Written by Thomas S. Mullaney.

The ‘Digital Humanities’ is a young and highly contested area. How do you personally define the field?

Over the past decade, a powerful new suite of spatial, textual, and social network analysis tools – broadly understood as the Digital Humanities – has begun to expand the methods that we as Humanists and Social Scientists bring to bear on our questions, and indeed the very questions we ask. Looking out over the terrain of Digital Humanities (DH) initiatives, the vista is an impressive and dynamically changing one. At Stanford University alone, one can point to award-winning programs such as the Mapping the Republic of Letters project, myriad initiatives based at the Stanford Literary Lab, the Kindred Britain project, and the ORBIS Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, to cite only a handful of examples. When we extend our view across the United States and worldwide, the roster of DH initiatives becomes ever more compelling and exciting.

Digital Humanities can be defined in a wide variety of ways. Speaking as an archival historian, perhaps the core dimension of DH for me is this: Digital Humanities draws upon computational methods and tools by which a scholar can “hold” overwhelmingly abundant and/or complex information in one’s mind just long enough for the mind to produce insights, perspectives, and instincts that would have been impossible to reach through qualitative means alone. Such insights can then be carried back into the archive, into the field, and into other qualitative methodologies – all as part of a recursive process. DH is not a replacement of qualitative methodologies, in my view – not in the slightest.

Critics of the Digital Humanities argue that DH has facilitated or is complicit in the rise of the neoliberal university. What is your stance on the matter?

I read the recent LARB piece by Allington, Brouillette and Golumbia with great interest, hoping very much that it would delve into the complex and troubling politics of DH. Rhetorically, it was well crafted, although in the end it never moved past the level of polemic.

I think that the politics of DH are at once more complex, and more troubling, than these authors suggest. Here are some questions I have about the politics of DH.

What does it mean that the “community detection” algorithms used by DH scholars today are based upon the same principles as – if not perhaps identical to – those now used by state regimes to track down political dissidents, criminals, and terrorists? I raise this as just one provocation to remind us of the long, fraught relationship between state power and the academy – between colonial regimes and anthropology, fascist regimes and biometrics, hypernationalist regimes and the historical profession –  that is now continuing to unfold. How exactly is this relationship unfolding in the new domain of 21st-century governmentality and new Digital Humanities tools and methods? This strikes me as a wide-open question that scholars inside and outside of DH need to contemplate far more.

And what about the politics of algorithms themselves – a topic of growing concern in the 21st-century? What does it mean that scholars in the Humanities and Social Scientists are relying on Cytoscape, for example, a program originally designed for bioinformaticists and the visualization of protein structures – objectives which undoubtedly inform the creation of algorithmic functions and plug-ins upon which the program relies? What does it mean that few DH scholars, even if they are fluent in one or more core programming languages, are able to explain the internal, mathematical logic of the algorithms upon which DH scholarship relies for their visualizations? Furthermore, what does it mean that, in the era of major advances in machine learning, even the engineers responsible for building “deep learning” systems cannot audit these systems or these algorithms in any meaningful way – cannot, that is, tell us precisely why these systems are “seeing” what they’re seeing in their analysis of ever-larger corpora.

Moreover, what about our present-day obsession with the visual within DH – with “data visualization,” rather than “data auralization” or “data materialization?” If DH is, as I take it, a means by which one’s mind is given a fighting chance to experience insight and instinct about an overwhelmingly complex body of information, then why must this exploration 99 times out of 100 take the form of staring at a screen? Surely “the mind” in this formulation is much more than “eyes and a brain.” Insofar as knowledge and consciousness are always embodied, where then is DH that bypasses “data visualization” and offers up “data materialization?” Instead of viewing a screen, why can’t we explore our archives haptically, running our fingers across a fabric fashioned from synthetic fibers using a 3D printer – where zones of varying softness or coarseness, smoothness or knottedness, correspond to one or another quality of the phenomenon under consideration? And why not olfactory or taste stimuli, for that matter? DH needs to push beyond the “tyranny of the eye.”

Then, of course, there is the deep politics within DH (and information technology more generally) that divides the “West” from the “Rest” – which I know is a subject we’ll return to later.

So when I first opened up the LARB piece, written by leading figures in the field, I was optimistic and hungry for a multidimensional examination of the politics of DH scholarship. Perhaps because of that starting point, what I read felt single-dimensional and uninteresting.

