(The following post is by Ian Chapman, Chinese Reference Librarian, Asian Division)
Long before the digital “information age,” premodern societies wrestled with how to organize information for efficient access. One Chinese solution was the leishu 類書 (“book of categories”), a reference work that schematically arranges textual and sometimes visual quotations from earlier works. The most ambitious of these was the Yongle Encyclopedia (Yongle dadian 永樂大典), completed in 1408 CE; running to 11,095 volumes, it was the largest reference work created in premodern China, and possibly the world. Lamentably less than 4% now survives, around a tenth of which is held in the Library of Congress’ Asian Division. We are excited to provide open access to these treasures through the digital publication of our 41 unique volumes.
Yongle Encyclopedia—a more literal translation would be “Great Canon of the Yongle [Era]”—was created as an easy-to-consult but comprehensive reference work for the use of the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di 朱棣 (r. 1402-1424), who had usurped the throne to become third emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Zhu Di expressed a wish to consult vast and scattered corpuses of learning as easily as “plucking objects from a pouch.” Court scholar Xie Jin 解縉 (1369-1415) had first pitched the project in 1388 to the Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (r. 1368-1398), the dynastic founder and Zhu Di’s father. In 1403, the Yongle Emperor ordered Xie and a team of 147 scholars to begin work. The emperor judged the product, submitted the following year as “Grand Compendium of Literature” (Wenxian dacheng 文獻大成), to be inadequate in scope.
Between 1405 and 1408, the former Buddhist monk and Daoist adept Yao Guangxiao 姚廣孝 (1335-1418) joined Xie in leading over two thousand scholars in the then-capital Nanjing to compile the more ambitious Yongle Encyclopedia. Comprising 22,937 chapters (juan 卷) in 11,095 imposing 30 x 50 cm yellow-silk bound volumes (ce 册, also translated as “fascicle”), with around 370 million meticulously hand-written characters punctuated with red circles, it surpassed in scale all premodern peers. It cited material from thousands of source works, extending beyond the classics, history, philosophy and belles lettres to divination, medicine, Buddhism and Daoism, each title brushed in red ink.
Unlike most leishu—hundreds have been compiled since the third century—Yongle Encyclopedia was organized phonetically rather than thematically: one located entries for single- or multi-character terms according to an index character’s tone and rime group, as defined in the early Ming “Standard Rimes of the Hongwu Era” (Hongwu zhengyun 洪武正韻).
It appears the Yongle Emperor paid the Encyclopedia scant attention once complete, leading to unverified suspicions that his true motive was to divert scholars’ attention from his usurpation. Only the Hongzhi (r. 1505-1521) and Jiajing (r. 1521-1567) emperors seem to have used it much.
The Yongle Encyclopedia was not the first or last to be compiled for a single imperial reader. But due to the difficulty of reproducing such a massive work, it differed from others in not finding wider circulation. Two initial manuscripts were made; the second was possibly intended as a fair copy to be used in printing. An attempt to print the work soon after completion was abandoned due to cost. The first manuscript remained for a time in Nanjing, but thereafter only the second survived, housed after 1421 in the new capital Beijing. Some officials could access it there until 1436, when it was moved to a palace library. In 1542 the Jiajing Emperor ordered the creation of an exact hand-copied duplicate; but only in 1562, after the work nearly perished in fires of 1557 and 1562, did work commence, completed by 109 exam-recruited scribes in 1567. But the original thereafter disappeared.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its inaccessibility, Yongle Encyclopedia acquired fame and mystique. In 1542, Minister of Personnel Xia Yan 夏言 (1482-1548) described being shown a single case (of ten volumes), in preparation for duplication: “I gazed on it with irrepressible joy; what fortune!” 臣不勝快覩, 甚幸. The Encyclopedia gained limited circulation outside the palace when officials found ways to borrow—or increasingly pilfer—odd volumes and show them to enraptured guests. Yet by the late Ming, some assumed it already lost. Its most intensive use came in 1773, under the succeeding Qing dynasty (1644-1912), when scholars scoured the Encyclopedia—already depleted by around 10%—for quotations from works lost in the interim to incorporate in “Complete Library of the Four Treasuries” (Siku quanshu 四庫全書), a comprehensive set of works valued by Confucian-trained scholars.
