Searching for Clues in the Archives, Stephanie Montgomery

How a graduate student pursued hints and traces from history in search of a research topic.

June 13, 2017

What kinds of twists and turns do graduate students encounter as they pursue a research topic? In this piece, UC Santa Cruz Doctoral Candidate
Stephanie M. Montgomery from the History program reveals the quest she undertook while looking at the archives in a particular city in China.

Montgomery's research focuses on the relationship between state visions of penal reform and the actual conditions of women’s prisons in Shanghai and Tianjin during a quarter century of political change encompassing Nationalist political control, Japanese occupation, civil war, and the early years of the People’s Republic of China.

In the summer of 2013 I headed to Qingdao (“Tsingtao” in the Wade-Giles transcription), China — a coastal city in Shandong province popular for its delicious seafood and beer. Formerly a German colony from 1891-1914, and then a crucial port of Japanese occupied territory from 1914-1922, and again from 1938-1945, Qingdao is a city in which the remnants of historical imperialism are clearly visible. Locals are proud of their formerly German brewery and red-tiled foreign architecture. Yet monuments also stand in honor of the city’s history as the epicenter of the anti-imperialist, Chinese nationalist May Fourth Movement in 1919. Here in Qingdao I enrolled in an intensive Chinese language program, at the close of my first year of graduate school. I was on a search to find bodies in the archive.

At that time, my research question was not particularly well-formed, but I knew that I wanted to find documents about pregnant women in the early twentieth century. My language program — the third such immersive language program I had taken — was a perfect opportunity for research but would prove challenging. It was my first time in mainland China (although I had spent several post-undergrad years in Taiwan) and it was also my first time conducting archival research in Chinese. The fate of my fledging project was at the mercy of the judgement of the archivists, and horror stories from the archive were a staple of pre-research travel discussions. I had been prepped keep my official, stated research topic as general as possible; the archivists in Qingdao would be sure to keep me well within the boundaries of my topic.

After a few weeks, feeling ready as ever to move forward with my research, I set off one blistering summer afternoon to the Qingdao Municipal Archives. Like many government buildings, visitors had to register with the guards at the gate of the inconspicuous gray building, rested near the city library and a sprawling mall plaza. My graduate school classmate and I were greeted enthusiastically by the guards, who were garrulous, asking us a number of rapid-fire questions in a mixture of Northern-accented Mandarin and — my newly discovered foe — the local Qingdao dialect.

At this point in my trip, I was acquainted with the crucial basics of Qingdao’s culture; that is, sitting in street tents once the murderous summer sun dipped below the horizon, drinking Tsingtao beer and eating clams. But my struggles, and pleasures, of talking with Qingdao locals were not simply resolved by learning how to say hā pìjiū chī gála (drink beer, eat clams). My longest conversations with locals were with an infamously talkative, forthright, and well-read group in China - cab drivers. I painfully slogged through conversations about their favorite American actors (Leo), how they had learned some English (movies mostly, including Edward Scissorhands), and the presidential aims of Hillary Clinton.

Qingdao’s proximity to Beijing, whose local language standardized Mandarin is based on, does not necessarily make it more intelligible to the average foreigner with a few years of Mandarin under their belt. As someone who learned most of their Mandarin in Taiwan, I struggled to understand very basic topics in this new world of the North. The Qingdao language is more than a “thick-tongued” take on the “mouth full of marbles” Beijing language — they are part of a complex web of incredibly challenging Sinitic languages which can be found throughout China. Fortunately, that first day at the archive, the guards did not seem to notice my mounting horror as I tried to answer their stream of questions (How did I learn Mandarin? Why was I at the archive? What did I think of President Obama?). Rather, they sent us on our way to the next guard at the archive door, where we left our belongings in a locker and headed into the reading room with our letter of introduction from our local Chinese professor.

Like the gate guards, the archivists were also rather surprised at our presence. It was not often that American researchers showed up at their small municipal archive, much less researchers from the prestigious University of California. But they only needed to take a scrutinizing look at our passports and letter of introduction before permitting us access to the archive. Following that first day, I would go to language classes in the morning, brave the unimaginable traffic by bus or taxi to the archive, eat a hurried lunch of dumplings or beef noodle soup across the street, and make it to the reading room after lunch. For weeks I stared at the digital catalog, typing in various search terms to find that one magical document which would steer my project in the right direction.

I looked at everything that even hinted at pregnancy: internal hospital records from maternity wards, newspaper articles on the Soviet-developed Lamaze method of childbirth, receipts from Japanese midwives working in Qingdao during the occupation years. The documents I found were scattered, insufficient, or simply too general to really shape a research project.

After about a month of searching, I stumbled across a set of documents from the Qingdao city prison in 1932 requesting bail for four female inmates to be temporarily released to give birth outside of the prison. The document opened up a whole series of questions for me: were pregnant women always released to give birth? Were they released into the care of family members or a hospital? How common was it for newborns to be returned to the prison with their incarcerated mothers? These questions formed the new direction of my research: female criminals (nǚfàn), women’s prisons, and incarcerated mothers in Qingdao during the peak of the Chiang Kai-shek-led Nationalist party control in the 1930s.

I returned to the Qingdao archives just once more in the summer of 2014, hoping to find more substantial information on female inmates, but was saddened to find very little. Qingdao has since taken a back seat in my dissertation to the larger eastern coastal cities of Shanghai and Tianjin, where the paper trail on female inmates is plentiful. I also expanded my topic temporally, covering the 1920s to the 1950s, across a quarter century of tumultuous political change and strife.

the author standing near Daming Lake

The author stands in front of lilies in Daming Lake, Shandong Province.

I spent the 2015-2016 school year in Shanghai and Tianjin for dissertation research, but did not return to Qingdao. The city has continued to play an essential role in helping me think through the daily functions and roles of imperialism(s) in my larger dissertation project, however. The modern prison - as it was modeled on British, Japanese, and American examples - is an excellent case study for mapping how colonized or occupied cities like Qingdao, Shanghai, and Tianjin joined an international conversation on the reform and remolding of unruly, and sometimes dangerously violent, citizen-subjects to construct a modern nation-state in China.

For these insights on post-colonial spaces in twentieth-century China, my project is indebted to that first summer in Qingdao. And as difficult as it was — largely due to language barriers, cultural differences between Taiwan and mainland China, and the oppressive summer heat — I still miss Qingdao’s blue skies, red-tiled roofs and, of course, sitting outside on hot, humid summer nights to hā pìjiū and chī gála.

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