Project Overview

This project was conceived in response to the inadequate representation of the Chinese experience in the theory of pre-modern empires. It specifically aims to examine the role of social and political networking among elites across the Chinese territories in the formation of cultural and political identities, and the correlation between the expansion and contraction of elite communication networks and the integration and disintegration of political entities.

Key objectives of the project include:

  1. analyzing the importance of political communication in the maintenance of empire
  2. analyzing crisis moments in the history of the Chinese Empire in order to determine which factors can best explain the maintenance of empire
  3. demonstrating the utility of digital text analysis, historical geographic information systems, biographical databases, and social network analysis in the development of the historical sociology of imperial China and providing customized tools for the spatial, network, and topical analysis of classical Chinese texts
  4. contributing towards the revitalization of Chinese political history by applying new methods to those sources that best convey individual participation in politics
  5. building and maintaining an online resource centre for the study of imperial Chinese political culture in comparative perspective

Together the project members will engage in the systematic quantitative and qualitative analysis of textual corpora that best convey individuals’ engagement with politics (notebooks and, at a later stage, correspondence circulating in print in large numbers) but which have never been examined in the aggregate and for their relevance to Chinese political culture. They will plot the extent and nature of social and political networks by measuring the frequency of citations of oral and written sources and thematic distributions in notebook entries, by investigating the status, kinship relations, residential and occupational addresses and other biographical data of informants, and will thus reconstruct the social ties embedded in notebooks. Such work will allow us not only to model the exchange of political (and other kinds of) information in imperial China more broadly but also to correlate changes in the imperial Chinese information order with structural changes in elite identities.

Through comparisons with other pre-modern polities the project will also contribute to a broader assessment of the relevance of political communication in the comparative study of pre-modern polities.

A Brief History

In the first phase Hilde De Weerdt developed a database of printed editions of Song Dynasty notebooks. This database, Song biji in Print, now features on the project site. The database contains basic bibliographic information about 121 unique editions of 83 unique titles printed during the Song Dynasty. This project benefited from a British Academy and Economic and Social Research Council Joint Projects with Partner Academies Award (2008).

In the second phase Hilde De Weerdt tested the methodologies at the core of this project on two distinct corpora: the four installments of Wang Mingqing’s 王明清 (1127- ?) Huizhu lu 揮麈錄 (Waving the Duster) and a set of 300 letters written by Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200)[1]. Short stays at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin proved very conducive to making further progress on the analysis of the notebook and on the reporting of the first results[2].

The promising results of these two pilot projects inspired the attempt to expand the scale of the project. Lik Hang Tsui, Chen Yunju, Li Yun-Chung and later You Zixi joined the project and started work on notebooks covering the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. This work was supported by small grants from the British Academy (2010) and the John Fell Oxford University Press Fund (2010). The results of this work will become available in 2013.

This initial work is now being incorporated into a more systematic attempt to tie the digital analysis of notebooks and letters to a longue durée and comparative study of the role of elite political communication in the formation, maintenance, and disintegration of political entities. This phase of the project has been generously funded by a European Research Council grant (2012-2016).

  1. “The Production and Circulation of ‘Written Notes’ (biji).” In Imprimer autrement: Le livre non commercial dans la Chine impériale. Ed. Michela Bussotti and Jean-Pierre Drège. Paris: l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient, 2012, forthcoming. Related digital publication: “The Production and Circulation of ‘Written Notes’ (biji) –Tables and Figures.” 2009-2010. Oxford University Research Archive.↑
  2. “Constructing and Analyzing Information Exchange Networks in Twelfth-Century Song China,” Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, September 21, 2010.↑

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