Databases of premodern Chinese manuscripts and languages upped their game. 

And they are playing to win. In a post from 2021, I introduced the database Guyin xiaojiing 古音小鏡 (Little Mirrors for Old Sounds) and gave a very basic overview of some features. It has been growing ever since, at an incredible pace. Exactly how much each individual listed on the introductory page contributes is not stated, although the list has gotten longer.

Guyin xiaojing is not the only database that has grown fast since its beginning. Another favourite website of mine, when working with ancient texts and manuscripts, is The Complete Collection of Ancient and Modern Characters 古今汉字集成. This website is also keeping up with new publications and recoveries and adding data. 

Before reviewing some new additions of the Guyin xiaojing database that should excite scholars of ancient Chinese texts, I decided to offer a short reflection on how well these websites have done for themselves. The yearly Digital Orientalist’s conference is on the topic of Sustainability. As people involved in the digital world as users, contributors, or both, we at the Digital Orientalist wanted to reflect on the longevity of DH projects. Since the developments of Digital Humanities as a field, there has been skepticism in its usage. Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading was criticized as potentially ineffective and harmful in promoting skim reading instead of attentive readings of texts. Debates in the Digital Humanities published in 2016 both endorses the DH as a proper field, but also asks what is next in it. Some 20 years ago, DH seemed to be pervesire; scholars and students were tickled by the idea of jumping on the DH boat and sailing toward their next groundbreaking project. So much that a lot was discussed about the ability of mechanisms of promotion within academia to recognize the value of these groundbreaking studies. But other voices have grown more guarded, such as in this 2020 article titled “Fading away… the challenge of sustainability in digital studies.” 

Naturally, judging how sustainable a DH project is or is not depends on many variables. In the cases of the Guyin xiaojiing 古音小鏡 and The Complete Collection of Ancient and Modern Characters 古今汉字集成, their flourishing is intimately linked to the richness of material continuously recovered in China. The richness of ancient manuscripts has reached a point that it is close to impossible to keep up with their publications and studies. For an organized database project, however, this means a continuous influx of data that keeps the database not only alive but also evolving. There remains the question of how well these databases can and will do at keeping up with new readings and interpretations of ancient graphs. This however can be judged for the most retrospectively, and maybe it should not be judged at all: knowledge should be expected to grow. It’s a sign of a thriving field. 

A second reason behind the sustained engagement with data is individuals’ availability to find time for updates. Like many other projects, the Guyin xiaojiing 古音小鏡 runs on a volunteering basis. The owner, Gu Guolin’s 顧國林, with whom I chatted for this piece, is a computer programmer who loves linguistics and historical linguistics. He put together this website because of this passion, and his perception that interests in these topics is declining in educational spheres. As in many other countries, at the university level the humanities have been suffering in China as well. Even though the decline seems not to be as drastic as it has been in the US, it is also true that study of premodern history and languages is often not maintained beyond the PhD level. (Two of my Chinese friends pursued PhDs in these fields, but only for their own gratification: they never planned to pursue an academic career.) 

Like Gu Guolin, Jerry (the person behind The Complete Collection) also lives outside academia, and runs the website by himself. (It makes you wonder what well-funded projects could do, with some vision and crowdsourced inputs.) Lack of support is clearly detrimental to any projects, digital or not. These two databases rely entirely on input by scholars and laymen who have a passion for the topics, who digitize or transfer data into the projects. Lack of this kind of input may be a reason why these two databases are thriving, while the Multi-function Chinese Character Database 漢語多功能字庫 has been relatively slower in updating thumbnails of words from Warring States manuscripts. 

A related question is that of usage. Access and usage of every database can be monitored, and I would assume that wide usage motivates updates and sustained investment. When libraries are asked to cut budgets, usage of a journal is a major reason to justify the price of a subscription – or its cut. (One of the first things I teach my students is how to use library resources and I make them chase down a PDF, instead of simply sharing the PDF.)

I don’t have many answers when it comes to the longevity of databases. I am grateful to the many contributors all around the world who invest time and energy because of their passions. I am optimistic that, in spite of up-and-downs (or maybe, precisely because of them), the field of DH will continue to define itself and grow more sustainable, not dissimilarly to other fields. 

In the following posts, I will switch gears and go back to being the nerdy scholar of ancient texts and paleography and introduce you to some pretty nice updates. Stay tuned! 

Cover image credit: Alice Casalini

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