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New tech helps bring the hazy past into focus

LI BOZHONG | 2017-08-10 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Visitors see the exhibition “Secret Archives of the Chinese Qing Dynasty” hosted by the First China Historical Archives and the Archives Administration of Shenzhen on Nov. 12, 2016. The exhibition provides a rare chance for people to gain access to files and artwork that have never before seen daylight.

Like it or not, we now live in an information age, and it has become an indisputable fact that our lives and work are inseparably bound up with modern technology.

History, the oldest discipline, has evolved into a highly specialized subject with a venerable academic system, so scholars in the past were not accustomed to using high-tech methodologies in their studies.

Attempts to apply the latest technology to the oldest subject present an important issue for contemporary historians to ponder. While some think high-tech methods have little to offer historical research, others think it is important to keep abreast of these trends. Despite the different views on the issue, the relationship between technology and historical research is worth exploring.

‘Historical material explosion’
Today, network information technology facilitates historical research. Researchers can break the boundaries of time and space to analyze an ample amount of supporting data in a short time. At the same time, it also provides new methodologies and ideas that give rise to new research questions and allow for increasing scientific rigor.

As Marx and Engels wrote, “We know only a single science: the science of history.” Historical studies must be built on facts. Once enough sources are collected, historians analyze them, establish connections, and reach rational and scientific conclusions.

Without doubt, gathering data is the primary task of historical studies. In ancient times, when historical documents were limited, books were considered a sufficient basis for conducting historical research. However, it would be far from enough in today’s world.

In the last few decades, there has been an unprecedented explosion in the amount of historical materials.

China is a country that boasts an abundance of historical literature. The number of existing documents is enormous. Tens of millions of documents from Ming and Qing historical archives alone are collected in various libraries and archives.

These first-hand materials are of great historical value, but in the past, only a few scholars had access to a very small portion of these documents. This has changed in the last 20 years with the rapid digitization of documents.

For example the First Historical Archives of China contains more than 10 million documents on the Qing Dynasty. The library officially launched the digitization project at the end of 2005, so the literature—once largely inaccessible—is now at scholars’ fingertips. In addition to these state-funded projects, many private institutions have also started to digitize historical literature, and the progress made thus far is quite stunning.

At the same time, folk literature has also been collected and compiled into volumes in the last 20 years. The Research Center for Chinese Social History at Shanxi University collected as many as 15 million first-hand accounts of life in mid-20th century rural areas in Shanxi Province.

Similarly, a large number of private contracts and transaction records from the past 400 years have been uncovered in the middle and lower reaches of the Qingshui River in Guizhou Province, and some experts speculate that the total number may be as high as 300,000. Now these historical materials are to undergo digitization. Once completed, we will have access to a large number of never-before-seen historical materials.


Databases matter
In terms of the network information technology application in historical document database construction, the first step is to scan and post the documents on the web, and then a retrieval function is added so they can be easily searched. These databases represent the development and expansion of traditional libraries, which is called “digital archives” in Taiwan. Though digital archives are important, the large amount of data stored can be overwhelming for average users.

The rise of “digital humanities” helps to overcome this problem. In addition to searching data, digital humanities allow users to observe the circumstances in which a specific event occurred. In this kind of database, a keyword search could direct a user to a folder containing a variety of related accounts, helping them to obtain a panoramic view.

Historians could also adopt different approaches for different databases. For the majority of researchers, the most straightforward way is to search for what they need among the massive amounts of literature. They then cross-reference and gather the most reliable data, which helps them to identify the links connecting various documents. 

When researching how the family background and personal experiences of Cao Xueqin influenced his grand masterpiece the Dream of Red Mansions, a scholar spent years poring over billions of words in historical materials in order to uncover a considerable body of previously unknown information and draw a number of new conclusions. He was able to access literature so efficiently because he had a series of searchable databases at his disposal. Otherwise, the research might have taken him a lifetime if he did it the old-fashioned way.

After years of effort, we have built some professional databases for historical studies. In addition to keyword search, these databases have completed data processing and could provide ready-to-use materials.

For example, the China Biographical Database Project (CBDB)—a joint project of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, the Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica, Taiwan, and the Center for Research on Ancient Chinese History at Peking University—now provides biographical information about approximately 370,000 individuals in Chinese history after 10 years of input.

Individuals can be sorted based on a variety of contexts: as natives or residents of certain places or administrative units, according to bureaucratic ranks or offices, or based on kinship networks.
The CBDB’s data structure is complex and refined. Historical events are transformed into structured data with tags for individuals, kinship, social relationships, class, career paths, addresses, writings and so on. Through the extraction and analysis of structured data, researchers can study historical figures in groups and understand the spatial distribution of the related individuals and events as well as complex social networks.

If circumstances allow, historians can construct tailored databases in accordance with their research focuses. For example, a team of researches built a database based on 80,000 student registration records at Peking University and Suzhou University spanning from 1949 to 2002 and carried out an enrollment studies of Chinese college students. Their results were published in the popular book Silent Revolution.

To say the least, historians should not only learn to use network information technologies but more importantly strive to take full advantage of it.

Long way to go
Though we have achieved great progress in digitization and using databases to carry out historical studies, there is still room for improvement in the following two aspects.

For one, history is a complex subject, so we are currently at the nascent stage to construct a list of professional, comprehensive and user-friendly historical document databases. The existing ones are limited in quantity and functionality because only a proportion allows full text search. The number of professional databases is even rarer, and in most cases, they are problematic.

For another, the use of databases to study history is by and large in an experimental phase. Some scholars tend to be obsessed with the information provided by the databases, and may believe that databases are a panacea for all problems in historical research. Such a view is apparently too optimistic.

As American writer Darrell Huff and Charles Seifea, a professor of journalism at New York University, warned respectively in How to Lie with Statistics and Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception, we should avoid the blind worship of data.

As we all know, network information technology is reshaping the course of historical studies. However, just as computers cannot replace human intelligence, fancy new technology would never replace historians’ subjective judgment or the basic theory and methods of the discipline.

In sum, to better use modern technology, researchers in the field need to play the leading role. Only in this way will they not lag behind the times, but also help sharpen the relevant technical tools, thus better serving historical research in the future.

Li Bozhong is a professor of history at Peking University.