Convincing DH: Jing Hu, “Mining networks in MARKUS: A study of Chosŏn interpreters’ trade networks in Qing China”

With the proliferation of digital tools and databases meant to engage a wide range of users from the serious scholar to the emerging undergraduate, many tutorials have sprung up online to help people use these tools with various levels of complexity. For example, you can easily find a plethora of YouTube videos that will show you, step by step, how to perform sentiment analysis on a textual corpus in R or blog posts on how to georeference historical maps. These tutorials are valuable if you already have a good idea about the scope of your project, how your dataset will be structured, and the questions you want to ask.  

However, for many humanists and graduate students who are told that they should “look into incorporating Digital Humanities into their work,” the very first barrier to entry is not so much how, but more fundamental: what does that look like? In this post, I’d like to share an example of scholarship where digital methods were used to address gaps in traditional scholarship on Qing-Chosŏn trade and discuss how network analysis was used to show the centrality of interpreters in the non-official trade between Qing and Chosŏn tribute embassies. 

Published just last month in the International Journal of Digital Humanities, Jing Hu’s study mining Chosŏn envoys’ travelogues (Yŏnhaengnok 燕行錄) uses the text annotation tool MARKUS and the research platform DocuSky to illuminate various types of trade that was engendered by the Chosŏn tribute missions to Qing during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her work is noteworthy in that it clarifies specific details of a trading ecology that previous scholarship was only able to outline or characterize through individual case studies. This is because traditional methods such as the close reading of a set of texts is time consuming and yields unavoidably selective results. By leveraging the computational power of relational databases that draw upon a large text corpus of machine-readable data, Hu is able to offer a holistic view of Qing and Chosŏn trading activities surrounding tribute missions. 

Critical to her project, and to all digital humanities projects in general, is the careful organization and annotation of her sources. Hu describes at length her selection of texts and the logic of her tags and markups. She also outlines the ontology that she created for the connections between her tagged entities which fall under the categories of people, places, and objects. This ontology is central to her relational markup where she identifies trade-related links with trigger words such as “bought” and “brokered.”

What interested me most about her analysis was her use of K-MARKUS, the Korean version of MARKUS. MARKUS is a digital text annotation and analysis platform that features plug-ins from a wide array of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean historical datasets with strong emphasis on classical Chinese. Featuring machine-readable full texts from leading Korean organizations such as the Academy of Korean Studiesthe Institute for the Translation of Korean Classics and the National Institute of Korean History, K-MARKUS offers the ease of working with a large quantity of premodern Korean texts within one environment. Its automated tagging and identification of Korean named people, places, bureaucratic titles, and book titles, also provides a tremendous amount of ready-made data for researchers to work with. This powerful and wide-reaching tool demands its own post and will be featured in an upcoming post. For now, I will just say that K-MARKUS’s automated annotation of named entities in premodern Chinese and Korean sources helped expedite Hu’s markup process considerably.

K-MARKUS’s compatibility with the Gephi platform allowed her to easily convert her textual data into network visualizations. These build on the connections between her tagged entities and the types of relationships they are linked by. Through the visualization, it becomes clear that interpreters functioned as a key node in the movement of traded goods through various intermediaries. One of her key findings is how central the interpreters of Chosŏn envoys were to the trade of contraband goods such as horses, books, and red ginseng. The analysis showed that through collaboration between interpreters, Qing merchants, and Chosŏn smugglers, a whole economy of official and non-official trade proliferated along the land route from the Korean peninsula to Beijing. Though analogue scholarship had obliquely pointed to such activities, Hu’s textual analysis of a large set of travelogues allowed her to flesh out the specifics of this cross-cultural trade.

Hu’s project struck me as a particularly successful case where a scholar was able to leverage the computational capabilities of digital tools as well as the aggregate availability of digitized texts to really make an argument about both the zoomed in features and the macro-scale social and cultural situation of Qing and Chosŏn trade. The article itself is easily accessible online and if you are looking for inspiration for DH related work or information about Chosŏn Korea, I would encourage anyone to read it.


Jing Hu, “Mining networks in MARKUS: A study of Chosŏn interpreters’ trade networks in Qing China,” International Journal of Digital Humanities (2022).

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