In recent years, along with the rise of Digital Humanities and database technologies, the field of Chinese studies also underwent a digital revolution with the applications of new electronic tools in different subfields. Despite the increased funding in these digital projects, only a few achieved long-term sustainability and even fewer generated in-depth analysis of data which has deepened our understanding of Chinese society and culture.
In the sub-field of religion, a few digital mapping endeavors, such as the Buddhism Geographic Information System (BGIS) project at the University of Arizona, the Atlas of Chinese Religions project at ECAI, Berkeley, the Qing Dynasty Religious Sites project at Harvard CHGIS, the Spatial Religion Information Network Project at China Data Institute and Center for Chinese Religion and Society (Purdue), have been attempted to collect the vast data on religious sites.
However, data collection and analysis in these projects remain fragmented and preliminary, awaiting greater efforts for data integration and sophisticated analysis. More importantly, judging from the stability of religious sites in Chinese landscape and their persistence in Chinese history, there is a great potential to generate exciting theoretical understandings about the regional pattern of the religious sites distribution, thus shedding light on the evolution of Chinese culture and society in the future.
The Regional Religious System (RRS) approach we developed aims to provide a new perspective to the “old question” of regionalism and localism in Chinese history, thus initiating a renewed research program of historical GIS and spatial analysis for achieving a more complete consideration of the role of religion in terms of regional formation.
Combining other spatial analysis methods such as Regional Systems Analysis (RSA), Hierarchical Regional Space (HRC), Point Pattern Analysis (PPA), the RRS concept reveals a high level of correlation between religious sites and their natural, social, and cultural environs. Following this line of thinking, this project will investigate intensively how RRS is possible in Greater China in the past and present by considering the complexity of Chinese religions, Chinese culture, society, and economy.
The central research question is how RRS interacts with other regional formations of economic, cultural, and social existences and contributes to the emergence of the unique “Chinese regionalism” which has shaped Chinese history and continues to influence her future in today’s interconnected global settings. Supplemented by thick descriptions and spatial narratives through mapping local religious sites, we hope to extend the RRS method to world religions through developing and refining our methodology. Currently, we focus intensively on the Hangzhou area in China in association with our Hangzhou Buddhist Culture project.