The Yongle Encyclopedia (Traditional Chinese: 永樂大典; Simplified Chinese: 永乐大典; pinyin: Yǒnglè Dàdiǎn; literally “The Great Canon [or Vast Documents] of the Yongle Era”) was a Chinese compilation commissioned by the Chinese Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle, in 1403. More than 2,169 scholars worked on the transcription. When it was completed in 1408, Zhu Di named it the Yongle Encyclopedia. The encyclopedia incorporated eight thousand texts, dating from ancient times to the early Ming Dynasty. All the texts retained their original form and wording. They covered an array of subjects, including agriculture, art, astronomy, drama, geology, history, literature, medicine, natural sciences, religion, and technology, as well as descriptions of unusual natural events at Nanjing Guozijian (南京國子監; the ancient Nanjing University—Nanjing Imperial Central College). It comprised 22,877 or 22,937 manuscript rolls, or chapters, in 11,095 volumes, occupying 40 cubic metres (1400 ft³), and containing 370 million Chinese characters. It was designed to include all that had ever been written on the Confucian canon, history, philosophy, the arts and sciences, and others. The table of contents alone consisted of sixty volumes.
When he moved his capital to Beijing, Zhu Di had the Encyclopedia transported and kept in the Forbidden City. In 1557, the Emperor Jiajing (嘉靖帝, the 12th emperor), ordered the transcription of another copy of the Encyclopedia after it was almost destroyed. Fewer than four hundred volumes of this copy survived into modern times. The original Encyclopedia lodged in the Forbidden City has been lost; it is believed to have been destroyed in the mid-seventeenth century during the wars that toppled the Ming Dynasty, or to have been sealed inside the Yongling tomb of Emperor Jiajing. The Encyclopedia is considered a treasure because it preserves many ancient works whose originals have been lost.
The Yongle Emperor or “Yung-lo Emperor” (永楽帝; May 2, 1360–August 12, 1424), born Zhu Di (Chu Ti; 朱棣) was the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty (明朝) of China, from 1402 to 1424. His father, the Hongwu Emperor, named Jianwen, the son of an older brother, as his successor. Zhu Di rose in rebellion, and by 1402, had taken the city of Nanking. He seized the throne after his nephew, Emperor Jianwen, mysteriously disappeared during a palace fire. His usurpation of the throne is now sometimes called the "Second Founding" of the Ming dynasty. His era name means "Perpetually Jubilant."
Though he was despotic and ruthless, Yongle is considered one of the greatest Chinese emperors. His economic, educational, and military reforms provided unprecedented benefits for the people and established the social and economic patterns for the rest of the Ming dynasty. Several major cultural landmarks were achieved during his reign, including the design and construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing; the erection of monuments such as the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing; the exploratory sea voyages of Zheng He (鄭和); and the completion of the monumental Yongle Encyclopedia (永樂大典).
Development of the work
Besides being a capable administrator and a skilled military strategist, Zhu Di was something of a scholar. While researching particular subjects, he found it cumbersome to look through hundreds of texts for information. He decided to compile and categorize numerous works into a single encyclopedia, with a volume for each subject. In 1403, he ordered the compilation of classical, historical, and philosophical books, those on literature and the branches of study of astronomy, astrology, medicine, divination, science and technology, into volumes by category. More than one hundred people toiled over this project for a year, and eventually produced a body of work named, A Complete Work of Literature. Emperor Yongle was not satisfied, thinking the number of books too small and their contents too simplistic. In 1405, the emperor sent people to various parts of the country to purchase books and expanded the number of compilers from 100 to 2,169. The new version was completed in 1408. Zhu Di named it the Yongle Encyclopedia, and wrote the preface in which he likened its compilation to gold mining: "It is (as difficult) as sieving the sand for gold, or scouting the sea for diamonds." The encyclopedia incorporated eight thousand texts, dating from ancient times to the early Ming Dynasty. All the texts retained their original form and wording. They covered an array of subjects, including agriculture, art, astronomy, drama, geology, history, literature, medicine, natural sciences, religion, and technology, as well as descriptions of unusual natural events. The Encyclopedia, which was completed in 1407 or 1408, at Nanjing Guozijian (南京國子監; the ancient Nanjing University-Nanjing Imperial Central College), comprised 22,877 or 22,937 manuscript rolls, or chapters in 11,095 volumes occupying 40 cubic metres (1400 ft³) and containing 370 million characters. It was designed to include all that had ever been written on the Confucian canon, history, philosophy, and the arts and sciences. The table of contents alone consisted of sixty volumes.
