College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
【CLASS RESEARCH】 Digital Approaches to Humanities Research

Many people hold the stereotype of historians as academics devoting all their time reading weighty archives and dusty books to dig out happenings in the past. But even the way historians work change over time. In the digital era, historians still spend a lot of time in libraries and archives, but they also make use of different information systems to deal with the staggering volume of available material and to analyse them digitally. The China Biographical Database (CBDB) is an example of such systems. It is a relational database with biographical information of around 470,000 individuals, mainly from the 7th to the early 20th centuries in China (the Tang to Qing dynasties).

Dr TSUI Lik-hang of CityU’s Department of Chinese and History has been working with digital forms of Chinese historical data for many years. Recently, he published the article “Harvesting Big Biographical Data for Chinese History: The China Biographical Database (CBDB)” in Journal of Chinese History with his collaborator Hongwu Wang, Senior Project Manager of CBDB at Harvard University, giving an overview of the history, applications and importance of developing CBDB. The article is part of a recent special issue on digital humanities, featuring stellar scholars who contributed review essays, research articles, and articles about Chinese digital humanities utilities.

Photo 1: The front page of the China Biographical Database project website.

CBDB originates from the work by the late social historian Robert M HARTWELL, who has created a database of historical figures based on the examples he has collected and studied. He bequeathed his works on more than 25,000 individuals, 4,500 bibliographic entries and historical GIS of China to the Harvard-Yenching Institute and later the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In 2005, American historian and sinologist Peter K BOL of Harvard University initiated a project to make Hartwell’s data publicly available with the joint efforts of Academia Sinica and Peking University. From then on, many academics and research students from the US, China, and beyond had contributed to the project by redesigning the database structure, building computer applications, and revising and expanding the database contents. To provide an extensive coverage of Chinese historical figures, the project team, which Dr Tsui had been part of for years, devised semi-automated methods to digitally and systematically mine data from a humungous amount of texts, often based on primary sources as well as the studies of generations of historians, instead of researching on each individual one by one. 

The 15 years of hard work of the project team turns CBDB into a comprehensive database in terms of temporal coverage and scope. Updates are ongoing, but the latest version already offers a wealth of resources for studying Chinese history. It records biographical information of thousands of historical figures, as well as their kinship and social associations. It also depicts where these men and women lived and studied, and details of their career, such as how they got into the imperial government or other posts and offices they held throughout their lives. Data sources from which CBDB extract its information are indicated for users’ reference and citation.

Photo 2: With CBDB, users can look up the acquaintances of Zhu Xi, a philosopher of the Song dynasty, and plot a social network graph in order to assess his social relationships.

CBDB is more than a biography look-up tool that provides details of individual historical figures. The ways the data is organised within the database also paint pictures of their relationship with other individuals. It means users can grasp the social networks between groups of people, such as political cliques or intellectual networks, as well as the social structure in a particular time or place in Chinese history. For instance, users interested in Neo-Confucian scholars could easily look up the acquaintances of the philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200), or even export the data of his epistolary exchanges to plot them in a social network graph in order to assess his social relationships. With such kinds of data, researchers and students can scale up their research on historical figures and identify interesting issues to examine. Besides conducting analyses based on data, when seeing the patterns that historical data reveal, they often are directed back to the historical texts under concern for deeper reflection.

Apart from being an important research resource, CBDB is also one of the largest digital humanities utilities for Chinese studies and is becoming a fundamental research tool for the fast-growing field. It is available online and as a standalone offline application on the project’s website, in which users can also find more details about the project, supporting documents and more examples. 

Digital technologies allows scholars to approach humanities research in new ways, but this field has an interesting history of its own and one that is longer than we would imagine. According to Dr Tsui’s recent research, experts of Chinese history and literature explored the use of digital media in their study as early as in the 1980s, not long after the encoding for Chinese characters were developed for computers. They put a lot of effort to the digitisation of traditional Chinese works in particular. Dr Tsui excavates this “prehistory” of digital research in the analysis that he presents in the article “Digital Explorations of Chinese Texts before the Digital Humanities: A View of the Prehistory”, to be published by the Newsletter of the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy (Academia Sinica). The early attempts by enterprising humanities scholars to utilise computational tools laid the foundation for the formal emergence of the field of Chinese digital humanities in the mid-2010s, which is discussed in another of Dr Tsui’s recent study, “Charting the Emergence of the Digital Humanities in China.” In this we see again how history is never static, even in the way historians work on their research materials.

Achievements and publication

Tsui, L. H., & Wang, H. (2020). “Harvesting Big Biographical Data for Chinese History: The China Biographical Database (CBDB).” Journal of Chinese History, 4(2), 505-511.

徐力恆 [Tsui, L. H.] “華文學界的數位人文探索:一種「史前史」的觀察角度 [Digital Explorations of Chinese Texts before the Digital Humanities: A View of the Prehistory].” 中國文哲研究通訊 [Newsletter of the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy], Vol. 30, No. 2, forthcoming in 2020.

Tsui, L. H. (2020) “Charting the Emergence of the Digital Humanities in China.” In Chinese Culture in the 21st Century and its Global Dimensions: Comparative and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Kelly Chan Kar Yue and Garfield Lau Chi Sum, 203-16. Singapore: Springer.