Data Management and Knowledge Production in Late Qing Archives

Data Management and Knowledge Production in Late Qing Archives

Andrea Bréard

Andrea Bréard Tongji Statistics Qing.jpg

Double checking the numbers in statistical tables from the fur and leather storage (Piku tongji biao 皮庫統計表). Archives of the Imperial Household Department (1909).

During the late Qing political and educational reforms (end of the ninteenth to the early twentieth century) traditional approaches to the collection, use, and preservation of numerical data in archives were particularly challenged. Statistics, constructed as a new discipline and institutionalized in the course of constitutional reforms at the turn of the twentieth century, became the focus of tensions between tradition and innovation. The issues involved in the modernization process of China’s long administrative and mathematical statistical practices not only concerned the collection of data and the mathematical treatment that allowed to turn the vast amount of numerical data stored in the imperial archives into knowledge urgently needed for the reforms under way. Modernization then also concerned the connection of people between center and periphery and a “mental revolution” related to the conception of quantitative data. Providing accurate statistical data, numbers based on an economic, demographic, or other material reality, and sharing these bared social and technical aspects of communication, which are reflected in the archival management of quantitative material within the imperial bureaucracy and administration.

The project analyzes the profound changes that occurred (or were wished for) in the conception of numerical data, and reflects in particular upon changes in access to and usage of numercial data stored in the imperial archives. Inversely, viewing archives as an agent, the project questioned how changing archival practices actively shaped knowledge for political decision making.

Andrea Bréard limited the project to two sorts of numerical data: population numbers and astronomical data. These have a different status—historically and culturally—and are thus likely to reveal more diverse aspects of the forms, practices, and cultures of “data.” Precise population statistics were required during the constitutional reform movement for organizing local and National Assembly elections. Earlier, they had a purely fiscal status, and were subject to “flexible arrangements.” For astronomy, it has always been of great importance for the Emperor to have reliable data on eclipses and other celestial phenomena that would determine ritual or strategic actions. Observational data was not exploited statistically during the end of the Qing, but population statistics were dealt with in the respective statistical offices of the Ministry of Civil Administration, and the Metropolitan Prefecture, for example.