Unprecedented insights in humanity studies offered by big data technology

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Professor Huang Yi-long, Academician of Academia Sinica, Taiwan, indicated that big data technology may offer rare opportunities for history and literature studies in the latest installment of City University Distinguished Lecture Series on 27 October.

It is possible for researchers to gain insights into previously unknown areas by making use of various online platforms and digitised classical Chinese literature of 8 billion characters.

Before the start of the lecture titled “Dream of the E-Red Chamber: Big Data Impact on Historical Research and Its Opportunities”, Professor Lu Jian, Vice-President (Research and Technology), introduced to the audience how Professor Huang changed his research interest from astronomy to humanities.

In his lecture, Professor Huang used two examples related to the Chinese classical novel Dream of Red Chamber to illustrate how scholars could apply big data technology to humanity studies.

He first discussed the study of an ancient Chinese weight measurement unit xing by citing the phrase “two xing of two kinds of spices” stated in the novel with a demonstration of how to find useful data in voluminous digitised literature. He then showed how to use online platforms such as Taobao for the study of a small steelyard, dengzi.

In the study of the “Painting Album of Cao Zhan the Celery Farmer”, Professor Huang re-created the social circle of Cao Xueqin, the author of Dream of Red Chamber, by examining the digitised pedigree of his clan. With other evidence such as the records of painting auctions, he pointed out that the album might probably be Cao’s only paintings left now.

Professor Huang said that setting appropriate questions was the crux of humanity studies using big data technology. He told young students that perseverance could lead to breakthroughs.

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