Caretaker of Chinese History

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

In April 2008, Hoover Senior Associate Director Richard Sousa visited Shanghai, where three new books had been published about T. V. Soong, an influential figure in twentieth-century Chinese history. The Hoover Institution has long concentrated on collecting historical documents on China, dating from the Institution’s beginning with acquisitions made by Herbert Hoover, who worked in Tianjin as a young man. In this interview with Xinmin Weekly reporter He Lidan, Sousa discusses the Hoover Institution’s interest in preserving modern Chinese history for scholars:

He Lidan: It has been said, “If you want to do research on modern Chinese history, you must go to the Hoover Institution.”

Richard Sousa: We’re very pleased to hear this kind of praise. We continuously strive to make the Hoover Institution an important stop for scholars doing research on modern China. Hoover’s mandate is to preserve history—to collect material on social, political, economic, and historical change. We will continue to make significant efforts to strengthen Hoover’s collections.

He: Which of the materials on modern Chinese history most interest you?

Sousa: I was born in 1949. Because I was born in that year, it was an important year for the Sousa family [laughs] but it also was a critical year in modern Chinese history. I'm interested in all the important historical events that happened in China after 1949.

He: As an American, how do you view the Four Great Families of the Republic of China—Chiang, Soong, Kung, Chen?

Sousa: From ancient times to modern, in both China and the West, every country has had one or two or three especially influential families who lead political and social developments within the country. For example, the United States has the Kennedy family. Under certain conditions these special, great families have great influence on a country’s society, economy, and politics, and these celebrated families can extend their influence over two or three generations.

He: Which of the families of the Republic of China era do you find most interesting?

“Hoover’s mandate is to preserve history—to collect material on social, political, economic, and historical change.”

Sousa: Although Chinese history is not my specialty, I would say I personally feel that the T. V. Soong family is the most interesting. This is partly because the T. V. Soong family has a special relationship with the Hoover Institution.

He: In America, do people feel that T. V. Soong was mysterious?

Sousa: Yes, to many Americans, T. V. Soong is unknown—a mysterious individual. Everybody has heard of Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang (Soong Meiling), but very few Americans are clear about the intricate and complex relationships between the Soong and Chiang families. As for T. V. Soong’s role, although a small number of American specialists and scholars know about him, most Americans are not very clear on the role he played as the Republic of China developed.

He: Now, you are in charge of archival work for Hoover, and Hoover holds historical materials about the Four Great Families, Chiang, Soong, Kung, and Chen. Do you have ambitions to collect more records of the eminent families of modern China?

Sousa: As the person generally responsible for the Hoover Archives, I listen as my colleagues in the archival unit sometimes protest that as we collect more and more valuable archives and acquire new collections, our space is becoming tighter and our staff are being taxed. . . . But I firmly believe that Hoover needs to continually collect the world’s most valuable archives, and preserve these great materials in the Hoover Archives to allow the academic world to use them. Hoover seeks to collect not only valuable new archives but also complementary material. For example, just as Hoover acquired the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) archives, it also should try to collect the Minchintang (Democratic Progressive Party) and other political archives; only thus can we get a more neutral picture of a historical time, a complete understanding of it, and not make judgments based on one side only.

This is like following a family tree. After you have a collection, you realize that you should seek to acquire a related archive, really try to collect the material of all the people who are related in some way, and slowly you have more and more. For example, Hoover has Chiang Kai-shek’s diaries, and the Soong, Kung, and Chen family archives, as well as the archives of Chiang Kai-shek’s affiliated ministries, documents from his political enemies, and materials from related people of this era. It is like building a pyramid from top to bottom, or like a puzzle, or a magnet. Slowly and steadily ever more historical material is brought in.

He: I’ve heard that you went to Taiwan and were especially interested in the Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party archives. Why is Hoover so keen to acquire materials from the DPP, which was established barely twenty-two years ago?

