Breathless! – 90 days in China

Daniel Nerlich, deputy director of the Archives of Contemporary History (ETH Zurich), is convinced that archives should be trustworthy repositories for sensitive data. He therefore promotes a high ethical standard in the formation of archivists. 2007 he was elected as a board member of the Association of Swiss Archivists (ASA) and as chairman of its Working Group Business Archives.

During his ongoing sabbatical at swissnex China Daniel follows the traces of Walter Bosshard. Swiss pioneer of modern photojournalism, Bosshard coined the notion of China in the West in the 1930ies and 1940ies with his media coverage during a martial phase with radical changes in the whole country. His private papers are kept by the Archives of Contemporary History. After some photos and films out of it were shown in 2012 in an exhibition at Shanghai Municipal Archives, Daniel this autumn travelled from Xi’an to Yan’an like Bosshard did in 1938.

He was invited to give presentations about Bosshard at East China Normal University and at swissnex China in Shanghai as well as at the Memorial of the 8th Route Army Office in Xi’an. With these activities Daniel contributes to bringing this important historical material partly unpublished down to the present to daylight in China for the first time. In addition he attended an international conference on archival education at Renmin University (Beijing) in October. Enjoying manifold enriching encounters, he thus deepened the international professional exchange with Chinese colleagues during his three months’ stay in the country.

A three months’ sabbatical at swissnex in Shanghai taught me two things about China:

  1. My doctoral adviser decades ago was a prophet handing me down his slogan “flexibility is life” – the perfect formula for China!
  2. After 90 days you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Almost at the same time l arrived in Shanghai I got the request of Charlotte Peter, the “Grande Dame” of Swiss travel journalism, to show her round swissnex China. With the 89 year old vital and curious China addict I travelled spontaneously to Huangshan. In the province of Anhui Peter supplied me with useful information about my host country. The price I paid was sore muscles after climbing the yellow mountain over six hours.


Opening Ceremony Autumn School East China Normal University

Still en route I got the next unexpected invitation to contribute to a “Journée d’étude suisse” during an autumn school at East China Normal University (ECNU). The conference about historical relations between China and Switzerland was co-organised by swissnex. I introduced the work of Swiss journalist Walter Bosshard (1892-1975) – the key issue of my sabbatical, whose private papers are kept by the Archives of Contemporary History. In long-term stays this pioneer of modern photojournalism had reported in text, photo and film about Kuomintang and Communists, about the Second Sino-Japanese War or about his expeditions to Tibet and Turkestan and to Inner Mongolia. In Mai 1938 he was the first European who interviewed and filmed Mao Zedong in the “red capital” Yan’an. After the scientific part and as an adequate conclusion of the animated Swiss Day we offered a cocktail in the name of swissnex with wine and cheese from Switzerland to around 50 guests in order to deepen the good bilateral relations on a more individual level.


Tracing historical scenes of Walter Bosshard’s film with the Municipal Archivist in Yan’an

Right after this and now according to schedule I flew to Xi’an. There an interpreter coming from Heidelberg to accompany me on my trip to Yan’an on Bosshard’s traces joined me. The journalist had recorded his 1938 observations in a film that culminates in sequences with Mao Zedong. As a donation from Zurich this historical document entitled “Journey to Yan’an” since my visit is shown publicly at the permanent exhibition of the 8th Route Army Memorial in Xi’an. Thus important source material so far rarely known in China is now put on the map in the 75th year of its existence and exactly where Walter Bosshard in 1938 had begun his journey. The memorial’s director had invited me at short notice to give a lecture about the origins of the film at the opening of the exhibition “A Great Woman. Helen Foster Snow in China” on September 29. Before that a copy of the Bosshard film was handed over to Yan’an City Archives on the basis of a preliminary agreement with the Archives of Contemporary History in Zurich. Together the two institutions in China and Switzerland will boost the dissemination of Bosshard’s work that contains more films and over 20’000 photos many of which still are to be allocated to time and place. The unplanned extension of my stay in Shaanxi provided me a few extra days in a beautiful youth hostel embedded in the traditional courtyard architecture – and the most welcome opportunity to explore the city of Xi’an by bicycle unhurriedly for once.The pace soon got intensified again when an international conference on archival education was scheduled at Renmin University in Beijing. The week in the capital was filled with professional talks meeting colleagues from all over the world. A sudden cut of the conference program fortunately gave a bit of room. Two long and sunny autumn days spent walking on the Great Wall in Badaling and sneaking through the bountiful but totally crowded Summer Palace in Beijing at a crawl were quickly organised.

After a last short determined trip to Hong Kong meeting fellow business archivists who participated at the Beijing conference, I’m about to end my sabbatical appropriately with a presentation at swissnex on the eve of my return to Switzerland. Looking back at the Swiss presence in Shanghai before 1949 some photographic highlights illustrate Walter Bosshard’s work in China.

1937-08-22_Bund    2013-10-01_Bund







Breathless on The Bund – during the war on August 22, 1937 (Walter Bosshard) and on October 1, 2013 (author) 

My own conclusion after 90 days in the country that virtually is a continent, after numerous enriching personal encounters, after travelling to 5 provinces and several municipalities and special administrative regions, after giving 3 lectures, after signing 2 agreements with Chinese institutions and after enjoying 270 xiaolongbao reads as follows: When I’m home again I will first take a deep breath riding my bike to the Swiss mountains. And next I will start the planning of returning to China as soon as possible – because I ain’t seen nothing yet!