The Digital Opportunities: Train Students for Historical Research in the Digital Age

Song Chen (Bucknell University)

To train students for research is a challenge. It is more so in the field of non-Western history because of the additional language barriers. The conventional answer to this challenge is translation. Since the late nineteenth century, missionaries and scholars have been translating classical works from Chinese intellectual and literary traditions. Sourcebooks are also compiled in recent decades with the clear goal of making Chinese historical documents accessible to students. This has tremendously benefited those interested in Chinese religion, philosophy, and literature. But materials needed for studying Chinese social history are often scattered in many different sources, thus making the translation approach inefficient.

Recent developments in digital humanities offer an alternative solution. The design of bilingual relational databases on persons and places in Chinese history (China Biographical Database and China Historical GIS), with the assistance of text mining and data visualization technologies, provides a new opportunity for engaging students in research. The biographical database models multiple aspects of a person’s life, such as career in government, kinship relations, and social connections. The historical GIS database traces the evolution of populated places and historical administrative units, specifying the geographical location of each and documenting change in name, administrative hierarchy, and jurisdiction. Together, these databases allow students to ask questions from different angles, build large datasets to answer these questions, and analyze them (quantitatively or visually) on GIS and other platforms, with no prerequisite of language proficiency in classical Chinese and minimal demand for domain knowledge in Chinese history.