An Analytical History of the Early Years of Digitising Chinese Historical Sources (1980-2009): The View from Five Foundational Database Projects

Project: Research

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In this digital era, scholarly research, including that of China’s historians, is profoundly affected by digital technologies. A wealth of digitised material is amassing, and digital tools are becoming more powerful. Using computers to digitise historical sources, however, is not new and has a history of over 40 years in the Greater China region. This proposed project will analyse the development of early digitisation efforts within the Chinese humanities and investigate digitisation activities from the 1980s, when computers first became more widespread in Greater China, until the formal emergence of the digital humanities paradigm there in 2009. This 30-year foundational phase constitutes the ‘prehistory’ of the Chinese digital humanities. Both the large amount of source material and the linguistic features of Classical Chinese present unique technical challenges when digitising, organising, and processing texts. The 1980–2009 period was a phase during which scholars addressed those challenges and paved the way for more sophisticated digital research. Based on first-hand perspectives and materials, this project conducts case studies of five foundational digitisation projects that occurred during this time. In-depth interviews with relevant retiring individuals will be conducted to gain timely perspectives on the construction of the electronic databases and tools that, today, are crucial for studying China’s history. These early digitisation projects digitised fundamental historical sources from premodern China, such as the ‘Twenty-five Standard Histories’ and the _Siku quanshu_. Rather than assuming that the development of digital research databases and tools occurred as linear processes, this project will investigate how such digital utilities came into being through difficult negotiations between early digital humanists and the relevant humanistic and technical decisions made by scholars and database architects. In so doing, this perspective on early Chinese digital explorations enables us to examine the impact of digital technologies on Chinese historical research from within the humanities field, which has previously almost always been interpreted from outside the field. The digitisation of Chinese historical material was far from a purely technical matter; it benefitted from extensive input from experts in traditional Chinese culture. Digitisation also poses issues for humanities scholars regarding the formation, representation, and reorganisation of knowledge. These collaborative input and issues will be explored in the project as part of the prehistory of Chinese digital humanities. This research will allow historians to examine both the humanistic and technical aspects of this critical phase of premodern China scholarship, and more importantly, their intersections.


Project number9043453
Grant typeGRF
StatusNot started
Effective start/end date1/01/23 → …