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China in Time and Space (CITAS): A Conspectus

China in Time and Space (CITAS) is a project to create and maintain databases of spatially- and temporally-referenced data on China for distribution at cost or for free to scholarly researchers. CITAS was established in response to a confluence of events, including the sudden outpouring of data from China, the advent of Geographic Information System (GIS) technologies, and a rising interest in Chinese data on the part of global change researchers. Chinese data, whether gathered by historians toiling in archives or by orbiting satellites, represent a huge investment. Yet the data products are often inaccessible, incomparable, or unintelligible. CITAS represents an effort to reclaim these resources by providing the organizing intelligence behind a decentralized effort to standardize, document, integrate, and share Chinese data.

CITAS is a partnership of China scholars, sponsored to date by the Joint Committee on Chinese Studies (JCCS), the Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), and the Ford Foundation. A reorganization of CITAS is imminent. CITAS database management and technical work takes place at several places, including the University of Washington, the University of Michigan, the University of California at Davis, CIESIN in Saginaw, Michigan, and at the Chinese Academy of Surveying and Mapping in Beijing. CITAS is managed by a technical committee made up of China scholars and overseen by a distinguished interdisciplinary board headed by Professor Kenneth Lieberthal. Under the proposed plan for reorganization, CITAS would be affiliated with the American Council of Learned Societies and be administered by the Committee on Scholarly Communication with China. CIESIN has had an active collaborative role in CITAS since its inception, a relationship that would continue under the reorganization. An organization chart of the anticipated reorganized CITAS is attached.

CITAS aims to provide to scholars and other non-commercial users for free or at cost, access to a wealth of contemporary and historical information on China in spatially-and temporally-referenced tabular and vectorized map form. The project utilizes state-of-the-art geographic information system (GIS) technology to integrate tabular and vectorized map data. An unusual aspect of the proposed database is its temporal dimension: one goal is the capability to recreate Chinese administrative geography for specific historical dates, and the ability to compare the contemporary characteristics of places with historical cross-sections, initially over decades, ultimately over centuries.

The rationale for developing a spatially- and temporally-referenced disaggregated data bank on China rests on the importance of the data for social science research and on the utility of the Chinese case for understanding the human dimensions of global change. Many environmental processes take place at large scales and over long periods of time. Only China has this abundance of information, with such historical depth and consistency, for a large portion of the earth's population.

· Whether in population or in land area, China is a large country. It contains a fifth of humanity, is third in land area behind Russia and Canada, and encompasses a great range of geographical, climatic, biological, social, and economic variation.

· The data on China are rich. China is certainly the best documented low income country in the world, with ample data on economy, society, and ecology.

· Chinese data also have enormous historical depth. The prefectures (jun) and counties (xian) established by the state of Qin in 221 BC have defined the geographical boundaries of local administrative units from that time to the present. From the Tang (618-906 AD) to the present, increasing numbers of local gazetteers supplemented empire-wide geographical texts. Only China has data of such richness and historical depth.

· China's economy is one of the fastest growing in the world. The rapid growth of its industrial economy has stimulated population and employment shifts of extraordinary magnitude.

· China provides important examples of environmental problems, including water and air pollution, soil loss, deforestation, desertification, and the production of greenhouse gasses.

In sum, China is a major potential testing ground for improving our understanding of the complex interactions between population pressure, economic development, depletion of natural resources, and production of substances that affect the environment.

Current Projects

CITAS currently is engaged in several projects with the aim of constructing a functional, multi-purpose GIS based on county-level data. At the University of Michigan, Robert Dernberger has constructed a data set of economic data for 1990 based on provincial economic yearbooks. At the University of California-Davis, G. William Skinner has constructed various databases of economic and demographic data for various years, including a substantial database on cities and lower-level central places. At CIESIN in Saginaw, Liu Chuang has produced a digital 1:1,000,000 administrative boundary map that is the foundation of the CITAS GIS. At the Chinese Academy of Surveying and Mapping (CASM) in Beijing, Yao Xurong is constructing an administrative coding database for the 1980s. At the University of Washington, William Lavely has constructed a county data set of demographic variables based on a large retrospective survey. The UW operation also performs database design, management, and documentation tasks.

Later this summer CITAS will have its first major data release. It will consist of a 1:1,000,000 GIS, with digital basemaps of terrain, hydrology, transport, and central places based on the Digital Chart of the World. It will also include administrative base maps for 1982, 1986, and 1990 cross-sections. It will also include substantial county data sets of socioeconomic data keyed to the GIS. A major research product will also be published this summer, GB Codes of China 1982-1990, a reference work for the reconstruction of PRC administrative history. The work provides data crucial to solving the problem of intertemporal comparisons of county data.

