Defining and Debating Digital Humanities in China: New or Old?

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Lik Hang Tsui

    Center for Hellenic Studies - Harvard University

  2. 2. Jing Chen

    Nanjing University

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

In the global context, no single unified definition of digital humanities (DH) is possible. The scholarly context that DH was defined and debated in the Greater China region is starkly different from that in Western academia, owing to the unique features of humanities data in Chinese, especially for texts (Mahony, 2019). With special focus on the context and cultural politics of the conditions in which DH emerged and the contestations it encountered, our paper unravels the complex issue of DH emerging as a scholarly field in China from a historical standpoint. In this state-of-the-field investigation, we draw from our experience in running major DH projects in Chinese studies, as well as in building DH communities in China by founding and editing a popular academic blog on DH and moderating online discussion groups on the Chinese social media app WeChat.
The Classical and modern Chinese language presents technical challenges in digitizing, organizing, and mining Chinese texts, for instance, in word segmentation. The amount and heterogeneity of Chinese characters increase the difficulty of mining Chinese texts (Tsui & Wang, 2019). Despite this, DH is hardly a novel approach to Chinese academia. During the 1980-2000s Chinese humanities experts have begun producing computational and corpus linguistic, statistical, and GIS analyses in history, literary, and geographical studies. Examples include stylistic research on the 18
th century novel
The Story of the Stone. Such projects have employed cutting-edge research methods, but did not gain enough currency to be accepted by mainstream humanities scholars. During this “prehistory” of DH for Chinese humanities, there were also large-scale digitization projects on Chinese materials, especially the historical compendium that are the most basic:
Siku quanshu [Complete library of the four treasuries] and the Twenty-five Standard Histories. Database companies, libraries, university departments, and governments have made substantial investments in digitization in the form of R&D for commercial databases, cultural heritage projects, funding for libraries, research grants, etc.

After pioneering scholars Jieh HSIANG, JIN Guantao, and WANG Xiaoguang introduced the concept to China around 2009 (Wang, 2009; Hsiang & Weng, 2011; Jin, 2014), most mainstream humanities experts have been skeptical or have even rejected the academic practices that DH entails. One common misunderstanding about it among Chinese scholars concerns how research questions can directly yield different answers from employing DH tools and methods. Some historians assume that DH research is solely about using quantitative methods (i.e. cliometrics or quantitative history). The value and potential of qualitative inquiry in DH, especially in media studies or visualization-related studies, is rarely noticed. For these researchers, the use of digital tools is merely for acquiring research materials; the further utilization of data that is conventionally recognized as DH research is seriously lacking. Such (mis-)conceptions and practices have prevented Chinese scholars from moving from digitization to deeper-level knowledge discovery and methodological renewal, until the 2010s. In the field of Chinese history, quantitative historians (mostly historical demographers and economic historians), historical geographers, and researchers in prosopography and social networks have gained most from digital advances.
All in all, the paradigm shift in China is slowly taking place, but it is a delayed one given the amount of preparation from the “prehistory” phase. Taking into consideration that many of the elements of DH already existed in Chinese academia, DH should not be taken as a completely novel paradigm for the humanities in China. Since the late 2000s, DH, “Electronic evidential scholarship (
e-kaoju)”, and quantitative history have all become academic buzzwords. Among these digital-related concepts, junior scholars and students in China are increasingly exposed to DH. Several major Chinese universities have set up DH centers that involve the study of digital humanities, or at least its promotion. More institutions have secured funding for research projects that include the building of academic databases. Proprietary databases are already plenty and are dominating the field in China—most scholarly data is owned by commercial companies and made available to scholars through institutional subscribed databases (Tsui, 2016).

Given this amount of investment and input, DH is underdeveloped for the Chinese-speaking world, if we try to trace DH as an emerging trend. According to our analysis of the main theoretical and manifesto-like texts on the DH paradigm in China and the main ongoing projects, we contend that DH has become a canopy term for Chinese scholars to reconceptualize, recatergorize, and repackage old projects and academic practices from the “prehistory” phase examined earlier. Several longstanding text and biographical databases have recently gained widespread attention, partly thanks to online communities on social media. These include the Database for the Study of Modern Chinese Thought and Literature (since 1997) and the China Biographical Database (CBDB) (since 2005) (Bol, 2018). Disciplines are highly institutionalized and centrally governed in China; academic boundaries are rigid. Incentive systems discourage researchers from engaging in DH research, which often disrupts traditional forms of academic publishing. As a result, young DH scholars in China tend to collaborate with like-minded peers that are outside, rather than within their own disciplines. Mainstream senior scholars have only begun reflecting on digital history and the use of databases in history journals since 2016.
To tackle these challenges, several major Chinese universities have set up DH centers and their libraries are beginning to develop DH librarianship. There are also international efforts to construct an infrastructure for connecting digital resources and systems for Chinese history. Since 2015 there have been acclaimed conferences to discuss the scholarly trend of DH, but capacity building events such as workshops that cover vital DH skills are still rare, given the growing demand. Humanities curricula in China usually do not provide the basic skill set that is useful for budding DH work, forcing interested learners to be proactive and daring. Weak support for digital literacy among humanities scholars in China also account for the dearth of DH expertise. Institutions within universities that possess the capacity to provide digital training and research support for such humanities scholars are rare, although libraries have begun to recognize the need to strengthen such efforts (He & Chen, 2018).


Bol, P. (2018). How the digital is changing research and teaching on Asia. 
ASIANetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts, 25(2): 7

Hsiang, J., Weng, C. A. (2011). Reflections on digital humanities: theories and methods 关于数位人文的思考:理论与方法” (in Chinese). In Hsiang, J. (ed.),
The New Vision of Digital Humanities Research数位人文研究的新视野. National Taiwan University Press, pp. 45

He, P., Chen, Y. (2018). Research on the developing approach of digital humanities in the field of library science in China.
Proceedings of the 2018 International Conference on Computer Science, Electronics and Communication Engineering (CSECE 2018), Wuhan, China, Feb. 2018, 541-45.

Jin, G. (2014). The theoretical foundations of digital humanities 数位人文研究的理论基础” (in Chinese). In Hsiang, J. (ed.),
Digital Humanities Research and its Craft 数位人文研究与技艺. National Taiwan University Press, pp. 45

Mahony, S. (2019). Cultural diversity and the digital humanities.
Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences, 11(3): 371

Tsui, L. H. (2016). The digital humanities as an emerging field in China.
Asia Dialogue. (accessed 29 April 2019).

Tsui, L. H., Wang, H. (2019). Semi-automating the transformation of Chinese historical records into structured biographical data. In Wong, R., Li, H., Chou, M. (eds),
Digital Humanities and Scholarly Research Trends in the Asia-Pacific. IGI Global, 2019, pp. 228

Wang, X. (2010). The emergence, development, and current trends in digital humanities 数字人文”的产生、发展与前沿” (in Chinese). In
Methodological Innovation and the Development of Philosophical and Social Sciences 方法创新与哲学社会科学发展. Wuhan University Press, pp. 207

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.