An Archival Revolution: The Formation and Transformation of Archival Science in Modern China (1949-1966)

Jing Yan


The motivation for the research:
In recent years, academic research has emphasized systemic innovation at the macro-level. China has been emphasizing academic innovation with Chinese characteristics, in Chinese context, in order to move beyond the logic and methods of “Western Centralism”. At the meso-level, there has been growing interest in the history and evolution of disciplines. General work in this research field had been undertaken in China since the Qing dynasty (1676). Distinguishing the origins and sorting out the frameworks of a discipline enables the development of a coherent body of work. Finally, from a micro perspective, as to archives and archival science, being acquainted with its evolution is of great significance to enrich the understanding of archival theory, and to improve the interpretation of social function and theoretical value of archival profession. An understanding of the origins and development of archival science in China will enrich Western archival science theoretically and methodologically.

An introduction to the idea and context:
Since the foundation of People’s Republic of China in 1949, China has modernized quickly. From 1949 to 1966 when the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution occurred, China had witnessed the formation and transformation of archival science. During this period, the development of archival science in China was greatly influenced by the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the legacy of archival ideas from the Republic of China period was inherited critically. Given that archival
practice was rapidly progressing and was in urgent need of professionals, many
theorists including experts recruited from the Soviet Union worked with Chinese practitioners. These pioneers established the first university archival studies and archival research institutions, launching explorations and debates about archival terminologies such as archival science, archival theory, archival studies, and archival scholarship, archives, records, and documents. Finally, archival science was recognized as an independent discipline in China. Chinese archivists began interacting with their European and American counterparts. Chinese archivists, who earned professional status during this period, had made much progress and learned greatly over the course of the formation and transformation years.

Method or approach proposed:
This study will use literature review and content analysis. The study will incorporate the analysis and interpretation of historical manuscripts, archives, books and journals to make out the main characteristics and developing patterns of formation and transformation, in order to discover the frameworks of archival science in modern China. The study will also use oral history and textual research. Distinguishing authentic and inauthentic historical materials is essential to historical research. The oral history method will rely on interviewing persons who experienced the formation and transformation of archival science during the first seventeen years of modern China, complementing and expanding the insights from textual materials.
Finally, this research will use a synchronic and diachronic approach. The research aims to clarify the development of Archival science during the period of studies from a synchronic perspective, and then make concrete inquiry into archival education, institutions, dissemination, scholars, discussions and debates from a diachronic approach.

Actual or anticipated results or outcomes:
The period from 1949 to 1966 can be seen as a connecting link in archival history in China. Chinese archival science, as a joint study of archival education, research institutions, dissemination, scholars, discussions and debates, experienced both formation and transformation from 1949 to 1966. The special historical background of political, societal, cultural elements shaped and affected this formation and transformation. There has been a strong advance in archival theory and practice among archival professionals although neither the archival discipline nor archival scholarship are yet entrenched.

Contributions of the work:
The research will enrich the knowledge of the history and evolution of archival science, both in China and the world, by focusing on the period from 1949 to 1966. Chinese archival science will be advanced by providing historical grounding for modern theory, methodology, and practice. Moreover, by acquainting the rest of the world with Chinese archival history, this research will enrich and diversify the whole discipline of archival science.


Jing Yan is a P.h.D candidate at the School of Information Resource Management at Renmin University of China, and a current visiting international research student at the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies (SLAIS) at the University of British Columbia of Canada, where she conducts research on the history and evolution of archival science and the trustworthiness of digital records under the supervision of Professor Luciana Duranti. She earned a Bachelor of Management degree from Northwest University of China, and a Master of Management degree from Shandong University of China.

Jing Yan’s research interests lie at the intersection of archival science and historiography, the policy-science, and archival privacy studies, with a focus on comparison of different jurisdictions in the developing patterns and disciplinary characteristics of archival science. As a student learning archival studies since she was an undergraduate student, Jing has participated in several internship programs in China, and consulted with a range of institutions and professionals regarding archival practice and records management, knowledge management, digital preservation, and technology-enriched information. She has published journal articles, book chapters, and conference papers on archival profession, privacy protection, and historical research and methods of archivists and archival theorists. She is currently a research member of a project funded by the National Society and Science Foundation of China, which focuses on the history of archives, archival profession and archival science.

Jing Yan has been recognized for her scholarship in archival studies especially on the intellectual history research of archival science. Among her honors, she was awarded a postgraduate national scholarship by China’s Ministry of Education (2014-2015), and recognized with the 2016 Chinese Scholarship Council Award. Her paper on archival thoughts of Chinese archivist pioneer ZengSan won the 2016 Society of National Archives Prize.