As the Communist party took over mainland China in 1949, Republican officials began to leave for Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States. In 1957, Clarence Martin Wilbur, the professor of Chinese history at the Columbia University’s East Asian Institute, was inspired by Allan Nevins’ American oral history project to start a Chinese oral history project and saw the possibility of procuring primary historical sources using oral history interviews to capture the life stories of these prominent Chinese political officials living abroad. Professor Franklin L. Ho, who at the time was the Professor of Chinese Economics, agreed to join as the project’s co-director. The project officially began in 1958 and ended in 1980. Over two decades, the project’s oral historians interviewed a total of 19 prominent Chinese figures from the Republic of China period and produced a total of 16 extensive oral history interview transcripts in English, with many later were translated and published in Chinese and English. The project also collected eight autobiography manuscripts from related individuals as well as 13 interviewees’ personal papers.
Over two decades, the Chinese Oral History Project’s oral historians interviewed a total of 19 prominent Chinese figures from the Republic of China period and produced a total of 16 extensive oral history interview transcripts in English…
The Chinese Oral History Project (COHP) documents the legacy of the COHP at Columbia University dating from 1958 to 1980. The collection primarily consists of administrative records, photographs and portraits of the interviewees, interview reports and transcript drafts, sample audio recordings, as well as related autobiographies that the project’s organizers collected. Records from the collection document the close connections between the project staff and the interviewees. Researchers who wish to learn more about the history of the lives of the interviewees as well as their collaborative work with the project will find the collection useful.
The Chinese oral history project not only contributed to the timely acquisition of primary historical materials for the study of modern Chinese history, it also initiated and promoted the interest of oral history in Taiwan and later in mainland China. In 1958, Hu Shih, the first interviewee of the Chinese oral history project, was appointed as the president of the Academia Sinica. After returning to Taiwan, he advocated and supported oral history in Taiwan. During Dr. Hu Shih’s oral history interview in 1958 as noted by his interviewer Te-Kong Tong, he had strongly encouraged another individual to participate and “to leave a record for the future generations”.
The oral history project at the Academia Sinica’s Institute of Modern History began in 1959. The project was initially subsidized by Columbia and later funded by the Ford Foundation. The project focused on collecting oral histories from important political and military figures who settled in Taiwan after the Communist took over in mainland. The interviews documented the lives of political figures representing nearly all provinces of Republican China. The Academia Sinica oral history project deposited a total of 37 finalized handwritten oral histories transcripts, photographs, diaries, and memoirs at Columbia.
The interviews documented the lives of political figures representing nearly all provinces of Republican China.
With the Chinese version of these prominent political figures’ memoirs later published in the Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China, the Chinese oral history project and the Academia Sinica oral history project are viewed as the foremost oral history projects that documented the life of Chinese political figures during the troubling period of China dating from the early to mid-20th Century.
Another oral history project housed by the oral history archives related to religious missionaries based in China is the Claremont Graduate School’s China missionaries project. The project, started in 1969 and funded by Henry Luce Foundation grant, collected oral history interviews from 44 individuals who worked as missionaries in China. The oral history transcripts were later deposited at Columbia.
The Oral History Archives at Columbia also house two versions of the Peter H. L. Chang (Zhang Xueliang) oral history transcripts as well as his papers that were opened to the public in 2002 on his 100th birthday. One of the interviews was conducted by T. K. Tong in 1990 and another by the Chang sisters (Chih-ping Chang-Sobelman and Chih-yu Chang) from 1990 to 1993.
In addition to the aforementioned projects that mainly focus on the Republic of China period, the oral history archives also collected oral histories of Chinese-Americans in New York as part of the September 11, 2001 Telling Lives Oral History Project and the Nobel Laureates Project on scientific research project, which include the Reminiscences of Tsung-dao Lee and the Reminiscences of Chen Ning Yang.
Thank you to Chengzi Wang and his article, “Chinese Oral History Collections at Columbia: Toward Better Access” in the Journal of East Asian Libraries.