SOAS University of London

Centre of Korean Studies

Intellectual History and Computing: Digital Approaches to the Study of Korean Confucianism

Dr. Javier Cha

Date: 9 February 2018Time: 5:15 PM

Finishes: 9 February 2018Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: B111

Type of Event: Seminar


This talk demonstrates the use of computational methods to discover hidden collectives and communities from Korean historical data. The overarching question is derived from the intellectual history of early modern Korea, which was defined by the coalescence of several schools of Neo-Confucian thought and literary movements. Such developments took place at a time of increasing localization of population, material resources, state institutions, and culture. In the existing body of research, the connections between the material and ideational aspects of the yangban aristocracy have been unclear, owing in large part to the undue attention given to a small number of famous personalities, source materials, and locations. Can this skewed picture be redrawn from the bottom-up, through a more balanced and fuller use of empirical data? Fortunately for social scientifically-minded historians of Korea, the government of South Korea has aggressively funded the digitization of cultural heritage. Access to this “big data” has allowed me to embark on a critique of existing reified generalities with large-scale data analysis. This kind of data also demands a new type of research concerning social, cultural, and historical entities which may not yet have been identified and therefore not yet been given a label. The data are drawn from two sources: (1) 50,000 civil service examination degree holders and their extended kin and (2) 198 million Sinitic characters of writing extracted from 1200 collected works. The pilot run has already revealed a surprising assemblage of yangban aristocrats interconnected via complex ties of patronage and marriage. As the method gets refined, and more data gets added and cleaned, I expect to discover other hidden entities and groupings. Finally, I will explain the theoretical and philosophical implications of historical entity discovery through computing by engaging with the works of social scientists and philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Manuel DeLanda, Norbert Elias, Zhuangzi, and Su Shi.

Speaker Biography

Javier Cha is an assistant professor of East Asian Studies in the College of Liberal Studies at Seoul National University. Before moving to South Korea, he worked in the Netherlands and Hong Kong. As a historian of medieval and early modern Korea, he is interested in the social, philosophical, and geopolitical factors that contributed to Korea’s adoption of the Confucian tradition. Cha is also committed to experimenting with computational methods in historical studies. His current project in digital history involves the discovery of unidentified assemblages using the agnatic and affinal data of 50,000 individuals and the automated classification of 198 million characters worth of writing. In addition to macrohistorical research, Cha has been dabbling in anthropological history in the Annales sense, capturing local knowledge and information using high-resolution photographs, audiovisual sources, and drone footage.

Organiser: SOAS Centre of Korean Studies

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