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Javier Cha on the uses of digitised historical data

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Last night at SOAS there was a choice of two early evening events to start the weekend.

I only heard about the appearance of South Korean queer artist and activist Heezy Yang (aka Hurricane Kimchi) two hours before the event, and I had already prepared myself mentally for the Centre of Korean Studies seminar on Digital Approaches to the Study of Korean Confucianism. I’m sorry to have missed out on Hurricane Kimchi (again) but sure am glad I went along to hear Javier Cha.

Cha explained how in the aftermath of the IMF crisis the Korean government decided to invest in its information infrastructure, pouring billions of Won into the digitising of historical records, indexing them, marking them up with html-like tags and making them searchable. Joseon dynasty bureaucrats were consummate recorders of things. The Sillok is probably the best-known (and most readable?) product of this useful habit, but there are countless other less obviously readable records, such as lists of successful candidates in the civil service exam, which have been included in the project. One scholar who was a pioneer in this digitisation process was Kim Hyeon – who gave a talk at SOAS over 10 years ago.

Cha’s talk demonstrated the use to which the thorough analysis of data can be put. All these studies involve years of analysis, most of which is taken up with scrubbing the data downloaded from the database, or producing results which don’t initially make much sense. But as the study progresses some fascinating results can emerge.

Analysing texts for senior officer holders during the Goryeo dynasty casts light on the shifting fortunes of the different clans during the era: while membership of the aristocracy in the Silla kingdom was defined by law via the bone-rank system, success in Goryeo was less defined, and determined among other things by marriage ties. The lack of a rigid structure, and the risk of purges, meant that only four clans remained prominent throughout the dynasty, while around twenty families who were powerful at the start of the dynasty faded from prominence, to be replaced by a similar number of other clans (including the Andong Kims) who preserved their influence into the Joseon dynasty.

Other records highlight how one particular clan dominated relations with the royal family through intermarriage – until the clan fell out of favour. Another study illustrates that one of the best ways to succeed as a yangban in the Joseon dynasty is to move to Seoul and intermarry with other clans. The complex web of family relationships that Cha’s software generated looked like nebula photographed by the Hubble space telescope. You longed to zoom in to the cloud of connections to see it in more detail.

The data from the government-sponsored digitisation project has been made freely available online since 2014 (at least, to Korean nationals) at, marking a contrast with China (where the database are in the ownership of commercial organisations who charge for their use) or Japan (where the data is closely guarded by particular universities).

Future mining of the various texts could cast light on literary history (through textual analysis software, the likely authorship of particular text can be determined) or art history (by reviewing the names of the elite who commission artworks).


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