How are China and/or Asia scholars currently engaging with the Digital Humanities?

Now is a fascinating time to be working at the intersection of Asian Studies and Digital Humanities, which is one of the main reasons I started the DHAsia project at Stanford.

By way of introduction, consider this abbreviated list of scholars working today[1].

Have the Digital Humanities had a major impact on higher education institutions and academic research within China?

Absolutely. I encourage readers to learn more about work by Javier Cha, at the University of Hong Kong; Liu Chao-Lin at National Chengzhi University; and Shi Yuanchun at Tsinghua University, to highlight only a few of the scholars doing terrific work in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Do you anticipate the Digital Humanities evolving differently in China and the West?

Even when considering the roster of scholars I outlined above, an impartial view of Digital Humanities scholarship in the present day reveals a stark divide between “the West and the rest.” Far fewer large-scale DH initiatives have focused on Asia and the Non-Western world than on Western Europe and the Americas.

This divide runs very deep, and is not primarily a question of scholarly interest or orientation. The “Asia deficit” within Digital Humanities is in no small part the outcome of more entrenched divides within the platforms and digital tools that form the foundation of DH itself. Digital databases and text corpora – the “raw material” of text mining and computational text analysis – are far more abundant for English and other Latin alphabetic scripts than they are for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, and other Non-Latin orthographies. This deficit, in turn, derives in large part from the widespread unavailability of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) platforms, text parsers, and tokenizers capable of handling and processing Non-Latin scripts – not in any way due to the paucity of primary source materials. Even for historic maps of Asia – primary source materials which face none of the same challenges as Non-Latin textual materials – the number of such maps that have been metadata-tagged, digitized, and georectified (three essential processes that must be carried out before digital spatial analysis can be undertaken) are consistently far less than their Western European and U.S. counterparts. As a result, when we look at DH in Western Europe and the Americas, we find a vibrant intellectual environment in which even college and university undergraduates – let alone more advanced researchers – can download off-the-shelf analytical platforms and data corpora, and venture into new and cutting-edge research questions; while, in the context of Asian Studies, we find an environment in which many of the most basic elements of DH research remain underdeveloped or non-existent.

For all the reasons outlined above, however, it is not sufficient for Asian Studies scholars simply to receive training in the existing set of DH tools. For Digital Humanities to be advanced within the context of Asian Studies, Humanists and Social Scientists of Asia need to make informed interventions into a technical domain typically dominated by engineers and developers. Not only do we need learn how to use existing tools and platforms – but to work with Computer Scientists, Engineers, and Applied Mathematicians to advance and enhance the very tools that will push Asia-focused DH scholarly research into the future.

We cannot rely, in other words, on “off-the-shelf” frameworks, but instead need to push the design and refinement of DH platforms that address the unique challenges and opportunities of Asian Studies research – whether the improvement of Asian-language text mining, content recognition, word segmentation, named entity recognition, and machine translation; the development of stronger Optical Character Recognition (OCR) suites for CJK languages, Arabic script (encompassing as well Ottoman, Persian, and Urdu, among others), and other Non-Latin writing systems underserved by current software platforms; or the circulation of best-practice protocols for the harnessing of Asia-centered social media APIs, among many other vitally important interventions.[2]

Tell us about your ‘Chinese Graves Project’: what is the story behind the phenomenon of grave relocation in China, and how and why have you used digital techniques to analyse this?

Each spring, upwards of 500 million people throughout mainland China pay visits to gravesites as part of Qingming – a traditional festival typically translated as “Tomb Sweeping Day” in English. Falling in early April, or late March, Qingming is celebrated throughout the Chinese diaspora, with families commemorating their deceased relatives and ancestors by cleaning gravesites and making offerings to the dead through the burning of ceremonial paper money.

In recent decades, the blistering pace of China’s economic development and population growth has transformed the country’s graveyards into sites of acute personal, social, political, and economic contestation. Confronted with some of the world’s highest population densities, and eager to bring new land under development, local authorities and entrepreneurs have turned their eyes covetously upon this once hallowed ground. Not unlike its better known counterpart, the “one-child policy,” funeral reform (binzang gaige 殡葬改革) is a controversial governmental initiative crafted in response to China’s population crisis. Government at all levels has ventured to rationalize the spatial distribution of human remains and to reduce the overall number of land burials by promoting cremation. Facing urgent questions of sustainable economic development and, above all, real estate tax income and food supply, many authorities see land burial as a traditional practice that can no longer feasibly be permitted. For others with less magnanimous concerns, funeral reform initiatives have amounted to little more than ruthless land grabs by real estate developers and their political patrons.

