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Chinese Local Chronicles going Global

Updated: Jul 30, 2019



Changsha is an historical city situated in the Hunan Province of China. It is a modern, vibrant place with a strong economy and was the host of the Chinese Local Chronicles conference last week which attracted around 100 local chronicles specialists and a number of international scholars from libraries and universities.I was invited to give the opening keynote and provided a global library context for the conference by introducing IFLA and how it is going about building a strong and united library field. I talked about the United Nations 2030 Agenda; the Global Vision project which has provided a global vision for libraries; and the new IFLA Strategic Plan. I also discussed what IFLA is doing in regard to cultural memory.

The second keynote was by the Secretary General of Chinese Local Chronicles Guidance Group Office, Ji Xiangde. He explained that local chronicles are unique to China, they do not exist in other countries in the same way. Local chronicles are government commissioned contemporary accounts of events. The oldest history in China is from local chronicles, and he described this format as the father of history. The difference between history and local chronicles is that history describes and criticises events and people, and historians provide subjective opinions of history. But because of their format, chronicles are reliable and objective. When we read history, we have to judge how authentic the history is because it is written by people with subjective ideas. But Chinese local chronicles are original, proven by law and they have a purpose assisting governance.

Local Chronicles exhibition centres are being set up around China in collaboration with museums, archives and libraries. Director Ji says that the chronicles were recorded when things happened, and that they are the most reliable version of what has happened because:

  1. They are consistent and all recorded in the same way

  2. They are always original and they come from a regional or county context

  3. They are objective, the writer of local chronicles makes no judgement on what they are recording

  4. They are contemporary.

Director Ji described some of the uses of local chronicles. For example, Youyou Tu, the scientist who won the 2015 Nobel prize for medicine, found a medical breakthrough in local chronicles which described a certain herbal mixture as a treatment for malaria and from that invented a new medicine. Local chronicles also assist with governance. China had applied for two mountains to be included in the world heritage listing, this was refused but it was found in local chronicles, and was reconsidered and they are now listed. They are also used for genealogical research and can help people find their relatives, for example, an older man from Russia found his family by using local chronicles. Director Ji is keen to promote the idea of local chronicles internationally and sees good synergies with libraries, museums and archives.

Chihfeng Lin, Chair of IFLA’s Local History and Genealogy Section told us how she was inspired after visiting a museum in Kuala Lumpur last year to write an article about it. The museum in Malaysia is dedicated to the work of Lim Liam Geok who was a school educator who advocated for civil rights of Chinese people when the government banned mother tongue education for Chinese speakers. This museum is a memorial to him. Friends, partners and admirers wrote articles, and the museum also includes his papers and artefacts. He fought successfully to maintain Chinese education in schools in Malaysia because he believed it is very important to keep the mother tongue and retain language, and so retain the competitive intelligence of people. It is a personal chronicle and some of the activities undertaken by the museum include activities, scholarships, there is a bulletin and newsletter, all managed by an organised foundation committee, with regular financial support for maintaining sustainable development.

Russell Lynch who is the Collection Developer at the Family History Library spoke about FamilySearch, a genealogy organisation operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was previously known as the Genealogical Society of Utah and is the largest genealogy organisation in the world. Russell described the resources available, including that the Family Search website is available in 10 different languages and includes historical records. There is also the ability for people to share and record memories and photos can be stored.

The family tree application collects data from users, is multilingual and users can create fan charts up to 6 generations. You can add photographs to charts and he said that the Chinese diaspora do family history and then can relate their research back to China.

We visited the Hunan Provincial Museum which was opened last year. The basis of the collection is the hundreds of artefacts 2,500 years old that were found in an ancient tomb which was discovered while excavating for a new hospital in 1973. The remains of one of the three people interred are on show at the museum.

Changsha is a city of manufacturing, transportation, agriculture and culture and we also visited the cultural precinct, which includes the Changsha library, Changsha museum and the Local Planning museum. This is a new complex that opened in 2015, located on the Xiang river. The Local Planning Museum is a fascinating account of the growth and development of the city which has retained the same name for 3,000 years and has seen significant challenges, not the least being its total destruction in 1938 When Chiang Kai-Shek ordered that it be burned to the ground to prevent the advancing Japanese army from obtaining any benefit. This is still a very painful memory for the city. They are very proud that Chairman Mao Zedong grew up in Changsha and there is an extremely large statue of him on Orange Island, which is in the middle of the Xiang river.

Changsha Library is a very popular and well used library, with 10,000 visitors a day. It provides many programs and its main objective is to encourage a love of reading in young people. It has the capacity to hold 2 million books and currently has 1.6 million. There is a heavy emphasis on print material and activities to promote reading. The Director told me that she had visited Australia and while she was there saw children’s storytimes, so when she came back, she instituted daily storytimes at the library. There is a bookshop and cafe attached to the library - they are open 24 hours a day and the cafe in particular has a very contemporary vibe.

I enjoyed the famous Changsha cuisine, although I suspect it was modified for their western guests as it is known for being hot and spicy. We enjoyed two formal dinners, one was at the Changsha Municipal Building, where we were welcomed by the Mayor. The councillors and officers are very proud of their city and all that has been achieved. They have great plans and ambition for the future of the city which continues to grow and prosper. They have a strong interest in sustainability and have a sophisticated and integrated transport system of trains, planes and road transportation.

Thanks to the organisers of the conference and to the Chinese Local Chronicles Guidance Group Office for their hospitality and warm welcome.

*photo credit Ye LING, International scholars in Changsha


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