Perhaps a better way to illustrate what CITAS has produced is to provide some examples. We begin with an excerpt from GB Codes of China 1982-1992, a listing of National Standard codings for administrative units compiled from a variety of official sources. The object of this list is to provide a unique coding for every administrative unit that ever existed in the period. A key to the variables is provided as an appendix. The recorded information includes the "from" and "to" dates of the unit, indicators of the administrative status of the unit, and nature of the changes (e.g., territorial, name) that brought the unit into being. The database can be queried to reconstruct the administrative situation in China at any point in time. In conjunction with digital maps of these units which are under development at CASM, the GB codes table is integral to the CITAS database design that will permit automated comparisons of data at different points in time. Ultimately, this scheme would be extended back to earlier eras.

The CITAS GIS represents a powerful new visualization tool. Even simple mapping of a single variable can provide important insights about behavioral processes. In our example, the sex ratio of the population age 0-4 is mapped for counties in the Yunnan-Guizhou border region. There is a sharp demarcation at the provincial boundary which cannot be explained by socioeconomic differentials. The sex ratio map thus implicates administrative factors.

GIS technology introduces a dynamic dimension even to a simple data set. The CITAS hospital data set began life as a directory of county-level hospitals under the Chinese Ministry of Health. What was intriguing about this directory is that it provided a founding date for each hospital. Thus the spatial distribution of hospitals in China can be mapped for any year. The last year of the data set, 1988, is presented here. Annual cross-sections can be animated to produce a spatial and temporal record of the spread of hospitals in China, in essence, a motion picture of institutional diffusion.

GIS has the powerful ability to juxtapose many layers of data. For example, the merging of CITAS socioeconomic data with remote sensing data will be of value in the study of the human dimensions of global change. G. William Skinner employs GIS as a synthesis tool in his research on Chinese regional systems. His decomposition of the Upper Yangzi macroregion (attached grayscale map) is the result of a complex analysis of georeferenced data referring to counties, central places, and terrain features. The broad relationship between regional zones and central places, rivers, and roads can be observed in the attached color map of the Upper Yangzi core. In this map, blue lines are rivers, red lines are roads, and the shadings from buff to dark brown represent a continuum from Inner Core to Outer Periphery.

Strategic Issues

CITAS was first conceived by the JCCS as a data utility for the China field. Experience gained over the past three years has produced an altered vision, broader in scope but leaner and more leveraged. First came the recognition that Chinese historians and contemporary specialists have much to contribute to the expanding research enterprise known as the Human Dimensions of Global Change, and much to gain by allying with it. Next came the discovery that Chinese research institutes are rich with important digital data sets, historical environmental studies, and GIS and remote sensing projects, and that they are very open to research collaboration and technical interchange. Finally, there has been a growing awareness of the formidable size of the technical and research tasks that confront CITAS as compared with the kinds of resources that are presently available.

Confronted with these opportunities and limits, CITAS has adapted. First, CITAS has sought to build bridges to the community of global change researchers. Environmental researchers represent a potential "market" for data on China, but engagement with global change research is not merely an economic expedient. It presents opportunities for interdisciplinary research with the potential for uniting China specialists of very diverse interests with earth scientists on major research projects. Of course, the strongest linkage between CITAS and the environmental science comes from partnership with CIESIN, which sponsored the establishment of CITAS, provides technical assistance, and will distribute CITAS data. More recently, CITAS has entered into a collaboration with atmospheric chemists to study the nitrogen cycle in China, and two proposals to NSF are pending. More will be said about this below.

Second, CITAS has sought partnerships with Chinese research organizations and statistical archives, particularly those involved with GIS and environmental research. The wealth of data available is remarkable, but even more astonishing is the vitality of GIS work and the general interest in foreign collaborations. CITAS is now well-known in Chinese academic circles. Last year Kenneth Lieberthal made presentations on CITAS to groups from a variety of research institutes in the Beijing area. William Lavely followed up with visits to several institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, including the Institutes of Geography, Botany, Remote Sensing, and the Chinese Ecosystem Research Network (CERN). Lavely also visited Professor Zou Yilin, Director of the Fudan University Institute of Historical Geography and originator of the Historical Atlas of China. Professor Chang Hsin-shih, Director of the CAS Institute of Botany, joined the CITAS Board. An exchange agreement was signed with the Chinese Population Research and Information Center, and a research collaboration was established with the Chinese Academy of Surveying and Mapping, the research arm of the Bureau of Surveying. The groundwork has been laid for important research projects and exchanges. However, if these projects are to be implemented, new resources will have to be mobilized.

The issue of resources is at the heart of the third adaptation. The ambitious goals of the project will require the marshaling of very substantial resources, not only in money but in talented manpower. This fact alone has required a rethinking of CITAS as an organization. The initial conception of CITAS had physicality and centrality. There would be a staff and an office in which various research, database management, and documentation operations, as well as fund raising, training, outreach, and meetings would be staged. These are larger tasks than anticipated. For example, the administrative geography database, a humble utilitarian project, but a foundation of our database design, has turned out to require long and painstaking research. GIS, database, and documentation work is, by nature, labor intensive, as is grant-writing and public relations. Add to this a series of bilateral collaborative relationships with Chinese institutions, and one would require the infrastructure of a substantial research institute. Given the kinds of resources that are likely to come available, such an institutionalization of CITAS is not realistic.

