The Yongle Encyclopedia (simplified Chinese: 永乐大典; traditional Chinese: 永樂大典; pinyin: Yǒnglè Dàdiǎn; literally The Great Canon or Vast Documents of the Yongle Era) was a Chinese compilation of information commissioned by the Ming Dynasty emperor Yongle in 1403 and completed by 1408. It was the world's largest known general encyclopedia at its time, unsurpassed for six centuries.
Development of the work
Over two thousand scholars worked on the project under the direction of the Yongle Emperor, who reigned from 1402 to 1424. The scholars incorporated 8,000 texts from ancient times through the early Ming Dynasty. Many subjects were covered, including agriculture, art, astronomy, drama, geology, history, literature, medicine, natural sciences, religion and technology, as well as descriptions of unusual natural events.
The encyclopedia was completed in 1408 at Nanjing Guozijian (南京國子監; Imperial University in Nanking). It comprised 22,937 manuscript rolls or chapters, in 11,095 volumes, occupying roughly 40 cubic meters (1400 ft³), and using 370 million Chinese characters. It was designed to include all that had been written on the Confucian canon, as well as all history, philosophy, arts and sciences. It was a massive collation of excerpts and works from the entirety of Chinese literature and knowledge.
Transcription and disappearance
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, under the supervision of the Jiajing Emperor, the encyclopedia was narrowly saved from being destroyed by a fire that burnt down three palaces in the Forbidden City. Afterwards, the Emperor ordered the transcription of a third copy of the encyclopedia.
Fewer than 400 volumes of the three manuscript copies of the set survived into modern times. The original copy has disappeared from the historical record. The second copy was gradually dissipated and lost from the late 18th century onwards, until the roughly 800 volumes remaining were burnt in a fire started by Chinese forces attacking the neighboring British legation, or were looted by the Eight-Nation Alliance forces during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The surviving volumes are in libraries and private collections around the world. Today, the most complete of the surviving late Ming Dynasty copies of the Yongle Encyclopedia are kept at the National Library of China in Beijing. The National Library of China also holds the most copies, a total of 221 books of the Yongle Encyclopedia. The next largest single collection is at the National Palace Museum in Taipei: the museum holds 62 books. Further, there are 41 books of the encyclopedia at the Library of Congress in the United States; 51 books in the United Kingdom held at the British Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, and Cambridge University Library; and 5 books held in various libraries in Germany.
The fate of the original manuscript is unknown. There are several 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 the Jiaqing Emperor of the Qing Dynasty.
- It was destroyed with Wenyuange (the Imperial library collection) at the end of the Ming Dynasty.
- It disappeared at the death of the Jiajing Emperor, having been taken by the emperor to his grave, and it has yet to be found in the tomb complex of Yongling.
A 100-volume portion was published in Chinese in 1962.
- "Encyclopedias and Dictionaries". Encyclopedia Britannica 18 (15th ed.). 2007. p. 257.
- "Yongle Encyclopedia". World Digital Library. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
- Kathleen Kuiper (31 Aug 2006). "Yongle dadian (Chinese encyclopaedia)". Encyclopædia Britannica Online (in English). Chicago, Illinois. Retrieved 9 May 2012. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.
- 陈红彦. 国家图书馆《永乐大典》收藏史话. (2008) "http://www.nlc.gov.cn/old2008/service/wjls/pdf/04/04_04_a4b7c3.pdf"
- National Library of China. Encyclopædia Britannica Online
- Yung-lo ta-tien (Vast Documents of the Yung-lo Era) National Palace Museum
- "Experts Urge Collectors To Share World's Earliest Encyclopedia". Xinhua News Agency (in English). April 2002.
- Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, Anne Walthall, James B. Palais. (2006). East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-618-13384-4.
- Guo Bogong 郭佰恭. Yongle dadian kao 永樂大典考. Shanghai, Commercial Press, 1937.
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- China to Digitalize World's Earliest Encyclopedia. People's Daily Online. April 2002 - aspirations, pending approval.
- Biggest and Earliest Encyclopedia. chinaculture.org.
- Experts Urge Collectors To Share World's Earliest Encyclopedia. china.org.cn. April 2002.