knowledge producing institutions of power. In China, this is an important issue. Access to “knowledge of power” is limited, especially for historians, in order to secure a politically correct interpretation of historical events. In such an environment, researching archives always also means taking into consideration current political developments that can restrict or limit the access to documents. In my research, I will therefore not only touch upon the issue of knowledge production from a historical perspective, but also will need to prepare for possible changes in the accessibility of archival holdings in China.

Have there been any surprising moments in your research recently?

What most surprised me at this early stage of my research is how little is known about the history of archives and archival documents in China. Although historians in China and overseas heavily draw from documents in Chinese regional and municipal archives, research on the circumstances of production and preservation of documents held in these archives is extremely rare. Little more attention is given to the central imperial archives in Beijing. Moreover, the fact that a certain amount of documents of Chinese provenance ended up in archives outside of China is almost unknown. One case of such sanshi (dispersed and lost) documents refers to documents from the Qing administrations in Heilongjiang that were taken by Russian forces during the border conflicts in the nineteenth century and only returned to China in 1956. Given this and several other transnational aspects of my study, I am excited to be involved in the project “Knowledge Unbound” and the thematic submodule “Interaction and Knowledge in the Pacific Region: Entanglements and Disentanglements“. I am certain that my own research project will greatly benefit from the exchange of ideas and research experiences with the other project members.

Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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