Digitizing the Historical Geography of Vietnam with GIS

One digital humanities project that I would love to see take place would be the creation of a web page that would enable people to interactively examine the extensive amount of geographical information that is available in premodern Vietnamese geographical texts like the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí and the Đại Nam nhất thống chí.


A few years ago the Viện Hán Nôm and the École française d’ExtrêmeOrient,with support from the Ford Foundation, published a tri-lingual version of the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí: that is, in the original classical Chinese as well as Vietnamese and French translations. Consisting of two very large volumes of text along with a smaller volume of images of the color maps in the original (all of which is also available in a CD-ROM), it is an extremely important resource.

However, there is something about this magnificent work that is also extremely frustrating: it consists of a ton of textual information about Vietnamese historical geography but that information is very difficult to visualize.

old map

The scholars who created this work included the original maps that represent what the realm looked like in the late nineteenth century. These maps are extremely beautiful to look at, but they do not follow modern mapping techniques, and it is therefore very difficult to visualize the information in the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí by looking at the maps from the nineteenth century.

To make up for the lack of precision of these maps, the scholars who compiled this recent edition included maps of late twentieth-century Vietnam, presumably in order to give people a way to envision where the historical information in the text might be located on a modern map. However, the information on the modern maps is nowhere near as detailed as the information that is in the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí (and many administrative divisions have changed), so ultimately the information in the text is still very difficult to visualize.

new map

What I would love to see, is the creation of an interactive web page using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology where all of the textual information from a work like the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí could be connected to an interactive map.

Imagine if you could use a map like the kind that they have in Google Earth. As you scroll over the Red River Delta, you click on an icon and it shows you where the provincial borders were in the late nineteenth century. Then you click on another icon and it shows you where temples were. Click on yet another to see where the roads were, and from this perhaps it will be possible to visualize some kind of temple network.

Click on one of the symbols for the temples and a box will pop-up where you can read what is written about that temple in the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí (in Hán, Vietnamese, French, English, etc.).


I said in a previous post (here) that for something to be considered part of the “digital humanities” it should entail the creation of knowledge using digital media, not simply the transformation of something into digital form.

What I’m describing here doesn’t actually produce new knowledge, but it is also more than simply putting something into digital form. By creating a CD-ROM of the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí, the Viện Hán Nôm and the École française d’ExtrêmeOrient transformed that text into digital form.

Creating an interactive web page with GIS technology would take the digitization process a step further and make the information in the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí available in new forms so that scholars can develop new ideas based on the rich information in that work.

So in the end, I would still call this a digital humanities project, and it is a project that would be of incredible value to many people.

Perhaps someone is already at work at such a project? If no one is, then this is something that someone should start soon.

If someone does, however, then it has to be done well, because it will require an enormous investment of time and effort, and no one would want to see such an investment not end in success.

4 thoughts on “Digitizing the Historical Geography of Vietnam with GIS

  1. This is indeed an excellent idea. Some colleagues across Asia, particularly Taiwan and Singapore, are working on a major project to digitise history of/about Asia. I can share some more info about this project. I just learnt about it today from one of them.

  2. Can you share how to get a digital copy of the Dong Khanh text and map. I like to develop a system similar to what you described.

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