Researching traditional Chinese literature, I often encounter books that are not readily available (except in sinological libraries) and mostly quite substantial in length, making them difficult to carry around. Enter digital resources. While not acceptable basis for citation in an academic context, they provide a good starting point for initial contact with a book. Here, I want to share how one such resource works: ctext.org
The Chinese Text Project (ctext.org) is maintained by Dr. Donald Sturgeon, who already published his own https://dsturgeon.net/ctext/. It is a platform for Chinese language primary sources that could potentially be awesome, but unfortunately is a real pain to use. I’m sure I’m not aware of all features the site has to offer, which may mainly be due to the overstuffed design of the front page, the complicated navigation and unreadable captcha at every turn. (Those really increased a lot, didn’t they?!) I mostly come here through search engines while looking for particular texts, or I search for texts directly in the https://ctext.org/searchbooks.pl?if=en, which is buried at the bottom of the left-hand menu. So if you have anything to add to my description, please do so in the comments below.
The site is probably most famous for providing full text renderings of Chinese classics, as well as crowdsourced English translations. Among university teachers this is probably the least favorite feature, because students tend to view it as a quotable source. Unfortunately, like Wikipedia, these unstable texts permanently subject to change without clearly identifiable editor and as such no academic source. The texts might have improved in the past couple of years, but when I was still a student have a decade ago, they were also full of mistakes. Therefore, use for a first overview, but sorry, you still have to look up the text in reliable book. Ctext even states in their FAQ: “Please check the Chinese text against the base text before quoting it”.
The translations should likewise be used with caution. If you are lucky, some Sinologist has already done the translation work for you and you can directly quote them, especially for the classics. Some of the early work, by scholars such as James Legge (1815-1897) and J.J.L. Duyvendak (1898-1954) is no longer copyright protected. These translations are available on several platforms online, ctext among them. While is is probably best to find a source that provides you with a scan of the original book, such as Archive.org does with this facsimile of Legge’s Book of Poetry 詩經, ctext shows the translation alongside the Chinese original in a very clear and readable way, which makes comparison easy. But please keep in mind that Legge’s translation was published in 1871 and his language reflects that.
We now turn to what I think is the most important feature of ctext, but also the one where it gets most annoying: On ctext you can find a great many scans of original works from late imperial China. I might, for example, enter 封神演義 in the search bar and find this:
I would ignore the full text (文) and crowdsourced edits (共) and skip ahead to the photographic reproductions (像). (Don’t be confused by the length of the full title of Fengshen yanyi.) Both of these are scans in workable resolution. The first of these entries is a Ming dynasty edition based on the facsimile from the 古本小說集成 collection (uncredited) which is in turn based on the edition from the National Archives of Japan, recently made public in their Digital Archive in higher resolution than the ctext version. The second is a Qing dynasty edition from rare books collection of the Harvard Yenching Library and can be read in the Harvard Library Viewer. Unlike ctext, both these platform allow you to download the digital images as PDFs.
The convenience of these platforms makes it all the more annoying, that ctext decided to be extra paranoid about robots (i.e. automated programs) stealing their open source content. It is impossible to navigate the site without entering (rarely readable) captcha every couple of pages and real or perceived attempts to download stuff gets you banned temporarily from using the site. And that’s with a university (eduroam) IP. When using my home IP, I cannot even view more than 4 pages of any given scan without logging on. This seems to have increased in recent years and it might well be warranted for security reasons. But it makes using the site really frustrating.
Anyway, ctext is not a platform I would recommend wholeheartedly: Its layout is confusing and its full text unreliable. And while the number of usable scans of late imperial texts in one place is amazing, the restrictions are frustrating. I know that Dr. Sturgeon is more interested in digital humanities and early China than literature and paratexts from late imperial China. From his introduction it seems that a lot can be done with the full texts in terms of “accessible digital text analysis for classical Chinese” and “cyberinfrastructure for historical China studies” (the titles of his most recent blog posts), which I believe may well be true. But maybe the digital humanities approach is why close reading of facsimile reproductions is not a priority in designing ctext.
What have been your experiences using ctext?