Beatrice S. BARTLETT

The archives of the Ming and Qing, probably fifteen to twenty million items, offer an invaluable source of information about China’s final two dynasties. Nearly all documents in all collections have been sorted and catalogued. Most are housed in Beijing or Taipei, Taiwan, a number in other Chinese localities, fewer overseas—and some are available online.

The Ming-Qing Archives, a world-class cultural property, are a valuable inheritance from China’s last two dynasties, the Ming (1368–1643) and the Qing (1644–1912). Scattered across several Chinese-language areas, the small number of Ming survivals and the large number of Qing survivals are found principally in Beijing and Taipei, Taiwan, but also in local installations all across the country. Smaller holdings exist overseas, principally in Japan, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia. These archives are of vast size, estimated to number 15–20 million items, with new discoveries coming to light from time to time. The Ming portion is small, possibly seven thousand items, while the remainder derive from the Qing. They constitute one of the largest premodern archives in the world.

The Qing holdings differ significantly from the Ming in that they offer a range of topics, variety of languages (Manchu, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uygur, and others, in addition to Chinese), and sufficient serial runs to allow serious research. Most items are paper documents, many on rag-content paper so acid-free that it holds up after hundreds of years. A few were written on fine, patterned silk and sometimes wrapped in envelopes of silk glued to paper. Some items are wooden: audience tallies (green-headed sticks) that allowed a man into the imperial presence for a formal audience, wooden boxes for dispatching memorials (provincial reports), and boards covered in expensive silk to safeguard important imperial edicts in transit. Some documents have great beauty, decorated with borders of the imperial dragon motifs or embroidered on fine silk woven with imperial symbols such as the five-clawed dragon and the dragon’s symbols of clouds, waves, and fiery pearls. Reports destined for the emperor’s eyes bore clear, well-formed characters, but file copies were often scribbled in scrawls now difficult to decipher. Although most documents arrived on paper of a nondescript buff color, auspicious news often received the special treatment of a yellow background (yellow being the imperial color), and funeral matters were inscribed on stark white.

For the most part these were government, not private or commercial, documents. Their topics reflect government concerns, but much was covered under that rubric. Narratives of war and rebellion can be researched in the meticulous detail that their original authors used to plot military campaigns from grand strategy and troop deployments down to purchases of transport camels and carts, with food provisions calculated for both the army’s “big eaters” and those of normal size and appetites. Political life from court to county may be traced here. The archives preserve evidence of official interest in the civil service examinations, thousands of which survive, as well as records of imperial audiences, promotions, demotions, enters

In recent years large finding-list centers (Quanguo lishi dang’an ziliao mulu zhongxin) have been developed for some holdings. Three, for instance, are concerned with what are known as “Historical Archives” (lishi dang’an), that is, those before 1949: Ming-Qing (1368–1912), the Republic (1912–1949), and the history of the Communist Revolution (up to only 1949). So far the Ming-Qing list seems to be the most advanced and when completed will provide a finding-list for both central and local government files. Uniform file categories and other consistent methods of archiving will assist this project. At present the Ming-Qing finding-list appears to be available only on-site in China. Some other finding-lists are available both online and on-site, with indexes of both open and closed files at fond, case, and document level. Some discrepancies have been found between the online and in-situ versions.

Further Reading

Bartlett, B. S. (1979). Ch’ing Palace memorials in the archives of the National Palace Museum. National Palace Museum Bulletin 13(6).

Bartlett, B. S. (2008). A world-class archival achievement: The People’s Republic of China archivists’ success in opening the Ming-Qing Central-Government Archives, 1949–1998. Archival Science 7(4), 369–390.

Lishi dang’an. (1981). (Historical Archives). Beijing, quarterly from 1981.

Qin Guojing. (2005). Ming-Qing dang’an xue [Study of the Ming-Qing Archives]. Beijing: Xueyuan chubanshe.

Shan Shikui. (1987). Qingdai dang’an congtan [Guide to the Archives of the Qing Period]. Beijing: Zijincheng chubanshe.

Wei Qingyuan. (1961). Mingdai Huangce Zhidu [The Ming-era Yellow Register system]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

Wenxian heji [Combined edition of the 3 Bureau of Documents archives journals]. Repr. 1967, including Wenxian tekan, 1935; Wenxian luncong, 1936; and Wenxian zhuankan, 1944. Taipei, Taiwan: Tailian Guofeng.

Zheng Tianting ([1952] 1980). Xu Mingmo nongmin qiyi shiliao [Historical materials on Late Ming Peasant Uprisings]. In Tanwei ji [Collected essays of Zheng Tianting] (pp. 289–301). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

Zhongguo dang’an nianjian [Yearbook of the Chinese Archives]. From 1989. Beijing: Dang’an chubanshe.

Source: Bartlett, Beatrice S. (2009). Ming-Qing Archives. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1494–1496. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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