First International Workshop on Biographical Databases in Chinese Studies


Friday, November 21, 2008, 4:15pm to Sunday, November 23, 2008, 5:00pm

First International Workshop on Biographical
Databases in Chinese Studies


Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, November 21–23, 2008
Organized by Peter Bol, Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Director of the Center for Geographic analysis, Harvard University

The Workshop was convened by the China Biographical Database Project of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, the Institute of History and Philology of the Academia Sinica, and the Center for Premodern Chinese History of Peking University.

The conference bought together scholars from Taiwan, China, Japan, Europe, and the United States who have been working on biographical databases for the study of China. Experts in markup methodology and the computational analysis of unstructured text also participated. The workshop addressed both practical issues relating to databases and historical issues relating to the use of biographical data to develop new insights into China’s history.

Biography has been one of the major forms for the recording of the past in China since the Han dynasty. It is estimated that there are 250,000 biographies in various formats in the Chinese historical record. To this may be added biographical references in multiple sources: lists of examination degree recipients from the Song through the Qing, records of local officials and students in local gazetteers, official appointment lists in the Qing, etc. In contrast to study of policy, institutions, the economy, and fiscal history, biography draws our attention to the relationships between people and the possibilities for and constraints on individual agency.

Biography as a way of thinking about and remembering the past has a very long history, represented most systematically in modern research by the biographical dictionaries for the Republican, Qing, Ming, and Song periods and the various indices for biographical materials.

Over the last 20 years, the use of relational databases to compile and analyze relationships in data and the ongoing transformation of historical texts into searchable digital files has led to the creation of a number of person-based databases. Examples include the Tang Historical Figures Database at Kyoto University, the Ming Qing Archive Name Authority Database at Academia Sinica, the Ming Qing Women’s Writings at McGill University, China Vitae for the Leadership of China Today, and the China Biographical Database at Harvard, as well as many other individual and collaborative projects.

The workshop had three goals: first, to give creators of databases an opportunity to introduce their projects, which extend from the Han Dynasty into the present day; second, to explore means by which online systems can be made interoperable so that users of one system will have access to relevant information in other systems; and third, to introduce new computational techniques for extracting data from Chinese texts, thus greatly increasing the ability of databases to add to their content.

For further information, contact Peter Bol at or visit the workshop website.