China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

1 - Big Data in Modern China: On Liang Qichao's Invention of "Historical Statistics"

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Washington Room 2, Exhibit Level

This paper revisits the invention and development of “historical statistics” (lishi tongjixue) in modern China. Originally proposed by Liang Qichao in 1922, the method derives data from text to statistically analyze it and produce historical facts. It inspired numerous projects in its day, in particular the work of the historian Wei Juxian, Liang’s student at Tsinghua. Largely overlooked since then, historical statistics is worth considering today in light of the rise of the digital humanities and new, data-driven considerations of narrative forms. Appearing in a historical continuum preceding the Annales School and cliometrics, this early quantitative methodology raises questions about the conditions for its own development. I show how historical statistics emerged within the dynamically interdisciplinary field of “national studies,” within which Liang framed his method as a combination of statistics with the Qing tradition of evidentiary scholarship—far more than a derivative application of Western statistical science to Chinese historiography. My talk explores this syncretism by focusing on how Liang and Wei recast the biao (table) as a longstanding tool of data analysis, whose primary affordance was the organization of textual data extracted from linear texts such as the General Histories (tongshi) and the Spring and Autumn Annals. Ultimately, the history of historical statistics offers new possibilities both for a revisionist account of “data” in both imperial and modern China, and for intervening in the prevalent notion that the digital humanities constitutes a set of protocols purely Western—or “universal”—and exclusively computational.

Anatoly Detwyler

Columbia University, New York


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1 - Big Data in Modern China: On Liang Qichao's Invention of "Historical Statistics"

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