With at least 10 million graves exhumed over the past decade by our most conservative estimates, the sheer scale of China’s funeral reform program dwarfs in size and scope any known grave relocation efforts, past or present, in the rest of the world. Local relocation efforts range from the modest to the immense, from the 500 bodies relocated in 2014 in Chuzhou county (Anhui), to the 2.5 million bodies exhumed and relocated in 2012 in Zhoukou city (Henan). These actions in Zhoukou in particular prompted a storm of local protest and media coverage – including a homemade satire-cum-protest Gangnam-style music video in which teenage performers in chalky white face paint and darkened eyes danced along to the refrain “I fear ‘grave flattening style’ (wo pa pingfen style 我怕平坟Style). The video went viral on Youku, China’s counterpart to Youtube.

If China’s one-child policy has targeted domains of formidable power and intimacy – birth, the reproductive body, and descent – burial reform has targeted the no less potent realms of death, the body after life, and ancestry. To understand China, we must set our eyes on the grave as well as the cradle.

Beginning in 2013, my team and I began constructing the first-ever geodatabase of grave relocation in China, compiling thousands of scattered records into a unified analytical platform. Captured within this rich data is the fuller picture of China’s funeral reform movement, and more vitally, an empirical foundation that makes possible a deep examination of modern and contemporary China from a host of vantage points, be they historical, anthropological, economic, sociological, or otherwise.

In a proposed digital volume – submitted for review as part of the new initiative in peer-reviewed, born-digital publishing at Stanford University Press – I, together with leading historians and anthropologists of the Chinese world, harness a state-of-the-art, custom-developed digital storytelling and spatial analysis platform built by David McClure to examine the phenomenon of Chinese grave relocation in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Thomas S. Mullaney is Associate Professor of Chinese History and History of Technology at Stanford University. He is the author of Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China (University of California Press, 2010; Foreword by Benedict Anderson), principal editor of Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation and Identity of China’s Majority (University of California Press, 2012), and most recently the two-volume work, The Chinese Typewriter: A Global History of the Information Age, Part I (MIT Press, Forthcoming 2017) and The Chinese Computer: A Global History of the Information Age, Part II (MIT Press, Forthcoming 2020). This work charts out China’s development of a modern, nonalphabetic information infrastructure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and is the recipient of both the 2013 Usher Prize and a three-year National Science Foundation fellowship.

He is also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Dissertation Reviews, which publishes 500 reviews annually of recently defended dissertations in 30 different fields in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Most recently, he curated and produced a museum exhibit – “Chinese in the Information Age” – which debuted at the Stanford East Asia Library in January 2016 and was widely featured in the Chinese-language media, including Sing Tao, World Journal, and KTSF. The exhibit will travel worldwide beginning in 2017. Image credit: CC by National Portrait Gallery/Flickr.


[1] Allon Wagner, Tel Aviv University, Research Professor, Department of Computer Science [Specialist in Cuneiform Text Analysis and Cuneiform Archive Social Network Analysis]

Anatoly Detwyler, Penn State University, Postdoctoral Research Fellow [Specialist in Chinese Data Visualization and Text Analysis]

Christian Wittern, Kyoto University, Professor of Informatics in East Asian Studies [Specialist in Buddhist Digital Humanities]

Elias Muhanna, Brown University, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature; Director of Digital Islamic Humanities Project [Specialist in Arabic Digital Humanities/Text Analysis]

Eunkyong Shin, Columbia University, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Sociology [Specialist in Network Analysis, Applied to Study of Resistance Movements in Colonial Korea]

Grace Fong, McGill University, Professor of Chinese Literature [Director of Ming Qing Women Writing (MQWW) Digital Database]

Guanghua Chi, University of Washington, Postdoctoral Research Fellow [Director of Chinese Ghost Cities project]

Hilde De Weerdt, Leiden University, Professor of Chinese History [Specialist in Markus and Visus East Asian Humanities Research Visualization Platform]

Hoyt Long, University of Chicago, Associate Professor of Japanese Literature [Specialist in Large-Scale Japanese and Chinese Text Mining and Analysis]

