"At Xuanhan and Wanyuan, I saw and touched original copies of historical documents, which was a terrific experience for a history student."

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Travel Report: Songwei He

Songwei He, a master's student in the Department of History, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to further her research in China.

December 13, 2018

GIRTA allowed me the terrific chance to take my first step to become a historian. During my whole summer this year, I collected historical documents in southwestern China. I had been working in two cities—Chengdu and Chongqing, and at two counties Xuanhan and Wanyuan in Sichuan Province, China. I started my research with the Temple Destruction Movement in the Qing Dynasty. In this movement, temples and temple property were transformed into modern institutions such as schools. By collecting and analyzing related cases, I wish to explore the following questions:

  • During the late Qing, how and why did local officials promote the Temple Destruction Movement?
  • How did they deal with disputes and adjust their policies?
  • How did religious groups, temple donors and lay religious practitioners engage in the movement?
  • How did the destruction affect the grassroots life?

With GIRTA, I was able to spend a bulk of fun and productive time at Sichuan Provincial Archives in Chengdu. A relatively complete and abundant collection of county-level documents from the Qing dynasty is located there. GIRTA supported me to stay there for nearly three months, transcribing historical sources and living like a local Chengdunese. The research question I started with was what clergies, temples and temple property meant to people in their daily life before and after Guangxu’s edict of temple destruction. Thus, I looked for sources revealing commoners’ usage of temple space and local regulations on religion. With the bigger picture in mind, I was also able to explore the local implementation and the effect of temple destruction.

With GIRTA, I expanded my research beyond Chengdu. I spent sometime in Chongqing Library and also I traveled to Xuanhan County and Wanyuan County during the last three weeks of my summer. At Xuanhan and Wanyuan, I saw and touched original copies of historical documents, which was a terrific experience for a history student. Most documents from Xuanhan and Wanyuan were deeds. I hoped to find something about schools, temples, or any public property, but those deeds were not directly related to these topics. Luckily, I still found one inscription of a clan school established in 1881 in Xuanhan, which showed the rules for the family to manage the school, which made up the lack of information about clan school in archives stored at Sichuan Provincial Archives.

It was GIRTA that enabled my first field trip as a history student. It allowed me this wonderful experience of ‘getting my hands dirty’ and finding my own sources.

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