Digital Humanities and the Study of Asia, Part I

Asian Studies
Submitted by Antonio Terrone, ATLA East Asia Metadata Analyst 

On March 22-25 this year Washington, DC, hosted the 34th annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), the largest association of scholars dedicated to the study of Asia. According to the organizers, this was the largest meeting in the history of the AAS with close to four thousand registered participants speaking for the continually growing relevance of the study of Asia. The more than 443 panels organized for the event offered a plethora of thematic issues for scholarly exchange, analysis, and discussion. The vibrancy of Asian studies could also be seen by simply visiting the colorful and creative publishers and vendors’ exhibit hall. More than ninety vendors from various parts of the world gathered in DC, to offer a sample of not only recent publications, but also of trends and innovations in the field of Asian studies, scholarly communications, and data preservation. While satisfying the intellect shopping for publications, databases, and publishers’ offers, the fortunate visitors at the AAS book expo could also have a chance to appreciate a touch of Japanese elegance and aesthetic beauty at the tea ceremony offered by the Kinokuniya Bookstores, and a taste of European food at Brill Publisher’s stand, which offered complimentary selection of the best Dutch cheese, bread, and wine!

Beyond scholarly publication and academic conversations, the AAS conference was also home to a three-day Film Expo in partnership with Asian Educational Media Service (AEMS), a database service based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Considering the increasing use of audio video and visual materials in classrooms, multimedia resources about Asia promise to continue to be a major source of knowledge to understand Asian cultures and people, while assisting educators with creative tools to teach about Asia. The screenings included some twenty-six documentary and independent films on issues reflecting contemporary life in Asia ranging from the nuclear disaster in Japan, freedom and democracy in Myanmar, and art and politics in China, to women and climate change in Bay of Bengal’s Sundarbans forest, and the struggle for Tibetan children’s education in remote Himalayas.

Based on my experience at the AAS, this article provides an overview of and commentary on these trends, focusing on two broad features that stood out there and that I find indicative of the current scholarly climate, including “Digital Technologies in Asian Studies” and “Asian Studies Librarianship.” First, in this article, we will look at the broader discussion related to the digital technology and data science in the field of Asian studies. Second, in the forthcoming issue of the ATLA Newsletter, I will look at librarianship and library informatics.

Asian Studies

(Left to right) Dr. Fenggang Yang, Dr. Jonathan E. E. Pettit, and Dr. Charles Chang at the “Big Data Analysis of Chinese Religions on Social Media Under Xi Jinping Regime” panel at the AAS 2018.

Data, Digitization, and Technology

Although the growth and importance of digital humanities have long been visible in the academic study of Asia, this year’s AAS meeting was particularly generous in offering proof of the undeniable prominence of the digital and communication technology and its applications in understanding Asian cultures and societies. While offering a platform for scholarly conversations on various aspects of Asian societies including politics, religion, literature, and history, there were numerous opportunities for scholars, librarians, and Asia analysts to offer valuable insights into the use and challenges of quantitative research methods, digitization, and library informatics emerging in this new era.

One feature of these ongoing developments in the field of digital humanities that is particularly strong in Asian studies is the increasingly collaborative and mutually supportive relationship between scholarly research and specialized librarianship. Several panels provided venues for an innovative conversation about this — more than fifty panels were specifically focused on digital humanities in the study of Asia. To mention just a few, panels included:

  • “Opportunities and Concerns: Collaborations between Scholars and Librarians in the Digital Era”
  • “Beyond Digitization, Cross-Specialization”
  • “The China Biographical Database Project: Collaboration Between Research Projects and Libraries in Addressing Digital Humanities Challenges”
  • “Digital Humanities and New Directions in Studying East Asian Art and Architecture”
  • “Big Data Analysis of Chinese Religions on Social Media Under Xi Jinping Regime”
  • “Rethinking Asian Studies Librarianship”

Digital Technologies in Asian Studies

Most people in academia would agree that humanistic scholarship is highly dependent on new resources and research tools to bring updated methods for sound critical scholarly research and reflection. Not only is the field of Digital Humanities expanding and claiming increased attention in academic and scholarly productions, other categories including big data mining and analysis, social media research, and media technologies are also receiving robust consideration. With numerous intellectual activities, communication exchanges, social interactions, and information as well as educational work now being conducted on the Internet, digital technology has not just drastically grown, it has reshaped how we archive, access, and analyze knowledge in and from every part of the world.