Jason Protass, Brown University, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies (starting 2016) [Specialist in Buddhist Studies Digital Humanities]

Javier Cha, University of Hong Kong, Postdoctoral Fellow [Specialist in Social Network Analysis, applied to Early Modern Korea]

Karen Pinto, Boise State University, Assistant Professor of History [Specialist in Spatial Analysis of Medieval Islamic Maps]

Kris Manjapra, Tufts University, Associate Professor of South Asian History, Program Director of the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies Digital Humanities Lab [Specialist in Digital Archivism and Curation of South Asian Studies Oral History/Ephemeral Material Archives]

Liu Chao-Lin, National Chengzhi University, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, [Specialist in Chinese Computational Linguistics and Text Mining]

Marcus Bingenheimer, Temple University, Assistant Professor, Department of Religion [Specialist in Buddhist Studies Digital Humanities]

Matthew Thomas Miller, University of Maryland, Associate Director of the Roshan Initiative in Persian Digital Humanities

Maxim Romanov, University of Leipzig, Research Fellow [Director of Digital Islamic History project]

Mohammad Sadegh Rasooli, Columbia University, Advanced PhD Candidate [Specialist in Persian Text Analysis and Machine Learning]

Nicholas Tackett, University of California Berkeley, Associate Professor of Chinese History [Developer of Prosopographic and Social Network Database of the Tang and Five Dynasties]

Nir Shafir, University of California San Diego, Assistant Professor of Ottoman History (starting Fall 2016) [Specialist in “Distant Reading” of Arabic Manuscripts, Pamphlets, and Ephemera]

Paul Vierthaler, Boston College, Digital History Postdoctoral Fellow [Specialist in Large-Scale Chinese Text Mining and Analysis]

Peter Bol, Harvard University, Carswell Professor of East Asian Language and Civilization; Director of the China Historical Geographic Information Systems project; Director of the China Biographical Database project; Founding Director of the Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis

Richard Jean So, University of Chicago, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature [Specialist in Large-Scale Japanese and Chinese Text Mining and Analysis]

Ruth Mostern, University of California Merced, Founding Faculty in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, History and World Cultures Department Humanities [Specialist in Asian and Global Spatial History; Developer of the Digital Gazetteer of the Song Dynasty]

Scott McGinnis, University of California, Berkeley, Advanced PhD Candidate [Specialist in Chinese Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) research]

Sean Pue, Michigan State University, Associate Professor of Hindi Language and South Asian Literature and Culture, Department of Linguistics and Languages [Specialist in Hindu/Urdu Text Mining and Analysis]

Shi Yuanchun, Tsinghua University, Professor of Computer Science [Specialist in Chinese Human-Computer Interaction and Media Integration]

Soheil Feizi, MIT, Advanced PhD Candidate, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory [Specialist in Large-Scale Quantitative Analysis of Communications Networks and Social Sciences]

Song Chen, Bucknell University, Assistant Professor of Chinese History [Specialist in Chinese Spatial Analysis and GIS]

Tian Feng, Chinese Academy of Science Institute of Software, Research Professor [Specialist in Chinese Ubiquitous Computing and Human-Computer Interaction]

Tyler Williams, University of Chicago, Assistant Professor of South Asian Languages and Civilizations [Specialist in Hindu/Urdu Quantitative and Statistical Text Analysis]

Wang Hongan, Chinese Academy of Science Institute of Software, Research Professor [Specialist in Chinese Human-Computer Interaction and Artificial Intelligence]

Wang Qianying, Lenovo, Human-Computer Interaction/UX Research Director; Former IBM China Research Lab [Specialist in Chinese UX, received PhD from Stanford University]

[2] For scholars working on the contemporary period, Asia constitutes a new frontier within Culture Analytics, a branch of Digital Humanities focused on the computational analysis of large-scale datasets for the understanding of the contemporary world. Among the fastest-growing social networks today are found in Asia – not in the extension of U.S. networks like Facebook, moreover, but in the growth of networks such as WeChat, KakaoTalk, and LINE (See “Why the Largest Social Network in 2015 Won’t be Facebook, and Will Be From Asia”). However, in contrast to the widespread use of large data sets drawn from Twitter, Facebook, and other more familiar APIs, scholars have only begun to tap into Asia-based APIs such as Sina Weibo or Baidu, to cite but two examples (see “Data Mining Reveals the Extent of China’s Ghost Cities”).