Historian uses geographers' tool to track the historical social and economic patterns in China.

By Sue Marquette Poremba

Song ChenSong Chen, assistant professor of Chinese history, believes that to best understand how governments could operate centuries ago, before the advent of communication and transportation technologies, one needs to consider the spatial dynamics of political and social patterns. To gain that understanding, Chen has turned to a geographic information system (GIS) to map out career, marital and residential patterns of people of the Sichuan region between the 10th and 13th centuries.

"I look at this era because it is a period of significant changes in social, political and economic life of the Chinese at the time," says Chen. "One thing we've seen is that the traditional heartland of China was in the north, but after the 10th century, the south became more important."

Chen traced the lives of approximately 200 families that settled in the Sichuan region in southwestern China. Using family funeral biographies, he was able to learn how the people were employed and how they migrated and married, as well as how a new type of social elite emerged. Most had moved because of civil service jobs that required them to leave their homeland. But, as Chen points out, after the 11th century the migration of these civil servants stopped, which resulted in new patterns of marriage practices.

He has used this data to create GIS maps and animations that showed the geographical features of the marriage networks and the geographical patterns of bureaucratic appointments and migration.

"Historians and sociologists are interested in the process of state making, but what is lacking in this body of literature is the idea of space," he says. "We tend to think about state as a set of institutions or groups of people or in terms of abstract categories such as class and bureaucracy." The spatial concerns of governing these large historical empires are often forgotten. "GIS offers a way to see and understand large geographical patterns and tackle the multi-dimensions of data."

Chen is one of several professors in the humanities using GIS. Janine Glathar, Bucknell's first GIS specialist, says, "Using GIS and spatial analysis is increasingly becoming an expectation in academia." Bucknell has anticipated this need. The University's newest classroom building, Academic West, which opens this fall, will contain an entire lab devoted to GIS research.