Archival Research in China and Myanmar before the Doors Closed

The following is a guest blog post by Zach Fredman, author of The Tormented Alliance: American Servicemen and the Occupation of China, 1941–1949, available now wherever books and e-books are sold.

I spent more than year in Asia researching The Tormented Alliance as a PhD student. My search for sources took me to municipal and provincial archives from all areas of China where U.S. forces deployed during the 1940s, including Yunnan, Sichuan, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Beijing. I also consulted foreign ministry, military, and presidential records at archives in Nanjing and Taipei. When battlefield diaries pointed beyond the border, I followed them to Yangon and combed through colonial files at the Myanmar National Archives. Like any research project, this one had its share of difficult moments. But looking back today, I realize how lucky I was. The COVID pandemic, 2021 Myanmar coup d’état, and tightening ideological control in China would make it impossible to carry out a project like The Tormented Alliance today. 

I started archival work in Kunming, my first destination in China. My limited training in reading Chinese handwriting did not adequately prepare me for the room full of smudgy, hand-written finding aids I had to decipher before I could even order an archival file. It didn’t help that the archive opened late, closed early, and shut down three hours for lunch each day. I thought about giving up. But the local university that provided me with a dorm room and sponsorship to enter the archive also helped me to hire a research assistant. With his help, I soon got the hang of reading the old finding aids. By the time I left Kunming, I was confident that I hadn’t overlooked anything important. The archivists, meanwhile, admired my persistence, and I spent the last month in town accompanying them on nature walks and lunches outside the city during those long lunch breaks. All across the country, I met kind, understanding archivists who were willing to help me identify difficult characters or turn a blind eye when I exceeded daily print quotas. 

I did run into trouble at one archive, unfortunately. They initially welcomed me, but on my second day, the reading room director told me I couldn’t look at anything else because their air conditioning had broken. Mei banfa—nothing I can do—he said. I had enjoyed a boozy dinner a few nights before with a local official, who told me to call him if had any problems at the archive. I can’t recall any meal I’ve had in China with a man above the age of 40 that didn’t involve at least some bragging about being a big shot who could help me out if I needed something. But this guy was pretty high up in the city government, so I rang him. “Sit down and wait five minutes,” he told me. It took all of three minutes for the reading room director to come out with the files I had ordered. “Wow, they fixed that air conditioner fast,” I said to him with a smile. 

Just making it to the Myanmar National Archives was an adventure. The visa came through the day before my scheduled flight, and I nearly lost my wallet and passport to a pickpocket on the way to the airport. I arrived in Yangon and spent two days running around the city in order to obtain a permission letter to visit the archives, which required many trips aboard rusty, carbureted, Toyota Corollas that looked like they had been retired from the Tokyo taxi fleet around the time Cheap Trick recorded their live album at Budokan. But even with the permission letter in hand, I was refused entry into the archives because I wasn’t wearing a suit. This was at the peak of the hot season in Yangon, with humid highs over 105 degrees Fahrenheit—not exactly suit and tie weather. I eventually reached a compromise with an archivist, who allowed me in wearing “Burmese business casual”: short-sleeved collared shirt, longyi, flip flops. 

The COVID pandemic, 2021 Myanmar coup d’état, and tightening ideological control in China would make it impossible to carry out a project like The Tormented Alliance today. 

I arrived back in the United States knowing that I had terrific material, and I took it for granted that I would enjoy the same access in the future. But when I returned to China for follow-up research just a couple years later, the chill was already noticeable. The university in Kunming that had sponsored my earlier research refused to help me out, citing political sensitivities. The Shanghai Municipal Archives—the most open collection I had used in China back on my earlier trip—wouldn’t let me see anything I requested. The pandemic began in China the next year, and archives shut down. Access in Myanmar is now unthinkable. 

Uncertainty about the future was always the most difficult part of graduate school for me. But today I look back at that year of PhD research in Asia as one my fondest memories.  

Zach Fredman is assistant professor of history at Duke Kunshan University.