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“Arteries of the Empire: Relays in the Frontier Region of Qing China” by Tian Xia

Mapping Qing Relay Stations

The project first started as a small mapping job that I did for an Amherst professor. My original task was to map an 18th century jade smuggling route that went from Sinkiang to coastal China. Along the way of extracting information out of Chinese historical archives and plotting them with ArcGIS, I noticed that the smuggling routes overlapped a great deal with Qing China’s relay routes, especially in the frontier regions, and I became more interested in the inner workings of the Qing relay system.

Tian Xia

During the Qing dynasty, the large network of postal and military stations, connecting the ruling kernel with China proper, Manchuria, Mongolia, Sinkiang and Tibet, were venues of information and military logistics for monitoring the empire, and also routes which officials, scholars, merchants traveled. I felt that if I could transform the system into a GIS database, it would be an invaluable research foundation on which future investigations into Qing commercial or cultural history could be built. My project since then has been one of retracing these routes. I will give a very brief technical overview of the backstage process here.

Data Aggregation

Throughout the semester, my focus has been on collecting data on relay points and identifying their geolocations. The main primary source that I used was The Jiaqing Administrative Code of the Qing Dynasty (Jiaqing Huidian 嘉慶會典). My initial plan was to extract the information using OCR and then geocoding the raw data with a Google API. However, most of the OCR software that I tried was quite abysmal at discerning Chinese characters that were oriented vertically. I tinkered around a lot with various software parameters and have even thought of writing my own OCR specialized for this purpose but to no avail. In the end, I decided that for my data size, it was faster to have a flawed OCRed result and then eyeball the data for corrections. Geocoding was also pretty challenging: the Google API could only identify place names that had not changed since the Qing period and I had to do a lot of textual research in travel logs and gazettes to uncover the present-day location. For anyone interested, Xiao fang hu zhai yu di cong chao (小方壺齋輿地叢鈔) is a good source to look into.

In the frontier regions (Mongolia, Manchuria, Tibet & Sinkiang), it was another set of problems. Traditionally, there has not been a lot of historical sources on these regions, and unlike China Proper where changes in the administrative division can be traced after some searching, many of the places in the frontier region had already vanished in history without a trace. Harvard’s CHGIS was quite helpful in locating many relay points but there were still large gaps in the data that I had to fill in manually, with the aid of old maps, most of them Japanese Gaihozu maps from the 1920s-1930s. By transforming the coordinates of raster maps and overlaying them on a Google terrain map (like the one below), I was quite able to locate an approximate position.

A visual presentation of the beta stage site that shows a Google terrain map overlaid by raster maps of relay routes in Qing Dynasty China.
A visual presentation of the beta stage site that shows a Google terrain map overlaid by raster maps of relay routes in Qing Dynasty China. (Click to enlarge.)

Visual Presentation

For the visual presentation, I originally used ArcGIS for my mapping, but a project of this size it proved to be rather cumbersome. ArcGIS also required a paid server connection if I were to use their publishing service. I ended up with MapBox JS, which was a far simpler platform for visualizing GIS data. A short python script was written to convert all the existing data in GeoJSON, which was then fed into MapBox. The beta stage site is here. There is still a lot to add, such as searching capabilities, node property widgets, multi-layering functions, etc. I am also still working on constructing an accompanying database to sort, query, and display data.

Future Roadmap

The next stage of the project involves the expansion of the current framework in both spatial and temporal dimensions. Spatially, the primary source that I used earlier contains only information on routes radiating from the capital Beijing towards provincial capitals. I intend to explore sources that shed light on sub-provincial level relay networks to better understand the penetration of the Qing imperial information structure. Temporally, the database can be expanded to incorporate a continuous time series of records that track changes in place name, administrative status, and geographic locations. By adding data from the Qianlong Reign (1735-1796) when the Qing Dynasty was still conquering new territories, and data from the Guangxu Reign (1875-1908) when telegraphs, railways, and postal services began displacing the relay system, I think that it is rather possible to make out an interesting story of the transformation of the Qing information infrastructure.

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