The Yongle Encyclopedia or Yongle Dadian (simplified Chinese: 永乐大典; traditional Chinese: 永樂大典; pinyin: Yǒnglè Dàdiǎn; Wade–Giles: Yung-lo Ta-tien; literally: "Great Canon of Yongle") was a Chinese leishu encyclopedia commissioned by the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty in 1403 and completed by 1408. Its sheer scope and size made it the world's largest general encyclopedia, an achievement unsurpassed until the 21st century Wikipedia.
The Yongle Dadian was commissioned by the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402–24) and completed in 1408. 2,169 scholars spent four years compiling the leishu encyclopedia, under the leadership of general editor Yao Guangxiao (姚廣孝).
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 the Guozijian in Nanjing (now Nanjing University). 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.
The Yongle Dadian was not printed, because the treasury had run out of funds when it was completed in 1408. In 1557, during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor, the encyclopedia was narrowly saved from a fire that burnt down three palaces in the Forbidden City. A manuscript copy was made in 1567.
The original manuscript of the Yongle Dadian was almost completely lost by the end of the Ming dynasty, but 90 percent of the 1567 manuscript survived until the Second Opium War in the Qing dynasty. In 1860, the Anglo-French invasion of Beijing resulted in extensive burning and looting of the city, with the British and French soldiers taking a large portion of the manuscript as souvenirs. 5,000 volumes remained by 1875, less than half of the original, which dwindled to 800 by 1894. During the Boxer Rebellion and the 1900 Eight-Nation Alliance occupation of Beijing, allied soldiers took hundreds of volumes, and many were destroyed in the Hanlin Academy fire. Only 60 volumes remained in Beijing.
Fewer than 400 volumes survive today, comprising about 800 chapters (rolls), or 3.5 percent of the original work. The most complete collection is kept at the National Library of China in Beijing, which holds 221 volumes. The next largest collection is at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which holds 62 volumes.
The Library of Congress of the United States holds 41 volumes; 51 volumes are 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 volumes are held in various libraries in Germany.
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- Destruction of Chinese Books in the Peking Siege of 1900. IFLANET.
- 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.