Transcription and disappearance
When he moved his capital to Beijing, Zhu Di had the Encyclopedia transported and kept in the Forbidden City. The handwritten encyclopedia was the only one of its kind. Because of the vastness of the work, it could not be block-printed, and it is thought that only one other manuscript copy was made. In 1557, during the reign of the Emperor Jiajing (嘉靖帝 the 12th emperor), the Encyclopedia was narrowly saved from being destroyed by a fire which burnt down three palaces in the Forbidden City. Afterwards, Emperor Jiajing ordered the transcription of another copy of the Encyclopedia. Over one hundred copyists produced a duplicate in six years.
Fewer than four hundred volumes of the set survived into modern times. The original Encyclopedia lodged in the Forbidden City has been lost; it is believed to have been destroyed in the mid-seventeenth century during the wars that toppled the Ming Dynasty. The duplicate was kept in the Imperial Archives of the Imperial City, but by the late eighteenth century, when Emperor Qianlong was ready to compile his Complete Library of Four Branches of Books, 2,400 volumes of the Encyclopedia were found to be missing. The second copy was gradually dissipated and lost from the late-eighteenth century onwards, until the remaining volumes were burned in a fire started by Chinese forces attacking the neighboring British legation, or looted (or rescued, depending on one's point of view) by the forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The surviving volumes are in libraries and private collections around the world. Decades of searching for the remaining volumes collected by overseas museums and libraries reveal that only 800 volumes survived, less than four percent of the original encyclopedia. In China, there are only 128 volumes left.
Disappearance of the original copy
The original copy has disappeared from the historical record. All of the recovered volumes are from the copied version; the fate of the original is unknown what happened to the original. There are four hypotheses:
- It was destroyed in the 1449 fire in Nanjing.
- It was burnt in the Palace of Heavenly Purity (in the Forbidden City) during the reign of Qing Dynasty Emperor Jiaqing.
- It was destroyed with Wenyuange (the Imperial library in the Forbidden City) at the end of the Ming Dynasty.
- It was hidden within the palace walls of the Qing dynasty.
Some scholars think that the Encyclopedia disappeared at the death of Jiajing. The loss of the original Yongle Encyclopedia is commonly associated with Yongling, the underground tomb Emperor Jiajing devoted almost his whole life to constructing. It is theorized that Emperor Jiajing had the original copy of the Encyclopedia hidden in the tomb complex of Yongling, the second largest of the thirteen Ming tombs. Proposals are being made to search for the lost manuscript by making a geophysical survey of the Yongling tomb.
Legacy of the Yongle Encyclopedia
By the mid-nineteenth century, only sixty-four volumes were left. Years of searching recovered 150 volumes. Today, 163 volumes are housed on the Chinese mainland, and over 200 volumes exist in libraries and private collections overseas. The United States Library of Congress houses 41 volumes. The Encyclopedia is considered a treasure because it preserves many ancient works whose originals have been lost. Most current publications of poems from the Song, Jin, and Yuan dynasties are based on those appearing in the Encyclopedia. The recently staged ancient kunqu drama Number One Scholar Zhang Xie was also rehearsed according to the script included in the Encyclopedia.
A 100-volume portion was published in Chinese in 1962. The Beijing Library Press has begun making full-size replicas of all the remaining volumes of the Yongle Dadian collected at the National Library of China, so that readers can see the actual size, quality and style of the pages. Later publications will extend to the 200 books scattered overseas.
- Huo Jianying, Emperor Yongle, China Today.
- Marianne Bray, China mega-book gets new life. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- Huo Jianying.
- Marianne Bray. Ibid.
- Department of Labor, Remarks Prepared for Delivery by U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- Marianne Bray.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Jianying, Huo. 2004. "CULTURE—Pieces of the Past—Emperor Yongle." China Today. 53 (4): 56.
- Perkins, Dorothy. 1999. Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, its History and Culture. New York: Facts on File. pp. 605-606 ISBN 0816026939
- Tsai, Shih-shan Henry. 2001. Perpetual Happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295981091
- Wason, Charles William. 1914. Encyclopaedia Maxima, Yung lo ta tien the Great Standard of Yung Lo, Completed at Nanking, A.D. 1408 Under the Directorship of Hsieh Chin: Some Memoranda and Bibliographical Notes Regarding this Great Encyclopaedia of Which Three Volumes are Preserved in This Collection.
- Xie, Jin. 1986. Yongle da dian (永樂大典). Beijing: Zhonghua shu ju. ISBN 7101011896
All links retrieved June 4, 2023.
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