The digital humanities (DH) encompass a variety of methodological innovations that have become increasingly popular among humanists. Although DH is proving quite effective as a means of studying human culture, scholars of imperial Chinese studies in the western academy are still coming to grips with what mass digitization and the prospect of quantitative analysis means for the field at large.
Historians of China were the first in the field to realize the potential of computer-aided research. They began creating large databases of historical information amenable to quantitative analysis very early. In the 1970s, Charles Hartwell was among the first to realize computers’ potential, when he first began storing prosopographical data in a database. Among literary scholars, the first digital efforts focused on digitizing texts, but the transformed documents were often not as clearly amenable to digitally aided analysis.
In recent years, historians of imperial China have readily engaged with both social network analysis and GIS (geographic information systems). The value of conceptually and geographically mapping historical information was clear at an early stage, and sophisticated software has made this analysis easy to perform. In combination with accessible geographical and social data, available through places such as the University of Michigan’s China Data Center, Harvard University’s Center for geographic analysis, or data derived from databases like the China Biographical Database Project, there has been a flowering of projects that effectively leverage these methods.