X-Boorman (I): a digital revival

This is the first instalment of the “X-Boorman” series through which we plan to take the reader to a new experience and exploration of the Biographical Dictionary of Republican China (BDRC). The series is based on an experiment the ENP-China team has been conducting in the last few months as a preliminary attempt to implement NLP tools and methods in historical research. The lead group on this experiment includes Cécile Armand, Christian Henriot, and Pierre Magistry [co-authors of the X-Boorman series]. In the next blog posts, we shall explain why we chose to work on the BDRC,  what it tells us about the Republican elites, and what we learned from implementing NLP methods in textual analysis.

Cover of the “Biographical Dictionary of Republican China”, vol.1 (1967)

The Biographical Dictionary of Republican China (BDRC) consists of four volumes published between 1967 and 1971, with an additional name index volume produced separately in 1979. It was produced under the editorship of Howard L. Boorman, a China specialist active in the 1950s-1970s that few people may remember, especially among the younger generation of China scholars. Let’s introduce him first.

Howard Lyon Boorman was born on September 11, 1920 in Chicago. Boorman did his freshman year at Grinnell College and transferred to the University of Wisconsin, graduating in 1941. In late 1942, he joined  the Department of State, but the following year Boorman entered the Navy and was sent to Boulder, Colorado to study Japanese at the US Navy Language School at the University of Colorado. He graduated in 1944 as a Lieutenant Japanese Language Officer and reported for duty at the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific Ocean Area in Hawaii. Later in 1945-1946 Boorman was attached to the 1st Marine Division and was responsible for accepting the surrender of Japanese units and assisting with Japanese POWs. In September 1946, Boorman began graduate work at Yale. In 1947 he became a Foreign Service Officer and was immediately assigned to Peking (Beijing) until 1949. In 1950, Boorman was assigned to Hong Kong to direct a press monitoring unit, translating material from the Communist Chinese press. By 1954, Boorman was back in the United States at Columbia University. In 1967, he moved to Nashville to join the faculty of the History Department of Vanderbilt University, teaching mainly East Asian History. On February 17th 2008, Boorman died at the age of 87.(1)

Although Boorman wrote mostly on contemporary affairs during his active academic years, he had an inkling for history and the biographical genre. He started working on the BDRC in the mid-1950s with the ambition to collect and compile information on 800 individuals. The BDRC ambitioned to provide a sequel to a similar reference work on the Qing period by Arthur Hummel, Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing period, 1644-1912 published in 1943, which provided the template for the confection of the BDRC. By the time the last volume came out of the press in 1971, another biographical dictionary had appeared, which focused solely on Chinese communism (Biographic dictionary of Chinese Communism, 1921-1965 by Donald W. Klein and Anne B. Clark). While these three biographical dictionaries address distinct historical periods, they share a number of individuals whole life spanned over at least two periods.

The BDRC served generations of China historians as the main reference work one would turn to to seek biographical information when studying the Republican period. It provided indeed both concise and well-informed individual biographies, but also snapshots of the turbulent republican period. It is hard to say how much the BDRC is still in use among students and scholars, but it is very likely that, at least for the former, the BDRC is no longer a resource. The major reason is that the internet-born generation will more likely rely on digital resources and tools and Google and Wikipedia, not to mention their Chinese avatar like Baidu. The BDRC is not available in digital format, except for a single copy on loan on Internet Archive (but not the Name Index volume). Another reason is the use of the Wade-Giles transliteration system which all those trained after the 1980s are no longer familiar with, especially when it comes to lesser known place names or organizations. Beyond using the BDRC as a source for analysis, we hope to give to the BDRC a new lease of life through a digital revival.

To open the BDRC “factory”, please read the next episode.

(1) Source: “Biographical note”, Collection: Howard L. Boorman Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of Colorado.


Cécile Armand

Ancienne élève de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) de Lyon (2006), agrégée d'histoire (2009), docteure en histoire (2017), postdoctorante à Stanford University (2017-8) puis Aix-Marseille Université dans le cadre du projet ERC “Elites, Networks and Power in modern China” (2018-). Ma thèse soutenue à l’ENS Lyon en juin 2017 proposait une histoire spatiale de la publicité à Shanghai (1905-1949). Mon nouveau projet porte sur l’invention du consommateur et de l’expertise sur le marché en Chine républicaine. Au-delà, mes centres d'intérêt couvrent l'histoire urbaine, spatiale et sociale, les outils et méthodes numériques en sciences sociales, l'historiographie et l'épistémologie en général.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.