Written by Lik Hang Tsui.

The “digital humanities” (usually translated as shuzi renwen 数字人文 in mainland China and shuwei renwen 數位人文 in Taiwan) have recently received a lot of attention in Chinese academic circles, even though it took a long time for the concept to come to the attention of mainland China universities. The first digital humanities centre in China was established by Wuhan University in 2011. It remains the only mainland Chinese member of centerNet, an international network of digital humanities research centres.

But even though such research centres are so rare in China, plenty of Chinese scholars have been taking part in the field and have been conducting digital research for more than a decade. Several key universities have academic departments and centres that are developing digital projects for the humanities, such as historical GIS. It is also clear that some institutions are becoming increasingly interested in digital humanities initiatives. Peking University, for instance, recently organized its first digital humanities forum through its library in May 2016, which attracted about two hundred participants. University libraries will likely become important focal points for developing digital scholarship in China. Researchers from various humanistic disciplines are aware as well that the digital humanities can be a useful platform for them to discuss the latest developments that have something to do with computational tools in their fields, and have organized events through their faculties and institutes to conduct such discussions. These include library science, the history of the Qing dynasty, and other fields.

Digital humanities initiatives are often collaborative and international by design. Some Chinese institutions have collaborated with overseas institutions to develop digital projects. For instance, the China Biographical Database (CBDB) is one such project. Under the auspices of Harvard, Academia Sinica, and Peking University, this database is a freely accessible relational database containing biographical information about 370,000 historical figures, primarily from the 7th through to the 19th century. With both online and offline versions, its data is useful for statistical, social network, and geospatial analysis, and also serves as a kind of biographical reference. The long term goal of this international project is to systematically include all significant biographical material from China’s historical record and to make the contents available, free of charge, for academic use. With such a large scale dataset, researchers can query unprecedented amounts of historical data in much more efficient and sophisticated ways than previously. From the beginning of this year, the CBDB project has organized various training events at academic institutions in China to promote the use of its free data as well as digital tools for research.

Fig. 1 (1)

[The China Biographical Database’s current online interface.]

Participants in such digital humanities-related events agree that the projects in China have devoted lots of energy towards digitization, especially towards texts for searchable text databases. A steady proportion of state-funded humanities research projects involve digitization and the construction of databases. However, the participants feel that institutions have not done enough to help researchers equip themselves with the skill set to use digital tools for analyzing their material. As a result, many researchers in Chinese history report that they are familiar with locating sources in full-text databases, but are much less prepared when it comes to using other types of databases or digital tools to analyze their research material. They contend that the focus of digital humanities in China should move away from the current emphasis on various databases and digital collections to new ways of visualizing, analyzing and manipulating data. Not every researcher is interested in becoming data-savvy, but every one of them can benefit from more training in the digital humanities and reflection on the recent developments of the field. Just how the current curriculum for training humanities graduate students should adapt to technological advances and changing paradigms in the digital humanities will no doubt become an important issue.

Access to data is another problem for the development of the digital humanities in China. Even for data that is much less sensitive than the kinds of data discussed by Florian Schneider on this blog – books and archival material from pre-modern China, for example – access is highly restricted. While Chinese researchers have already been participating in digital projects for a substantial period of time now, the sharing of data has yet to become common practice. In addition, many databases are proprietary and rely on a subscription business model. Not only do they impose many restrictions on the use of their data, but the subscription fees of some databases containing full-texts of academic journals have soared to the point that even some resource-rich higher education institutions have refused to renew their subscriptions.

That said, there have been some promising efforts to make data available for public use. With its digital collection of over 53,000 family genealogies, the Shanghai Library has made 2,500 of them publicly available, and in March 2016 organized a data competition that provided training for using that data creatively. The library also encouraged users to adopt interconnected data models with linked data. Activities like these help increase the relevance of digital projects to broader communities of interest. Such communities are also finding it easier to exchange ideas about the digital humanities with communication technologies. There are numerous public accounts (gong zhong hao 公众号) on WeChat, the most important mobile social media platform in China. These accounts are devoted to the sharing of electronic resources for research and relevant academic events, often attracting a large following. Some virtual groups on that platform even function as chat-rooms for lively discussions about digital humanities.

Fig. 2 (1)

[The Genealogy Knowledge Service Platform, Shanghai Library.]

Like their counterparts specializing in Chinese studies elsewhere, researchers in China have frequently expressed the need for more collaboration and communication between projects and institutions in developing digital projects. Establishing a cyberinfrastructure would help connect the various projects and institutions, including the software applications and data collections that they are developing, as well as the personnel, standards, and methods that they establish. Wasting resources on digitizing the same rare books, for instance, can be easily avoided if there is adequate coordination between the developers of digital collections. The proliferation of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) will also facilitate collaboration and flexible operations across projects. To take the API developed by the CBDB project for example, it is now possible for other research projects to retrieve biographical data from CBDB easily and present them according to their needs. An infrastructure that connects the many projects that already exist in China and the many projects yet to come will benefit everyone engaging in digital research. It is time for a conversation about a Chinese cyber-infrastructure to begin.

Lik Hang Tsui is a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University and previously a lecturer at University of Oxford. He currently works for the China Biographical Database and splits his time between Cambridge, MA and Beijing. His research interests include middle period Chinese history, literati culture, and social history. Image credit: Lik Hang Tsui.