Fairbank Center awarded Harvard Global Institute Grant

An initiative to promote the adoption of digital tools and practices in all fields of Chinese studies has received a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the Harvard Global Institute.

The Digital China Initiative, established at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies in the mid 2010s, will use these funds to develop and disseminate new research tools and methods, convene experts, train students and faculty, and coordinate existing activities in digital Chinese scholarship across all of Harvard’s Schools. The project is led by historians Peter K. Bol, Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Michael A. Szonyi, Frank Wen-Hsiung Wu Professor of Chinese History and Director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Working with colleagues in China and at other Chinese studies centers around the world, they aim to develop the next generation of digital tools for work in all fields of Chinese studies, train a new generation of innovators in methods of digital scholarship, and expand research on China’s complex and evolving contemporary digital culture.

The project will have an impact not only on the field of China studies; it will also contribute to scholarly connections on a global scale and to securing the free flow of information and knowledge. Bol sees “the Digital China Initiative as a means to further develop our engagement with China and to advance China studies. At a time when digital approaches to scholarship are expanding rapidly, and when China’s re-emergence as a powerful actor in world affairs demands our attention, this initiative is a project of both great intellectual and strategic importance to the University and the field of Chinese studies.”

Since the early 20th century, Harvard has been a leading center of China studies in the West, most notably with the 1955 foundation of what would later become the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In recent years, the digital revolution has provided new methods of teaching and scholarly communication, tools for collecting and analyzing large amounts of data, and a global infrastructure for communicating and sharing information. Harvard has remained at the forefront of these trends and is currently responsible for more major open-access contributions to digital China studies than any university in the West and more open-access online teaching about China than any university.

However, keeping up with trends in digital scholarship has become even more critical in recent years, as shifting geopolitical and public health realities have forced many scholars of Chinese studies to do their research outside China. Given the complexities of the Chinese writing system and its differences from Western languages, the tools that have been developed for text mining, data analysis and visualization, and other digital scholarship need to be adapted and refined so they can be used to process Chinese texts. Such work will have broad implications for all scholarly work that bears on China. According to Szonyi, “As knowledge of China and the use of Chinese-language materials become more widespread and more integral across disciplines, advances in digital tools will support all types of studies involving Chinese materials, regardless of field. Our work to advance digital studies will benefit not only scholars working in the traditional fields of China studies, such as Chinese history, literature, and religion, but also for work on China’s economic development, business, law, public health, and land-use planning and architecture, to name only a few areas.”

This grant will help the Fairbank Center, as the University’s primary home for the study of China, to make investments in those digital tools and the expertise to maintain them. Bol and Szonyi have consulted with dozens of scholars across Harvard with research interests in China to identify the most pressing needs the funding should address. These include support for current research, travel, and training for students and scholars across the University and the development of a set of digital tools and databases to support Chinese text translation and analysis and online scholarship on China.

The funds will come from the Harvard Global Institute (HGI), established in October 2015 at the recommendation of a faculty committee on Harvard’s international activities. Its launch was made possible through the support of Wang Jianlin, chairman of Beijing-based Wanda Group. Since 2015, it has supported innovative, cross-disciplinary research initiatives that bring faculty and students together to examine pressing global challenges and share their knowledge with the world. HGI’s grants have deepened Harvard’s global engagement and fostered research into topics that, while focused mainly on China, transcend disciplinary and regional boundaries. HGI’s grant to the Digital China Initiative will be the final one made from the award.

Provost Alan Garber writes, “Since 2015, the grants made by the Harvard Global Initiative have offered the opportunity for faculty and students across Harvard to come together, research our most urgent challenges, and share their solutions with the world. I look forward to seeing how the results of this ambitious program will shape, direct, and redefine Harvard’s scholarly engagement with China and the field of Chinese studies in the coming years.”

Bol and Szonyi have expressed appreciation for the grant, noting that it will provide an essential boost for the Digital China Initiative and position Harvard to remain a leader in all fields of China-related research as the scholarly landscape grows increasingly digital in the coming decades.