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Interactive literature map gains popularity in literary studies

Author  :  ZHANG YUANYUE     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-04-01

An interactive literature map is a literary geography research method that puts great emphasis on the use of maps and other analytic tools to provide spatialized visualizations of data. It is the result of the convergence of digitization, spatialization, and visualization of humanities research in recent years, and as a trend in the current digital humanities, it seems high-end, magnificent and classy. Interactive literature maps are a way for the public to understand literature and get a taste of academic research, which also appears to possess a down-to-earth quality. This sparks a debate: are interactive literature maps sophisticated or down-to-earth?

GIS technology

The concept of a Chinese literature map is not new, literary geography can be traced back to ancient times. The Classics of Mountains and Rivers (Shan Hai Jing), one of the oldest Chinese classics, is a collection of early Chinese mythic geography, mythology, and folklore compiled anonymously during presumably the late Warring States (475–221 BCE) and the early Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). The now lost map featured in the book is an example of an original literature map.

In the 1970s, Eileen Chang, one of China’s most popular women writers, included a map of Shanghai which noted place names discussed in the Sing-song Girls of Shanghai when she translated the work, making her a forerunner in interpreting literature with maps. 

In the early 21st century, Yang Yi, Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and a literary research specialist, proposed “redrawing the map of Chinese literature,” which makes geographical maps a new paradigm for literary history from a spatial perspective.

Literary research currently focuses on the physical form of maps, which requires scholars not only to be familiar with the texts, but also with corresponding mapping technology. The adoption of cutting-edge technologies makes the new generation of research with literary maps somewhat more sophisticated than traditional literary research. 

Nowadays, literature maps are most closely associated with GIS (Geographic Information System) technology. Early literature maps mainly relied on manual work, and even if applications were involved, they were relatively simple. Based on individual cases, literature mapping was often time-consuming and labor-intensive, which limited its adoption in research to a certain extent.

The development of GIS technology makes it possible for literature maps to be created accurately and in batches. Upon large-scale application, an independent paradigm has been established. Thanks to GIS technology, literature maps have been transformed from static and rigid paper forms to a dynamic and three-dimensional digital presence. Multiple layers of graphic information which could not be conveyed in a traditional map can coexist, and revision is possible without starting over from scratch, greatly increasing the information capacity of each map. More importantly, in the interactive reading of multiple layers of graphic information, some hidden patterns within texts may be revealed. 

For example, with the aid of a digital mapping platform, the base map of the Lifang system of urban residential neighborhoods in Chang’an City during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) can be replaced with satellite cloud maps, topographic maps, contemporary administrative zonal maps, and historical maps. Moreover, a click on each Lifang will pop out relevant knowledge, giving viewers a better context of its history.

Similarly, big data technology allows statistics quantifying the frequency of references to Lifang in Tang Dynasty novels to be made into a heat map, which can not only help analyze the influence of terrain, river systems, transportation and other factors on the spatial layout of Chang’an, but also help deepen our understanding of residential space distribution’s influence on the stylistic features of Tang literature and its plot structure logic. 

GIS technology makes literature map production swift and convenient, updating the old-fashioned, isolated research methods of the past, as scholars embark on a diversified and divergent path.

The digitization of ancient books plays an important role in the study of different editions of ancient literature, and the literary geographical elements needed to produce literature maps must also rely on the data provided by such technology. Visibility is an inherent property of literature maps, so the application of visualization technology is essential.

With the development of visualization technology, literature maps can present richer information in more diversified forms. For example, Franco Moretti, a pioneer in the study of literary maps, coauthored “The Emotions of London,” a pamphlet published by Stanford University, which illustrates the ways “18th- and 19th-century British novels associate feelings with various parts of England’s capital.” The study found that literature perpetuates an emotional binary of positive and negative affective associations with these neighborhoods. Emotions can be visualized, refreshing people’s understandings of the definition of a map. 

Due to the dual attributes of “literature” and “maps,” there is still no unified definition of a literature map, while in the context of technological advancement, the format of maps tends to be diverse, which further complicates the definition of literature maps.

Down-to-earth nature

The study of literature mapping is a sub-branch of literary geography, which represents an interdisciplinary approach to literary and geographical studies. The rise of literature mapping is in line with digitization and visualization trends and caters to the growing public demand for data-tagged imagery.

The biggest difference between literature mapping and other research approaches in literary geography is that literary geographical elements are transformed into visible forms, and then the spatial characteristics of elements on a map can be used to interpret a literary phenomenon and reveal literary laws. 

This “pictorial text” narrative system is different from traditional text systems. Some scholars call it the “second language” of literary geography. However, literature mapping is not only about graphics, but also provides a unique perspective from which literature can be observed through the lens of visibility.

Take the geographical distribution of literary elements as an example. The geographical distribution of literati is a mainstream research approach to literary geography. A common practice is first to arrange literary data in tables and then describe the geographical spatial distribution. What would happen if the same data were presented on a map? Not only is it more intuitive, but it also generates more spatial information. 

In addition to showing the number of literati in each region in a table, the map also shows the density of literati distribution within each region, identifying clusters of intellectual life. If different base maps such as terrain and traffic are applied, the influence of different factors on the spatial distribution of literati can be reflected.

In the meantime, when spatial data is converted from a linear arrangement to a planar presentation, the negative space between data points becomes visualized. Researchers usually tend to pay attention to “what’s there” and overlook “what’s not there,” which is exactly where maps kick in and upturn traditional patterns in research. 

The popularity of literature maps is inseparable from their visual presentation. In the era of picture reading, the public prefers literary visualization. New books such as graphic literary works and urban literature maps are booming. In March 2017, a website which featured an interactive map showing where and when famous Chinese poets from the Tang and Song (960–1279) dynasties lived caught the public eye. The site “Poet Life Map” received more than 1.1 million views on the first day of its launch.

The popularity of this site could not only be attributed to the public’s demand for academic publication, but also implies that a three-dimensional and rich presentation of the poets and their works meets the needs of contemporary people for data-tagged imagery. 

Sophisticated and down-to-earth

It is not difficult to see that the seemingly contradictory qualities of sophistication and remaining down-to-earth coexist in literature maps. However, these two qualities are far from unified. At present, the construction of GIS platforms in China is mostly aimed at historical geography, whereas literary geography platforms are scarce. Even if the “Chinese academic map publishing platform” developed by Zhejiang University provides the geographical distribution of a range of entities—including people, activities, and events—most academic maps are about poetry and prose, and few focus on novels.

From a technical point of view, most platforms only have the ability to browse and search. While some platforms allow users to create their own maps, they are not easy to operate. Technical problems may be the biggest obstacle in the development of literature maps today. First, digital map platforms need to further simplify operations. Next, scholars should also take the initiative and bravely cross boundaries between social science and natural science, learning software such as ArcGIS and Python, and carrying out literature map research. 

The popularity of literature maps promotes the study of ancient scholars’ “circle of friends,” and reveals the ingenious ideas of writers hidden in the text. In a way, when comparing Tang and Song legends to explore their stylistic transformation, literature maps also visualize for us how “Versailles Literature” of the Tang Dynasty evolved into the “Ordinary World” of the Song Dynasty.


Zhang Yuanyue is an associate professor from the School of Humanities and Law at the China University of Petroleum.



Edited by YANG XUE

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