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Beach Reading - The Yongle Encyclopedia

Beach Reading - The Yongle Encyclopedia

By Jack Lynch


The worst insult you can hurl at academics is to say they haven't even read the books they presume to comment on.

A confession: Not only do I have to admit that there are reference books in here that I haven’t read through; in fact, there are very few works that I have read from cover to cover - or, since many are in multiple volumes, from cover to cover to cover to cover to cover....

One work I haven't read is the Yongle Encyclopedia. I think I have pretty good reasons, though, for not reading it: viz.,

1. It's very long;

2. It's in a language I don't read; and

3. It doesn't actually exist.

The Yongle Encyclopedia (1403-8) has been called the world’s longest reference book. With 11,095 volumes, it’s hard to dispute the claim; the Yonglè Dàdian, or “Great Canon or Vast Documents of the Yongle Era,” required the labors of a team of two thousand scholars. (The length is sometimes given as 11,095 volumes, and sometimes as 11,919. I confess I haven't counted.)

The work was commissioned by Emperor Cheng Zu of the Ming Dynasty; at the time it was completed, the Wen Yuan Pavilion was established to serve as an imperial library. The material was collected from more than 7,000 works of Chinese literature, and the resulting compendium was organized by the sounds of the headwords, grouped under phonetic rhymes. Endymion Porter Wilkinson describes its scope and importance:

Yongle dadian ... 22,877 juan plus 60 juan index and preface; 11,095 ce, completed in 1408. The largest leishu ever compiled in China, with an estimated total of 370 million characters. ... Seven to eight thousand works from the Spring and Autumn period to the early Ming were copied into this imperially sponsored attempt to save for posterity the sum total of all Chinese written knowledge.


The problem with a work in eleven thousand volumes - well, let's say one of the problems with a work in eleven thousand volumes - is that it doesn't lend itself to quick and cheap reproduction in many copies. For a very long time only the handwritten original existed; then a single manuscript copy was made. It proved a valuable source: by the eighteenth century, it was the only surviving version of more than 385 books that had been lost to history.

By the eighteenth century, though, nearly all of the original manuscript of the encyclopedia had been lost, along with about 10 percent of the copy. And then, in the nineteenth century, European explorers began taking away pieces as souvenirs. By 1900, just 60 of the original 11,095 volumes were left.

There's a scholarly edition of the surviving text in ten folio volumes photolithographic facsimile (1959), even though it amounts to only about 3.5 percent of the original. Chinese scholars have been working through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to reconstruct the lost encyclopedia. It's not as hopeless a task as it sounds: other works quoted the Yongle Encyclopedia at length, and by going through them patiently it's possible to restore the text of at least parts of the work.

Maybe I'll read it when they've finished.

As you might guess, I've been entirely dependent on secondary sources for this one. The two sources I've found most reliable are Ding Zhigang in Robert Wedgeworth, World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, 3rd ed. (Chicago: American Library Association, 1993), s.v. China; and Endymion Porter Wilkinson, Chinese History: A Manual, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2000).

(Posted on  Jack Lynch’s blog You Can Look It Up. Presented here by permission of the author. Picture: Wikipedia.)

Published since 21 Mar 2013

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