bounded histories

Yesterday, I went to the Bao’an Archives Office (深圳市宝安区档案馆) and met with one of the editors of the Bao’an Gazetteer (宝安史志).

The conversation turned to the paradoxical dependency of historical narratives on a sense of immortal China and actual historical archives. This paradox might be glossed as a contradiction between “emotional” and “documented” history. On the one hand, patriotism, tradition, and the deep history of Han settlement anchors the idea of “Shenzhen history”. The emotional sense that Shenzhen is and has always been part of “China” is created through a narrative that links the history of Xin’an Ancient City, for example, is written with respect to the area’s integration into the Eastern Jin Dynasty and the development of the imperial salt monopoly. Thus, ongoing political restructuring — beginning with contemporary Shenzhen and arriving at the Eastern Jin via Bao’an, Xin’an, and Dongguan — is rewritten as evidence of the city’s ongoing participation in something that might be glossed as “eternal China”.

地图-东晋东官郡、宝安县示意图
This map is of the Eastern Jin when Nantou City was the prefectural seat of the Guangdong Eastern Prefecture (东晋东官郡), including present day Dongguan City, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong.

On the other hand, the actual archives to which a historian has access bureau is an artifact of political restructurings and the concomitant shifting of administrative borders. The question of land titles (地契) that were issued during early land reform (1950-52) is an interesting case in point. Originally, all Bao’an county land titles were held in Huizhou City, which administered the county from 1950-1979. These land titles, of course, became void during collectivization movements (second half of 1950s) and land holdings shifted from individuals to collectives. Consequently, during the 1980s household responsibility system (家庭联产承包责任制), land rights were redistributed via collectives. Nevertheless, in the early 1980s, the land titles were sent to Bao’an, where they are incomplete, but nevertheless have been increasingly used by villagers to make land claims.

The ongoing construction of Shenzhen has further complicated the actual practice of creating viable historical archives. Theoretically, archives have followed administrative hierarchies. In practice, this means that when an administrative unit is promoted and/or redistricted documents have to be moved from one building to another. For example, the transfer of Bao’an land titles from Huizhou to Bao’an. Moreover, the ongoing construction of Shenzhen municipal and district offices means that these archives have not only been packed and sent to another building, where they may or may not have been unpacked, but also during the redistribution boxes of material have been lost.

Our conversation concluded with the recognition that history — as we are writing it in Shenzhen and I suspect elsewhere — turns on context. Are we responding emotionally to patriotic calls? Or are we developing arguments out of extant documents? In either case, here on the ground, the tension between these two extremes serves to buttress both emotional and documentary uncertainties. When we lack a document, we can turn to the hyperbolic understanding that Shenzhen has always been part of China and when we need to assert the truth of our feelings, we can point to these maps, which although now virtual, continue to reassure us that history is not just of our own making.

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