In place of a centralized, physical CITAS, we envision CITAS as an organizational nexus with a variety of roles: (1) liaison between China scholars, global change researchers, and Chinese institutes; (2) organizer of interdisciplinary research proposals involving Chinese and overseas scholars; (3) provider of digital basemaps, documentation, standards, and other GIS "backbone" research and services. CITAS would help scholars organize around common research projects and it would provide the projects with common basemaps, coding protocols, and conventions that would insure intercomparability of data. CITAS would provide an organizational matrix, just as the CITAS GIS (and its associated standards) would provide a synergistic matrix for a great variety of data. Although CITAS would have an organizational and administrative home in the CSCC, most of its operations and functions would be decentralized. CITAS would take advantage of the Internet, and the rapid growth of computer networks in China, to become something of a "virtual" organization.

This vision of CITAS implies a dual funding strategy. On the one hand, CITAS would continue to seek direct funding for its core operations and backbone projects. On the other, CITAS would be funded in part through its participation in research projects. An example of the latter approach is the collaboration between CITAS and atmospheric scientists on the study of the nitrogen cycle. The NSF proposals, which were managed by the CSCC, would support basic CITAS administrative activities and some data acquisition. It is possible to envision CITAS involved peripherally in a number of research projects, but the payoff for the field of Chinese studies and for global change research will be the design of major, multi-year projects involving groups of China specialists, and in which CITAS plays a catalytic role.

Future Projects

In deciding what data to assemble, CITAS faces a dilemma. On the one hand, there is an impulse to work comprehensively and exhaustively on a particular problem or era. One could approach the Qing Dynasty, for example, the way the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary approach the letters A through F. To gather data in this fashion, without regard to utility or priorities, would require huge resources and take decades. On the other hand, there is an impulse to concentrate effort on a particular research priority. A research product would result, but the data produced might be of very limited benefit to researchers at large. To be truly useful, CITAS must be involved simultaneously in two kinds of projects, "core" or "utility" projects, of general use to many users, and focused research projects that have clear intellectual payoffs. Core projects must be defined and specified by the CITAS Board, while focused projects may be determined by the needs of specific investigators or research groups.

To date, the core projects of CITAS have involved laying down a basic GIS for contemporary China, including terrain, hydrology, transport, central places, and administrative boundaries, as well as establishing a basic set of socioeconomic data at the county level. Further, CITAS has attempted to solve the problem of administrative coding and boundary changes for the PRC period, so that administrative data for any year may be appropriately coded and integrated into the GIS. This work has established a baseline of data, and a framework in which scholars can place their own data.

The development of historical projects is a high priority. The most convincing claim that CITAS can make to social science and global change researchers is the potential to describe change over many centuries. Bringing such a vision to fruition, however, is not straightforward, because the tasks are so broad and complex. Core historical projects need to be considered by historians themselves, but it is possible to sketch broadly what these projects might consist of. It would be useful to establish a basic GIS for each major historical era (centered on a particular date), with an emphasis on administrative geography because administrative units provide a matrix for so much of the available data. The emphasis on this core work would be inter-temporal compatibility. For example, it should be possible to compare mid-Ming to mid-Qing to 1990. The basic data for these core projects exist in the Historical Atlas of China, and the digitization of these materials is already underway at Fudan University.

It may be possible to find a funder that (like CIESIN) would be willing to support core projects of this kind on the assumption that they will be useful. However, it seems more likely that potential funders will want to see a concrete scientific payoff to database work. This is why the core projects of CITAS may have to be supported within the framework of large, focused research projects. CITAS will need to bring historians of China, including researchers from China, together with global change specialists interested in long-term change. From these encounters would emerge ideas on how to exploit Chinese data for the solution of particular problems concerning, for example, land use change, hydrology, or historical climate. Core projects would be organized within these focused research projects. CITAS proposes to take the first step in this direction later this summer by bringing together a group of Chinese historians and global change researchers. There is particular interest in the possibility of integrating county-level grain price data that has already been assembled province-by-province but never systematically analyzed.

Affiliation with ACLS and CSCC

Up to now, CITAS has existed as a legal entity only as a research project at the University of Washington, an institutional base that is far too limited to serve the needs of this interdisciplinary and trans-national endeavor. CITAS needs a broad-based institutional affiliation with links to the China field, links to the scientific community, and with links to Chinese organizations. A pre-existing administrative structure with the capability of coordinating scholarly activity in both the US and China would be particularly useful. On all of these counts, the combined resources of the ACLS and the CSCC represent the obvious home for CITAS. The CSCC is the only organization that cuts across natural sciences, the social sciences, and the Chinese studies field. In light of the fact that CITAS wishes to develop close ties with several laboratories and institutes in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, CSCC affiliation with the National Academy of Sciences is particularly useful. CSCC is set up to coordinate and administer interdisciplinary research projects involving Chinese research organizations.

Last modified on 12 May, 1997 Return to CITAS Homepage