Arts & Humanities
May 10, 2023

Boat trip: A significant panorama of Tang Dynasty river basins

Dr Wende Chen of Huaqiao University, China, has analysed Chinese poetry to reveal historical geographies of Tang Dynasty river basins. Taking the Chinese character for ‘boat’ as the dependent variable, characters with significant statistical correlation were identified. These characters were classified into nine themes: structure and use of boats, geographical locations, natural water systems, flora and fauna, official travel, economic activities, leisure activities, emotions, and finally, daily life. Together, the results paint a vivid picture of sites and sounds that would have greeted travellers on boat trips in the Tang Dynasty.

Rare is the modern traveller who does not carry a trusty guidebook, or at the very least, conduct lengthy online research. Vast travel resources for all but the remotest of destinations provide ample information on practicalities, sites of interest, local communities, native wildlife, and more. As they traverse new landscapes, many such travellers use their gathered knowledge to imagine how their journey might have looked in times past. At Huaqiao University, China, Dr Wende Chen is offering tourists a new resource: a vivid reconstruction of sights and sounds during a boat trip in the Tang Dynasty.

The Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) was a golden age of power and culture in China. With Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) as the capital, and most populous, city, it encompassed the geographically important Yellow and Yangtze river basins. The city itself occupied an area much larger than that of Constantinople, the de facto capital of the Roman Empire.

Zhang Zeduan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The preceding Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD) had overseen a proliferation of canal building to support an ever-growing population. In particular, canals were constructed to connect the Yangtze, Yellow, and Huai rivers. Inheriting this infrastructure, the Tang Dynasty also embraced rivers and canals as a means of transport, a source of income, a social setting, and a muse for artistic endeavours. Moreover, references to tourism are plentiful among the abundant contemporary records. Indeed, tourism appears to have been part of daily life for both ordinary people and the aristocratic class. These records are replete with poems that describe boat trips along the many waterways.

Logistic regression and character recognition

Chen chose the Chinese character for ‘boat’ as the observational centre to study river basins in the Tang Dynasty. The reasons were four-fold. First, boats were – and still remain – the most common means of water transportation; second, boats are ubiquitous in river basins inhabited by humans; third, boats are focal points for human activities; finally, references to boats in Tang records almost exclusively relate to river navigation, as navigation on the sea was extremely rare.

Chen chose to study the correlation between the character for ‘boat’ and other Chinese characters in poetry from the era by using a mathematical method: logistic regression. Logistic regression is a quantitative statistical technique that identifies correlations among dependent and independent variables (dependent variables ‘depend’ or change, according to independent variables). Chen applied logistic regression to a large dataset of 13,100 five-character and eight-line poems from the Tang Dynasty. Based on 6,500 Chinese characters, a database containing 84,500,000 data points was established. Among these characters, five found to be synonyms of ‘boat’ were set as the dependent variables. Of the remaining characters, those appearing fewer than 10 times and those calculated to have low statistical significance were removed. Eventually, 218 independent variables (ie, 218 Chinese characters) remained; these characters all had a significant correlation with the terms for ‘boat’ and increased the probability of the term ‘boat being used’, in line with Chen’s reasoning.

Dr Wende Chen used logistic regression to reveal historical geographies of Tang Dynasty river basins. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Watery themes

The 218 Chinese characters were classified into nine themes related to the historical geography of the region: (1) structure and use of boats, (2) geographical locations, (3) natural water systems, (4) flora and fauna, (5) official travel, (6) economic activities, (7) leisure activities, (8) emotions, and (9) daily life.

Chen applied logistic regression to a large dataset of 13,100 five-character and eight-line poems from the Tang Dynasty.

Unsurprisingly, many of the characters related to the physical features of boats, or to the use of boats. For example, the character for ‘flat’ appeared, because ‘flat boats’ were commonly used. Other terms include ‘oar’, ‘berth’, ‘sail’, and ‘float’, among others.

Perhaps predictably, numerous terms related to geographical locations along waterways and boat trip routes in the Tang Dynasty. Most are concentrated along the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River or the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River. However, a number also show significant exploration into regions not previously associated with the Tang Dynasty.

Among the natural water systems which made a notable impact are geomorphological features such as ‘gorge’, ‘pond’, and ‘island’. However, other terms crop up which are more descriptive, including the likes of ‘turbulent’ and ‘rush’. In terms of aquatic animals and plants, ‘lotus’, ‘reeds’, ‘duckweed’, ‘fish’, ‘owls’, and ‘mink’ were apaprently all common sights.

The characters reveal the importance of official travel in the Tang Dynasty, with many government-related positions appearing; for example, ‘Prime Minister’, ‘Secretary General’, and ‘Governor’. In terms of fisheries and commerce in the Tang Dynasty, salt markets, merchants, money, and fishermen all featured heavily. An unusual finding was the significance of words associated with the textile industry. This was found to relate mainly to the sound of textile machines beside the water, painting a particularly evocative picture of travellers’ sensory experiences on Tang Dynasty waterways.

Leisure, pleasure, and enjoyment were also clearly important. ‘Spring’ and ‘summer’ are common entries, reflecting a preference for travel in times of fine weather. The term ‘moon’ also features heavily, with dusk and night-time being popular times for river trips – at least in the poetry. Of the 13,100 poems analysed, more than 20% (2,696 poems) contain the Chinese character for ‘moon’. In light of this, it is no surprise that characters related to human emotions also crop up, among them ‘ethereal’, ‘solace’, ‘tear’, and ‘gentle’, showing that rivers were a place to reflect on life.

Finally, on a practical note, many of the terms relate to daily life in the Tang Dynasty. In particular, certain foodstuffs are prominent, inducing wine (and related terms such as ‘drunk’) and rice, confirming that rice had become a staple food by this time.

Chen is quick to point out that this study is in no way exhaustive. For one thing, the sample set included only approximately one quarter of all known poems from this time period. Moreover, while logistic regression reveals correlations, it does not necessarily reveal causal relationships. Regardless, the study paints a vivid picture of the sights and sounds that greeted travellers on waterways of the Tang Dynasty.

Personal Response

Is it possible to further break down the findings in a spatial manner; that is, can you pin-point certain words to very specific locations or routes?

Unfortunately not. Because all correlation words have broad representativeness, including the common characteristics of the entire river basins. Secondly, I would like to point out that the original text (Figure 5) is very important as it has already outlined the entire space of river basins.
This feature article was created with the approval of the research team featured. This is a collaborative production, supported by those featured to aid free of charge, global distribution.

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