Yongusil 87: The National Archives at Kew, London

By | September 23, 2016 | No Comments

The National Archives at Kew (Greater London). | Image: Wikicommons

The National Archives at Kew (Greater London). | Image: Wikicommons

Just west of Central London is The National Archives at Kew. These archives offer limited but vital information to the student of Chinese and Korean history, especially on the period of turmoil in the region from 1920 to the end of the Second World War and from the perspective of British diplomats dispatched to East and Northeast Asia (referred to at the time as the “Far East”). In his study of Maoism, Kimilsungism, and Japanese Imperialism, Leeds University graduate Ben Eckton, with direction from historian Adam Cathcart, sought out the National Archives in order to gain a fresh perspective through which to augment the classic texts on Mao and Kim’s entry onto the international communist stage in the 1930s. His essay, “In the Cradle of Exile: The National Origins of Communist China and Korea,” was based on this archival work. In this Yongusil, Eckton reflects on his experience working at Kew. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Yongusil 87: The National Archives at Kew

by Benjamin Eckton

Although limited in number, the files which can be unearthed in The National Archives at Kew are worth more than the sum of their parts. Ranging from 1929 to around 1935, with a very sparse number of reports from 1936, the files mostly constitute correspondence between the Foreign Office and British Consulates on the Chinese mainland. The consulates at Dairen, Mukden1)Mukden is the Manchu name for the city of Shenyang., and Harbin all feature heavily, and offer a penetrating view of the Manchurian battleground following the Japanese decision to invade.

Personality is a key factor which shines through in these illuminating sources. For example, ongoing dialogue between PD Butler and Alexander Cadogan and between the British Embassy in Tokyo and Dairen are meticulously compiled to offer a gripping view into the interior of China during this time of upheaval. Although there are many reports on the state of British affairs in the ports and trade centres of Northeastern China which may seem unrelated, a close reading of the sources affords an insight into city life and indeed the overarching Japanese aims for Manchuria under dominion. The working conditions in British factories under the Japanese “reign of terror,” the treatment of those suspected to be communists, and the popular reaction to such brutalities are all documented by factory owners and relayed onto the Foreign Ministry.2)Kew: TNA, “Correspondence File: Manchuria: Communism,” FO 262/1918 (1935), 8.

Fascinating and telling exchanges between the British consuls and their Japanese counterparts are also illuminated by delving into the source material at Kew. Interviews with the Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs reveal an institutionalized policy of reprisal exacted against the Chinese people, leading RH Clive, the British consul in Beijing, to state that the Japanese were imposing themselves upon the people via their “usual methods,” insinuating mass subjugation of “rebellious” Chinese factions, real or imagined.3)Ibid., 18. Perhaps most stunning in this short collection of source material are maps written in Japanese script found buried deep within a folder from the British Embassy in Tokyo, dated 1931 and only opened in 1982. The maps inside show a wealth of data, including the concentrations of the Chinese Nationalist Army factions, and spheres of influence of the Kwantung Army and pockets of irregular forces — bandit and communist influences in the countryside, which are shown to have swelled since the Japanese imposition.4)Kew: TNA, “Correspondence File: Japan and China,” FO 262/1773 (1931), 192-197. The maps are preceded by a report stating that Japanese control is limited to the pocket of land which they occupy; as soon as they withdraw, chaos filled the void.5)Ibid., 91. Mentions of the ineffectiveness of Japanese propaganda on the Chinese populous and the escalation of violence, bombing civilian populations and train lines increase in frequency as the years of reports go on, and offer a thorough overview of the desperation of the Japanese to hold China under an iron fist before a truly global conflict was incurred.6)Kew: TNA, “Correspondence File: Manchuria,” FO 262/1895 (1935), 9.

The value of the sources at Kew should not be underestimate, and the varying points of viewed should be utilized appropriately. On one hand, they offer new, expanded vision of what life entailed under Japanese dominion, along with providing excellent detail on the movements of persons and irregular forces, including communist cells, in the Chinese interior. The sources also provide granular detail of exchanges with important Japanese officials and exact numbers of cases of banditry in Mukden. In the literal margins of these more “objective” measures one can find a personal touch: handwritten comments and corrections which immerses one in the opinion and analysis of British mandarins serving the crown in the “Far East.” Pithy yet chilling commentary add fuel to the view that the Japanese were rampaging towards economic supremacy of the Far East, even though her adventures cost her more “blood and treasure than they have been worth” and impeded rather than advanced her progress towards this end for which she seemed marked out.7)Miles W. Lampson to the British Embassy, Tokyo, “Japanese Aggression in Manchuria,” Correspondence File: Japan and China, FO 262/1773 (1931), 271-94 (293-294). Compelling, fascinating, and written in the analytical tones of career civil servants, Kew Gardens is an indispensable companion to the classical readings of the Chinese and Korean national and communist struggles in the 1930s.


1 Mukden is the Manchu name for the city of Shenyang.
2 Kew: TNA, “Correspondence File: Manchuria: Communism,” FO 262/1918 (1935), 8.
3 Ibid., 18.
4 Kew: TNA, “Correspondence File: Japan and China,” FO 262/1773 (1931), 192-197.
5 Ibid., 91.
6 Kew: TNA, “Correspondence File: Manchuria,” FO 262/1895 (1935), 9.
7 Miles W. Lampson to the British Embassy, Tokyo, “Japanese Aggression in Manchuria,” Correspondence File: Japan and China, FO 262/1773 (1931), 271-94 (293-294).

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