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Yongle Encyclopedia

“Yongle Encyclopedia” (“Great Canon of Yongle Era” or “Vast Documents of Yongle Era”) was a Chinese compilation commissioned by Zhudi, Emperor Yongle of Ming Dynasty in 1403 and completed by 1408. It was the world's earliest and largest general encyclopedia.

The Yongle Emperor

What are contributions of the Yongle Emperor for the history?

The Yongle Emperor or “Yung-lo Emperor” (May 2, 1360–August 12, 1424), born Zhu Di was the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty  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; and the completion of the monumental Yongle Encyclopedia.

What is basic information of Yongle Encyclopedia?

Yongle encyclopedia was compiled in the Ming Dynasty. It contains 22877 volumes of articles and 60 volumes of table of contents all in 11095 books, with a total number of about 370 million words. The Canon contains over 8000 ancient books and records from the pre-Qin Dynasty to the early Ming Dynasty in China. It’s the largest encyclopedia in ancient China, which was finished over 300 years earlier than the famous Encyclopedia of Britain.

Yongle Encyclopedia

Originally named Collection of Classical Literature (Wenxian Dacheng), the Yongle Canon was compiled in the first year of Emperor Yongle’s reign in the Ming Dynasty (1403), and was finished in 1408. It embodies about 8000 important ancient classics and covers almost all topics. The works contained are faithfully compiled according to the original texts in whole, in piece or paragraph, which further enhances the documentary value of the data preserved.

Yongle Encyclopedia

How is the development of the work?

Two thousand scholars worked on the project under the direction of the Yongle Emperor (reigned 1402–1424), incorporating eight thousand texts from ancient times up to the early Ming Dynasty. 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 1408 at Nanjing Guozijian (the ancient Nanjing University - Nanjing Imperial Central College), comprised 22,877 or 22,937 manuscript rolls, or chapters in 11,095 volumes occupying roughly 40 cubic metres (1400 ft³) and using 50 million Chinese characters. It was designed to include all that had ever been written on the Confucian canon, history, philosophy, and the arts and sciences. It was a massive collation of excerpts and works from the mass of Chinese literature and knowledge.

How is the transcription and disappearance of Yongle Encyclopedia?

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 Emperor Jiajing, 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

Yongle Encyclopedia

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 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.

What are legacies 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.

What are specials of the Yongle Encyclopedia?

The compilation of Yongle Canon is highly scientific, which ensures convenient searches when using it.

With great length and extensive contents, the Yongle Canon is also neat in handwriting. All characters in it are written in regular script by brush pen, supplemented by numerous exquisite illustrations, in which the mountains and rivers are line drawings that are realistic in configuration. The book is hardcover wrapped with gunny cloth, elegant and dignified. It is recognized by experts and scholars home and abroad as a rare treasure in the world history.

Yongle Canon is a precious cultural heritage of the Chinese nation, and has great documentary value because of its preservation of most of the classics before the Song and Yuan Dynasties. It has made great contributions to the development of traditional Chinese academic learning.

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