As an example, the case of the “Oral Bhutan Project” at the Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research aiming to preserve and promote the rich Buddhist culture of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan offers an eye-opening example of the successful use of new technologies and digital resources in remote areas of our planet. Another notable example of digital technology innovation is the recent “A Digital Publishing Initiative” at Stanford University Press that provides a new way to visualize, analyze, and interpret data. These models of publishing are becoming more widespread for many reasons. First, they allow information published electronically and on the web (websites, blogs, e-readers, and so forth) to reach a wider audience with marketing advantages and lower costs. More importantly, they offer new technical advantages as well, including loosened editorial restrictions (no paper, fewer space/length constraints, limitless publication of photos, images, and pictures); enhanced interactivity (hyperlinked passages, combination of video and imaging, possibilities of online editing and so forth); and new opportunities for making unconventional items available. An example of this latter case is the emerging field of computational social sciences, where computers are employed not only to automatically analyze content in various media, but also to model, simulate, and analyze social phenomena as in data mining and social network analysis.

Working with Computation Technologies

One of the highlights at this year’s AAS was a working group specifically exploring which directions digital humanities is taking in the field of Asian studies. The “Digital Technologies in Asian Studies Working Group” was organized with this intent and the enthusiastic participation it garnered was a sign of the relevance of digital humanities and computational social sciences in many fields of academia. A growing number of scholars are dedicating their efforts to disseminate knowledge and encourage conversations on the continually changing world of computation technologies. What is at stake in this endeavor is not only information accessibility, distribution, and preservation, but also the survival of humanities itself. It is the awareness that research is being increasingly mediated through digital technology and emerging new media, thus combining creativity and academic credibility. The leading scholars behind the working group concluded that the time has matured for the AAS to set up a specific forum within its institutional authority to facilitate research, communication, and training in new technological tools and to assist in discussions on new directions. One of the prominent scholars in this initiative is Dr. Jeffrey R. Tharsen, University of Chicago Lead Computational Scientist for the Digital Humanities, who specializes in Chinese language and literature. In his work, mostly focused on linguistics, philology, and literature, he pairs information technologies and computational methodologies with the study of Asian humanities.

Data Science and Artificial Intelligence in Publishing

The roundtable resulted in a series of requests, suggestions, and needs among the participants that will be then organized in a formal document to present to the AAS commission to create a new session dedicated to Digital Asian Studies. This would include a request for a webpage that will function as a hub for its members. The meeting participants discussed several technical issues as well as potential themes for future discussion. The organizers compiled a list of topics suggested for further development as panels in forthcoming AAS meetings. Although the list is too long to reproduce fully here, for a glimpse, suggestions included:

  • “Dataverse and Dataverse Repositories (The Dataverse Project)”
  • “GIS Technology”
  • “Social Media Analysis”
  • “Text Modeling
  • “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) in Asia Studies”
  • “Asian Languages Normalization for Cataloguing & Indexing”
  • “Database Normalization”
  • “Database Beginner’s Guide Workshops”
  • “Data Camp (Statistical and Machine Learning Technologies)”
  • “The Science of Faceted/Controlled Vocabulary”
  • “Exhibition and Showcases of DH Projects”
  • “IP and Property Rights in the Digital Era”
  • “Vendors Presentations”

Machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) were two ideas that excited the most participants. Data science is undoubtedly receiving energy and attention, and how to put AI into practice in digital publishing seems to be defining future strategies in many fields.

Read part two on Asian Studies Librarianship in the next issue of the ATLA Newsletter.

Caption for featured image: A moment of grace and elegance in the Japanese art of tea serving at the AAS 2018 (photo credit: author)

Antonio Terrone (PhD) is a specialist of religion and politics in China and East Asia and serves as an East Asia Metadata Analyst for ATLA since 2016.

One Response to Digital Humanities and the Study of Asia, Part I

Leave a Reply