Tragically, all three manuscripts of premodern China’s (and the world’s?) largest reference work have been largely lost. Some surmise that the first 1408 copy was destroyed in a Nanjing palace fire in 1449, while the second perished when rebels sacked the Beijing palace in 1644. Others fancy the latter may yet reemerge from the Jiajing Emperor’s tomb or a palace wall. The loss of over 96% of the 1567 duplicate took place incrementally, though most rapidly in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Of the original 11,095 volumes, up to 9,941 (counting the table of contents) survived in 1794, around 3,000-5,000 in 1875-1877, 900 or so in 1886, and only 600-800 in 1893. Some of the remaining volumes burned when Boxer rebels set fire to the Hanlin Academy on June 23, 1900, as part of an offensive on adjacent foreign legations; Qing and foreign nationals salvaged or souvenired others. In 1901 the British Legation returned 330 volumes. By 1904 only 64 volumes remained in official custody.
Explanations for the final copy’s demise have focused on (1) events linked to foreign imperialism and (2) officials’ pilfering. Contemporaries attested to officials’ theft, destructive fires, and foreign expeditionaries’ looting and destruction: which was most to blame? Herbert Giles, writing just months after the 1900 Hanlin Academy fire, viewed that event alone as sufficient cause. Walter T. Swingle in the 1923 “Report of the Librarian of Congress” argued that years of unsanctioned “loans” had left little to be lost in 1900. Guo Bogong and Zhang Chenshi, while acknowledging insider theft, emphasized foreigners’ looting and purchases during and after the 1860 Anglo-French and 1900 multinational occupations of Beijing. Du Zexun dispelled the notion that invading multinational forces triggered the Hanlin Academy fire, noting they arrived only 54 days afterwards. Yet he still found the flames, lit rather by Boxers, responsible for the Encyclopedia’s loss. Zhang Sheng roundly discounted the events of 1900, emphasizing that over nine-tenths of losses took place before then, mainly due to pilfering.
Yongle Encyclopedia volumes removed from imperial collections scattered locally and abroad. By the 1960s, Chinese and foreign libraries had acquired most publicly-known extant volumes; sundry additions have continued to appear. Of the 431 known surviving volumes—each unique—the largest combined holdings are in mainland China (174 volumes, including 64 volumes the USSR returned in the early 1950s), Taiwan (72 volumes), Japan (60 volumes), the United States (53 volumes), and Britain (51 volumes) (2017 figures). The Library of Congress’ collection of 41 volumes is the third largest among individual institutions, after Beijing’s National Library of China and Taipei’s National Central Library. The Library acquired its first four volumes sometime prior to 1923, before reporting in that year the purchase of 29 volumes, and between 1927 and 1940 the acquisition of eight additional volumes (two originally on loan) in five batches of one to three. Many volumes are non-consecutive, but there are several consecutive sequences of from two to five volumes.
Modern technologies have permitted the preservation and circulation of surviving volumes—tragically few though they are—that eluded the Encyclopedia as a whole. Photolithographic reproductions of most volumes have been published, beginning in 1926. Recently there has been a push to digitize holdings. In August 2022, the Library of Congress became one of the first institutions to make an entire major collection of Yongle Encyclopedia volumes freely available online. This was the culmination of several years’ collaborative work involving conservation, digitization, subject, and metadata librarians. All volumes required conservation treatment prior to digitization; one seriously damaged volume took three conservators 15 months to treat. Then came high-resolution photography and compilation of the images as a digital collection. Newly created metadata improved the searchability of content in electronic and paper formats alike.
Surviving volumes of Yongle Encyclopedia, especially in digitized form, benefit researchers in three important ways. First, they retain their reference function, presenting information on granular topics from disparate sources. Second, as Qing scholars discovered, one can reverse-engineer Encyclopedia entries to partially reconstruct sources. Third, the Encyclopedia provides an important case study in the history of the book, in its conceptual, material, and institutional aspects. Hand-written over half a millennium after the emergence in China of book printing, its creation, transmission, and near-extinction testify to both the resilience and vulnerabilities of manuscript culture.
We invite scholars and book lovers the world over to explore our newly digitized volumes. For inquiries about this work or other materials in the Chinese collection, please use the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form to contact Chinese reference staff.
Sources and further reading
Note: The Encyclopedia’s title can also be romanized as “Yongle da dian,” especially in library catalogs.
