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Autobiography of a Chinese City: The History of Harbin in the Mirror of the Official City Gazetteer

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In 1980 China embarked on a huge project of compiling thousands of volumes of "New Gazetteers" – thus reviving a unique Chinese tradition from imperial times for writing local history in the particular gazetteer mold – covering all of China's modern and contemporary history as it has unfolded at the levels of provinces, cities and counties. In the decades that have followed, more than 100,000 individuals have been involved in this great undertaking, which has now become a well-established branch of government work at all levels. This article examines the evolution of gazetteer work in the North-eastern city of Harbin as well as its products. In Harbin, the gazetteer project has seen many twists and turns: there have been periods of enthusiastic advance as well as recurring crises, and the direction of work has seen dramatic reversals. The rocky course of gazetteer work in Harbin is partly a reflection of the difficulties of adapting the traditional gazetteer format to contemporary needs.

The article deals not with the high intellectual politics of contemporary Chinese historical writing but with the humble world of local historians working within a city administration's bureaucratic structures. It is a study of the interaction of politics, bureaucracy, and historical work at the local level, and it points to a continued and unchallenged command of the Party-State in this field. Local historical work in China remains subject to bureaucratic control and political scrutiny, far more so than is the case in the activities of the historical profession at the national level. But the momentous changes of Chinese society in the past two decades have eroded the purposefulness of control and scrutiny, and those Harbin historians working within the gazetteer enterprise face mounting pressures to find new directions. The study offers a window to the efforts – and the problems – of the contemporary Party-State in China, at the level of a large city, in the field of 'cultural construction' (wenhua jianshe).


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