The CBDB project was initiated by the Harvard Yenching Institute on the basis of datasets and a software program created by Robert M. Hartwell (1932 – 1996) as part of “China Historical Software, Inc.”, which he bequeathed to the Institute. The original database was in a dBase for MS DOS format. In 2004-2005 Michael A. Fuller redesigned this application and transformed it into the FoxPro application known as CBDBWin, the contents of which were as received from Hartwell’s estate, and into the MS Access application known as CBDB.mdb, to which the Center for Research on Ancient Chinese History at Peking University has added content based on the electronic Index of Song Biographies (by Wang Deyi and Chang Bide) provided for this project by the Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica. Chen Song has done further work on this application beginning in 2006.
From the beginning of his career at the University of Chicago and continuing during his tenure at the University of Pennsylvania and into his retirement in Wyoming, the late Robert M. Hartwell was intensely concerned with the study of social and economic change in Chinese history. Working mainly with middle-period sources (mid-Tang into Yuan), he produced a number of unusually helpful research aids and a series of extremely influential research articles. Readers of Hartwell's work will immediately notice that his research involved the citation of an unusually large number of sources on any given point and the collection of a considerable body of supporting data. He was in fact devoted to the collection of large sets of data and, finding a lack of this kind of research in the scholarly literature, he set out to create extensive datasets himself. By the mid-1970s he had defined a program to amass the most extensive prosopographical data set ever created for the study of Chinese history for any period, and he continued his work until his death in 1995. In the early 1990s he began to turn his attention to the preparation of his data for scholarly use. For a period he created an advisory committee, which Peter K. Bol of Harvard University chaired, to whose members he made available copies of his datasets and applications, which he had incorporated as "Chinese Historical Studies, Inc."
At the time of Hartwell's death the project included multi-variant biographical and genealogical data for over 25,000 individuals, a bibliographic database of over 4500 titles, and multiple geo-referenced objects and features. Hartwell's aim was to take advantage of precisely those kinds of data that the Chinese historical record provides in such abundance: the chronologically organized biographies of individuals who served in government created for public (e.g. state historiographical records) and private (e.g. funerary inscriptions) purposes. Individuals can be situated in a variety of contexts: as natives or residents of central places or administrative units, in bureaucratic ranks and offices, and in kinship networks. The greater the number of individual accounts we can include, the more extensive the family tree we can reconstruct, the better we can trace kinship networks and marriage alliances. We can shift our perspective from person to place and ask how a particular place fared in terms of its ability to produce degree holders and higher office holders over time. We can correlate the writings that were produced by men of a certain time and place. There is much more that might be done with this kind of data.
Robert Hartwell’s database, now fully incorporated into the China Biographical Database, is currently the most comprehensive such compilation; it is invaluable for the study of middle-period history and unlikely to be surpassed. In terms of its technology, however, the database at Hartwell’s death was still very much within the IT environment of the early 1990s. Michael Fuller’s work to make the database functional in a Windows environment through the FoxPro application CBDBwin made it possible to search and query the data with comparative ease. His development of an MS Access database allowed for the desktop inputting of new data, but this was necessarily limited to inputting on a single machine. Thanks to the interest and support of Professor Lau Nap-yin, beginning in 2006 the Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica took financial responsibility for developing an online application for inputting, which went live in Spring 2007, and for a public access querying and reporting application to appear in the fall of 2008.
In 2005 the Center for Research on Ancient Chinese History at Peking University joined the project. Fang Chengfeng and other graduate students, under the guidance of Professors Zhang Xiqing and Deng Xiaonan (who spent a year with Hartwell at the University of Pennsylvania), have both taken on the work of both checking and correcting Hartwell’s entries when possible and adding new data. The new data is being input from Wang Deyi’s revised digital version of the Index to Song Biographical Materials, provided by agreement with the Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica for this project.
In Fall 2008 the Harvard group begin working with computer scientists on using "regular expressions" and other data-mining techniques to extract data from digitized biographical success. By Spring 2009 it became clear that this approach was going to be far more successful than anyone had projected at the start. For further discussion see "Work Progress".
In February 2009 the Harvard Yenching Institute announced its intention to transfer its ownership rights to the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
The coverage, structure, and qualities of the database are discussed under other headings.