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Chinese Local Gazetteers (difangzhi 地方志): Historical Method and Computerized Data Collection and Analysis

April 27, 2015


Ever since the 10th century, a huge number of local gazetteers (difangzhi 地方志) has been produced throughout China. Popular from the time of their publication up until today, local gazetteers have always been important sources of knowledge about a place, as they assemble extensive information on a variety of topics about a locality: geography, infrastructure, local products, customs, population, officials, literature, hydraulics, weather records, disasters, and more. The large quantity of digital versions of local gazetteers available now makes it possible for historians to collect and make new use of the ‘big data’ that this unique genre contains. This workshop brings together historians of China and computer scientists experienced in exploring the possibilities and challenges in working with Chinese local gazetteers.

Triggered by pre-circulated statement papers and short presentations, this workshop critically reflects on the historical role and frame of the data presented in local gazetteers, and explores what new questions can be generated and what new knowledge can be produced when looking at not just dozens but hundreds, thousands, or more of these texts. What can be achieved analytically after transforming the information these texts contain into ‘data’, that is, computer-digestible pieces? What questions would historians ask, if local gazetteers were not prose texts but a big relational database? Can computer scientists design systems that are powerful for specific questions and, at the same time, generic for questions to come? What analytical tools and interactive visualizations are needed for users to explore and understand the tendencies and changes in this stream of data coming from local gazetteers?

Presenters will each introduce a specific case study of close reading or digital analysis and visualization of the Chinese local gazetteers. Discussants will link the case studies to general questions of historical methods, digital analysis, and the future of academic research. GIS and digital tools that are designed to mark up and analyze Chinese texts will also be presented.

Shih-Pei Chen, Digital Content Curator
Martina Siebert, Research Scholar

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