We are in the process of creating an experimental digital edition in TEI-XML of an important early Chinese historical text, which is designed to make an intervention in debates over the value of digital techniques and the future of the book. 

Created over the course of the first century by the Ban family of courtiers, the History of the Han (Han shu 漢書) is the single most important source for the Western Han dynasty (205 BCE - 9 CE), when we see a strengthening of the foundations of the Chinese imperial state and a great flourishing in the arts, letters, and sciences. The Han shu stands second in a long line of Chinese “standard histories” (zhengshi 正史), which together cover all of Chinese history from antiquity to the turn of the twentieth century. It is also the first to establish the scope of official historiography—the Ban family of historians limited their subject matter to the preceding dynasty alone, hence another name by which these works are commonly known: dynastic histories. In 100 chapters and with more than 1.2 million Chinese characters (in the text and commentary), the Han shu is massive; indeed, it and the other standard histories are the closest thing the early Chinese world had to “big data.” Its historical importance cannot be overstated, and it is well-suited for digital methods.

Several electronic versions of the Han shu exist, but they have no critical apparatus and make little use of the analytical capabilities of computer scripts. Our project proposes to make a better edition of this text. Over the long term, we will mark up the text according to the standards of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), widely used for encoding and preserving texts. We will build the edition using XRX architecture, which incorporates some of the most recent recommendations by the W3C standards body. XRX is designed around the XML data structure; thus it is better suited for TEI-XML than traditional MySQL-based relational databases. In the short term, the project aims to create a proof of concept with a sample of chapters (between 6 and 12). We also now think a pure “flat-file” solution is best at this stage, so the XRX portion of the project will not be a priority during this cycle.

This edition is also meant to intervene in theoretical debates about the value of digital techniques and the future of the book. Despite polemics by Stanley Fish, Franco Moretti, and others, we think there is no inherent contradiction between close reading and “distant reading,” between reading a text with your eyes and reading a text with your computer scripts. There is no technological reason why a digital edition cannot encourage both of those practices. So we intend to create an edition that is first and foremost readable, yet that also offers analytic tools such as sophisticated searching, interactive maps, and network visualizations.

Scholars of early Chinese history and literature will benefit from having a better electronic text with a robust critical and analytical apparatus. Further, by experimenting with new technologies and by addressing contentious theoretical debates, we intend to make contributions to DH fields, extending interest in this project beyond the fields of early Chinese history and literature. Finally, this project will also contribute to the vibrancy of DH at Berkeley, as it will develop local expertise at the cutting edge of
digital humanities practices.

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