Order of Multitudes

Exploring the Secrecy of Garbage Papers with Yi Lu

Yi Lu is fascinated by archives that have been thrown away. Yi is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Harvard University who studies the circulation of archives through flea markets and illicit trade routes in China. In addition to his research, Yi serves as the Digital Communications Director for the “Order of Multitudes” Seminar. In this interview, we turn the spotlight around and highlight some of the incredible insights into collecting, secrecy, and archive preservation from Yi’s research.

Allison Chu: Your work takes the infamous aphorism, “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure” literally and expands on its impact on history. Could you tell us a little about the importance of garbage papers? 

Yi Lu: We are what we keep, but we are also what we discard. When we prune, we make choices and articulate our values. On an individual level, such forgetting is an integral part of memory; on a collective level, culling – part of archival appraisal that selects records for permanent retention – is the foundation of archival work.

 In my thesis, I examine how societies discharge their past, often quite literally. For more than a century, scholars have relied on deaccessioned archives to study China: In the 1920s, archives of China’s last imperial dynasty were sold as waste paper in Beijing. During the Cold War, “intelligence peddlers” filled the streets of Hong Kong, smuggling mainland Chinese newspapers to a generation of Western “China-watchers.” Today, as official archives tighten their access under President Xi Jinping, China historians are turning to flea markets such as Panjiayuan in Beijing or to online bidding sites such as Kongfz.com (literally Confucius dot com) to find original documents for their research. Some scholars have given a name to this practice: they call it “sinological garbology.”

These displaced records vary in size, content, and condition; they reflect the vagaries of China’s tumultuous twentieth century. Together, they challenge not only what we think we know about China, but also how we know it: How could the CCP – a regime notorious for its secrecy and censorship – have so many paper leaks? What can we know from these sources?

At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that such discards are neither new nor unique to China. The recycling of vellum manuscripts was a common practice in early modern European book production, and even the papal records were once sold as fruit wrappers in a broader economy of thrift and use. In the nineteenth -century, the French poet Charles Baudelaire recognized the patchwork quality of modernity by comparing the ragpicker to an archivist: here is someone who sorts through “everything that the big city has cast off, everything it lost, everything it disdained, everything it broke.” My thesis situates “sinological garbology” in this broader economy of recycling and examines how collecting impinges on the creation of historical knowledge and sensibility.

Allison Chu: How did your fieldwork inspire the direction of your dissertation? 

Yi Lu: Before I started looking into historical flea markets, it was my fieldwork in the contemporary that prodded me to pursue this topic. But instead of buying research materials, as many of my colleagues do, I want to study this informal economy of garbage archives instead: how do state secrets become street commodities and scholarly resources?

It is not easy to study the trade. Buying and selling records is a criminal offence in China, and the dealers – mostly men of the Cultural Revolution generation – are a secretive bunch. Further complicating the fieldwork is the commercial relationship between the researcher and the dealer: access to sources improves with one’s willingness to pay. To break into this closed network (and to avoid many of the ethical and legal ambiguities), I observed institutional buyers in China instead. This allowed me to tap into existing networks while simultaneously observing the interactions between the “professional” historians and their “amateur” counterparts. Archives, as carriers of cultural and social capital, help fashion scholarly identities and professional expertise. Amid accusations of being charlatans, the most marginalized members of Chinese society, such as waste paper collectors , could participate in the production of historical knowledge.

This story, again, is neither new nor unique to China. Before the rise of “fieldwork,” early anthropologists studied foreign societies primarily through the collection of objects, often in collaboration with local intermediaries. Meanwhile, history as a modern discipline emerged from the so-called “antiquarianism.” But if the longevity of garbology is of any guide, we should rethink the genealogy of modern social science disciplines and enlarge the “field” to consider the role of collecting in production of knowledge.

Archives packed in fruit boxes
Photo by Yi Lu

Allison Chu: In our conversation, you described your work as partly an “ethnography of state secrecy.” What fascinates you about the illicit trade of archives and the secret passage of knowledge? And are these sensibilities of secrecy new?

Yi Lu: The document market in China today is an open secret. Even though the trade is illicit, it is tolerated – and in some cases, indirectly financed by – the state. This vision challenges our understanding of censorship: it does not only suppress knowledge, but instead creates new channels of communication.

In my research, I interrogate the meaning of secrecy by first returning to the long history of classification: Which files are classified as sensitive? How should they be handled? But at a time when methods of secrecy are classified, how could probe the scope of official secrecy? Secrecy is mind-bending; the only thing we know is that we don’t know, but the best-kept secrets are those we do not know.

So instead on the contents of official secrets, I focus on their role in bureaucratic communication. A security label is often seen as an index of truth. A “top secret” document makes us think that we have stumbled across something important. This mystique is not lost on some archive dealers in China, who would extract them from the rest of the file. Even though the physical mutilation clearly violates the archival principle of original context, it tells us something about the collector’s market: Secrets sell. So, even though the secret documents have become street commodities, they continue to carry the allure of forbidden knowledge.

Archives packed in fruit boxes
Photo by Yi Lu

Alison Chu: Now that digitization has improved general archival practices, shouldn’t history be better preserved and more accessible to both scholars and the general public? What do you see to be the dangerous consequences of digitization?  

Yi Lu: Digitization is no panacea for preservation. Data do not just exist in the cloud. They are stored in file formats that expire, in hardware that fail, and in proprietary networks that use private information for machine learning and corporate profits. While the American Historical Association played a key role in establishing the US National Archive and standards of record keeping, humanists have largely surrendered the design of archival standards to computer scientists and engineers today.

But not everything is lost yet. On a more elemental level, digitization does not answer the perennial question: Whose history should we save for posterity? Which should we leave out? Our age of “big data” does not obviate the need for appraisal. If anything, culling becomes an even greater imperative for memory. Ultimately, however, these are questions about value, not about technology. As Safiya Noble, the inaugural speaker of our series, argues, this debate will not only require the participation of humanists and social scientists, but also communities to which the archives belong. Digitization is not just about creating electronic surrogates; it should be part of a broader community building effort. 

Allison Chu: What are some of the future directions you will be pursuing in your work?

Yi Lu: I see my own thesis as a digital archive of sorts. Most dealers do not maintain meticulous records of their own collecting and sales, and I hope my interviews with them will help preserve memories of these grassroots collections, which occupy a liminal and precarious space in contemporary China. I have taken many pictures and recorded some interviews, but when the pandemic subsides, I want to go back and experiment with the latest techniques such as “photogrammetry” to preserve these living room archives in 3D.  

These digital methods also inform my analysis of Chinese archives. During my research, archives have been steadily removing metadata from their online catalogues – a barometer of broader crackdown under Xi Jinping. Having scraped hundreds of entries from the websites, I ask if we can turn these metadata to an archive of censorship: which entries were removed, and why? As much as digitization aids censorship, it also gives us new tools to visualize and analyze the suppression of knowledge.