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How can we explain the continuity of Chinese empires? Dr Hilde De Weerdt with her project "Chinese Empire" revisits this big question in world history.

Moving beyond the comparison of early world empires (China and Rome) to explain the different courses Chinese and European history have taken, the project aims to assess the importance of political communication in the maintenance of empire.

Dr Weerdt asks whether and how communication networks and identities formed during the last period of lasting multi-state rule played a role in later Chinese history. The core question is thus twofold:

  • How can the continuity of empire in the Chinese case be best explained?
  • Does the nature and extent of political communication networks, measured through the frequency and multiplexity of information exchange ties, play a critical role in the reconstitution and maintenance of empire?

The methodology is based on the conviction that an investigation of the nature and extent of political communication in imperial Chinese society should include a systematic quantitative and qualitative analysis of the rich commentary on current affairs in the hundreds of notebooks and tens of thousands of letters written between roughly 1000 and 1300.

In the first two years of the project, the team focused on developing tools and researching data. They have created and made available MARKUS, an online platform for the markup and extraction of information embedded in large corpora of classical Chinese texts. They have also started developing visualization tools of the data thus extracted allowing researchers to create maps, networks, tables, and timelines of their data.

The project has a potential to radically transform our understanding of the history of Chinese political culture and inspire wide-ranging methodological innovation across the humanities. It can also contribute to a broader assessment of the relevance of political communication in the comparative study of pre-modern polities.