Chinese Oral History & Papers: Home

Chinese oral history collections


Chinese Oral History Project is highly well-known in Chinese scholarly communities in the world, particularly in the Greater China Area. The collection of its oral histories and papers are very rich and have been heavily used by students and scholars.

But other collections of Chinese oral histories at Columbia are also significant. The major Chinese oral history collections include the following:

  • Chinese Oral History Project Collection of Reminiscences
  • Chinese Oral History Project Collection of Major Personal Papers
  • Chinese Oral History Collection from the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica
  • China Missionaries Project Collection
  • Zhang Xueliang Oral History Materials

Chinese Oral History Project

 In December 1956, Prof. C. Martin Wilbur 韦慕廷 (1907-1997) of the East Asian Institute, Columbia University, realized the opportunities of interviewing eminent Chinese in New York and got “a bright idea” to initiate an oral history project.  In 1957, he planned to start a Chinese Oral History Project similar to the American Oral History Project initiated in 1948 by Allen Nevins (1890-1971).

In 1958, Professors C. Martin Wilbur and Franklin L. Ho 何廉 (1905-1975) officially started the Chinese Oral History Project in the East Asian Institute at Columbia to interview and record the life recollections of prominent Chinese leaders of the Republican era (1911-49).  Different from Prof. Nevins, who interviewed extensively and transcribed the recollections of hundreds of persons, but provided minimal research and editorial assistance, Wilbur decided to use an intensive approach, focusing on a few outstanding persons but trying to compile and provide accurate and detailed autobiographies.  

The project was financed by Columbia University, the Ford Foundation, and later by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Given that funds for the project were not always adequate and project staff must be able to manage the work with limited resources, this approach appeared to be a realistic, expedient option. The project ended in 1980.

Prof. C. Martin Wilbur, the project co-director, prepared an updated, but unfinished inventory for the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML) in 1984. A number of other Chinese-related oral history projects of significant importance were conducted at or collected by Columbia.

Almost all the original Chinese oral history project collections are kept at RBML at Columbia.

Discovery Issues

The available guides, printed in 1972, 1979, and 1984, were collected by some institutions, but they have been found not to be perfect in meeting the research needs because they are not renewed, updated, or standardized. The general guide in print format at RBML, which has been very useful, seems to be the aggregate of documents such as guides, inventories, and relevant journal articles from various sources at different time. Many of the documents in the guide are informal documents, with undated handwritten notes and corrections.

Some difficulties in accessing the collections from afar and at Columbia have been reported by users. Among other problems, new users assume that records for these Chinese-language oral histories have been completely entered into CLIO and converted to LC pinyin system, and so they are searchable in CLIO. But in fact this is not true. Many authors and titles of the oral histories, if known, are not directly searchable. Some general titles of oral history projects are searchable, and the search results offer substantial useful information in great detail. Yet, few users would search CLIO using the correct general titles, and some specific personal papers and archives cannot be located this way.

China-related archival and special collections, including Chinese Oral History Project results and papers, can be searched by using Archival Collections Portal and Oral History Portal. However, the portals only include some essential scanned guides and inventory of major some reminiscences and papers of the Chinese Oral History Project. Thus, it is hoped that before the improved online finding aids come out, this guide helps address the searching and discovering issues.

Chinese Studies

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Chengzhi Wang
C.V. Starr East Asian Library
212 854 3721