From Texts, to Data, and to Visuals: Computational Methods and the Study of the Chinese Political Elite

Song Chen
Harvard University
Personal Website

This paper reflects on the methodology and preliminary findings of an evolving project that seeks to understand how life and social character of China’s political elite changed around the eleventh century, with the aid of computational methods of data mining and visualization. Despite long-standing scholarly interest in the past decades, the overwhelming corpus of biographical materials has limited the scope of existing scholarship to case studies of a special group of the elite (e.g., grand councilors) or the elites of a particular region, which repeatedly raises concerns over the possibility of generalization. The present project addresses this issue by analyzing thousands of tomb inscriptions, which has recently become available as digital texts. It makes use of computer-assisted data mining techniques, based on regular expressions, to mark up and extract data from these texts and then projects them on spatial (ArcGIS) and network analysis (Gephi) platforms. This paper reflects upon the methodology of this project at its early stage, the challenges it faces, and presents preliminary findings. With a series of visual representations, it shows the changing patterns of marriage and epistolary networks of civil officials in this transitional period and their growing tendency to build a power base around their hometowns instead of in the capital.

Song Chen received his Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard in 2011. Since then, he has been an Assistant Professor of Chinese History at Bucknell University. Dr. Chen is on leave this year and taking up a visiting position at Harvard in the spring, where he’s offering a course titled “Chinese History in the Digital Age”, which explores what historians and literature scholars may accomplish with digital tools. In addition, Dr. Chen sits on the steering committee of the China Institute at Bucknell, as well as the steering committee of the China Biographical Database (CBDB) project. 

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