Sousa: The principal reason is still that Hoover has its own vision, a wish to acquire significant historical materials related to political systems in the midst of change. Another is our goal of collecting complementary historical materials. We already have KMT (Kuomintang) materials, so naturally we want to acquire materials from its opposition, Taiwan’s DPP.

We have been in touch with Taiwan DPP officials, and they have expressed interest, but because of the elections in Taiwan this year we haven’t made much recent progress. We’ll continue the talks.

He:Were all the archives donated from family members free to Hoover?

Sousa: Yes. No money was involved. Furthermore, we make no commercial use of the archives.

He: Has Hoover persuaded specific family members to donate historical archives?

Sousa: There are two such negotiations in progress, but I can’t tell you their names right now. We’re making serious efforts to persuade family members to donate their materials to Hoover in the future, working toward our goal of collecting complementary archives. In a year, I would like to be able to give you two or three examples of archives successfully solicited from family members, but only after arrangements are finalized.

“Hoover’s position is to try to have the catalogued materials as open to the public as possible, and to make them available promptly and conveniently for all the world’s scholars to use.”

He: How many Chinese scholars have come to Hoover this year to do research?

Sousa: Lots. At least several dozen. Right now, there are probably about ten scholars from all over the world who are at Hoover reading and studying Chinese archives.

He: Mr. Yang Tianyou, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Modern History, recently told me that when he read the Chiang Kai-shek diaries, he could only copy some important parts by hand and take notes; he couldn’t make a copy. Some day will Hoover make it even easier for scholars to use the materials, for example, by digitizing them?

Sousa: Access depends on the donor’s wishes. The archival materials of T. V. Soong can be photocopied, but the Chiang Kai-shek diaries still cannot. Hoover imposes restrictions on the Chiang Kai-shek diaries for several reasons. The main reason is that the restrictions are part of Hoover’s agreement with the Chiang family. The diaries can’t be photocopied, reproduced, photographed, or digitized; they can only be copied by hand. When scholars use them, they can’t reproduce them verbatim unless the Chiang family agrees. These are the requirements of the family, not Hoover. There are copyright issues as well.

However, Hoover is looking into possible ways to improve these kinds of conditions without compromising the agreement with the Chiang family. We are working on the problem of how to make it easier for scholars to use the Chiang Kai-shek diaries.

Hoover’s position is to try to have the catalogued materials as open to the public as possible, and to make them available promptly and conveniently for all the world’s scholars to use. At the same time we must consider and respect the wishes of the donor families and the contractual rules. Hoover does not disregard the wishes of the family in the agreement, so to weigh the desires of both sides is a challenge.

“Just as Hoover acquired the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) archives, it also should try to collect the Minchintang (Democratic Progressive Party) and other political archives; only thus can we get a more neutral picture of a historical time.”

He: What is the Hoover Institution’s approximate annual budget?

Sousa: Hoover has an annual budget of $38 million, including research, administrative personnel, and the library and archives.

He: Many people in charge must raise their own capital; do you have to do that?

Sousa: Luckily, I don’t have to do that full time. Fundraising is more or less part of each manager’s responsibilities, but my main responsibility is not fundraising.

He: In your capacity as senior associate director of the Hoover Institution, what is the most important work in the development of the collection?

Sousa: I have been in this position for five years, and have been very lucky to have spent them stably and peacefully. In the past two or three years, speaking of the archives department under my direction, I feel that the greatest accomplishment was participating in the smooth acquisition of important and valuable archives, one after another, especially the Chiang Kai-shek diaries, the Kuomintang historical archives, the Iraq Memory Foundation archives, and former KGB archives.

Another important project under my purview was the construction of a new laboratory for preservation, using the most advanced techniques to protect and reconstruct these valuable materials. To give you one example: when the Chiang Kai-shek diaries first arrived at Hoover, they were like bricks; you couldn’t open them. Because the Hoover technical staff meticulously and professionally put them in order, the diaries are in a proper condition for access.