Commentary RESEARCH

Digitization is a national strategy


2020-01-03 08:21

Rong Xinjiang
Chinese Social Sciences Today

This is a digital age. But for China, I think the age has started a little slowly. I have been engaged in Dunhuang studies for a long time. In this field, some publishing houses made many black-and-white image catalogues, such as those for Dunhuang texts housed in Britain, France and Russia. But while China was making these image catalogues, the UK was already conducting the International Dunhuang Project (IDP). In fact, the British have not made a great contribution to Dunhuang studies, but they have made a great contribution to the digitization of Dunhuang documents, which implies a forward-looking mindset. 

In the discussion on the publication plan of ancient books during the 13th Five-Year Plan period, all the publishing houses decided in advance how many ancient books should be published in the next five years. In fact, there are not so many ancient books that can be sorted out for publishing. At the time, I put forward that, instead of doing this, why not digitize ancient books and use those national funds offered for ancient books to support Zhonghua Book Company and other institutions to take the lead in digitizing? However, three editor-in-chiefs opposed the idea for the reason that digitized books would be hard to sell. 

But today, we are living in an era that is open, and it is high time to implement digitization. The Zhonghua Book Company has already begun to take the lead in book digitization. In fact, the digitization of ancient books does not affect the issue of printed versions. And sound digitization means more books to be bought by libraries, which would actually produce a good economic benefit. The digital resources of ancient books are quite convenient for academic use, but compared with foreign countries, China’s digitization in this area has been slow.

However, many hands make light work. Once this job has been initiated, it will be performed at a fast pace. Digitization is a national strategy and the lifeblood of a country. Susan Whitfield (whose Chinese name is Wei Hong), the head of the IDP, intends to build a Dunhuang digital empire, which she controls by pooling all digital resources into Britain. So this is a matter of national strategy.

After my speech at that time, the Chinese scholar Cheng Yizhong (who once worked in Zhonghua Book Company) wrote a letter to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, stressing that digitization is a national strategy and all of its aspects should be controlled by we Chinese, including the right to upload the original data. Although ancient books are a common resource of the whole world, we still have to conduct its digitization work ourselves no matter who else has done it. Having realized the importance of digitization very early, Professor Liu Junwen from the History Department of Peking University is very insightful. Now he has built up a huge digital resource of ancient books, which, though a personal project with some quality problems, attracts foreign institutions to purchase from his large database. 

In addition, I suggest that the job of ancient book digitization cooperate more with academic circles and researchers, who also have a large demand for digitization. Moreover, the research on texts and materials related to the Belt and Road (B&R) initiative, especially the Maritime Silk Road, depends a lot on local libraries in Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. If the national funding for these libraries is prioritized to digitize the pertinent ancient books about the B&R, it will give great initiative to this research field. 

This article was edited and translated from China Culture Daily.Rong Xinjiang is a professor from the Department of History at Peking University. 



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