Details cited in this post of the compilation, transmission, and current preservation of Yongle Encyclopedia draw on the following studies (in chronological order), which are also recommended for further reading. Only information distinctive to particular studies is cited within the text.
Giles, Herbert A. “Encyclopaedia Maxima.” The Nineteenth Century and After: A Monthly Review, vol. 49, no. 290 (Apr. 1901): 659-665.
Giles, Lionel. “A Note on the Yung Lo Ta Tien.” New China Review, vol. 2, no. 2 (Apr. 1920): 137-153.
Report of the Librarian of Congress, 1923, 187-195. Available online via HathiTrust. For acquisition notices, see also 1927: 264; 1928: 277; 1929: 297; 1930: 342-343; 1932: 184; 1936: 176; and 1940: 157-158.
Guo Bogong 郭伯恭. “Yongle dadian” kao 永樂大典考. Changsha: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1938.
Zhang Chenshi 張忱石. “Yongle dadian” shihua 永乐大典史话. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1986.
Du Zexun 杜泽逊. “Siku diben yu Yongle dadian zaofen tanmi” 《四库》底本与《永乐大典》遭焚探秘. Zhonghua dushu bao 中华读书报 (Feb. 26, 2003).
Zhang Sheng 张升. “Yongle dadian” liuchuan yu jiyi yanjiu 《永乐大典》流传与辑佚研究. Beijing: Beijing shifan daxue, 2010.
Wilkinson, Endymion Porter. Chinese History: A New Manual (Fifth edition). Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, for the Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2018, 1082-1083.
Primary sources cited
Ming shilu 明實錄, “Taizong Wen Huangdi shilu” 太宗文皇帝實錄, juan 20b, p. 9a. Taibei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan Lishi yuyan yanjiusuo, 1962-1968, vol. 5, 393.
Xia Yan 夏言, “Feng yu chonglu Yongle dadian” 奉諭重錄永樂大典, in Guizhou xiansheng zouyi 桂洲先生奏議, juan 7, pp. 8a-b; collected in Siku quanshu cunmu congshu, shi bu 四庫全書存目叢書.史部, Jinan: Qi Lu shushe, 1996, vol. 60, 365b.
 Ming shilu 明實錄, “Taizong Wen Huangdi shi lu” 太宗文皇帝實錄, juan 20b, p. 9a, Taibei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan Lishi yuyan yanjiusuo, 1962, vol. 5, 393.
 Zhang Chenshi 張忱石, “Yongle dadian” shihua 永乐大典史话 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1986), 14; Zhang Sheng 张升, “Yongle dadian” liuchuan yu jiyi yanjiu 《永乐大典》流传与辑佚研究 (Beijing: Beijing shifan daxue, 2010), 21-22.
 Guo Bogong, 104-115; Zhang Sheng, 22-23. Guo (114-115) refutes an account in Siku quanshu zongmu tiyao 四庫全書總目提要 (1773-1798) that two new copies were completed in 1567. Some modern scholars have followed this account: see, for example, Herbert A. Giles, “Encyclopaedia Maxima,” The Nineteenth Century and After: A Monthly Review, vol. 49, no. 290 (Apr. 1901): 663.
 Xia Yan 夏言, in Siku quanshu cunmu congshu, shi bu 四庫全書存目叢書.史部 (Jinan: Qi Lu shushe, 1996), vol. 60, 365b.
 Zhang Chenshi, 14.
 Zhang Sheng, 19-20, 24-31.
 Zhang Sheng, 38-46, 237-238. These figures are based on Zhang’s, but incorporate alternatives from other sources.
 Herbert A. Giles, 1901, 659, 665.
 Guo Bogong, 163-168; Zhang Chenshi, 17-20.
 Du Zexun 杜泽逊, “Siku diben yu Yongle dadian zaofen tanmi”《四库》底本与《永乐大典》遭焚探秘, Zhonghua dushu bao 中华读书报 (Feb. 26, 2003).
 Zhang Sheng, 38-39, 77-78, 237-238.
 Endymion Porter Wilkinson, Chinese History: A New Manual (Fifth edition) (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, for the Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2018), 1083.
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I really enjoyed this post as it delves into a lot of subject areas, history, culture, rare books and manuscripts, library and cataloging studies.
Thank you for posting and providing such a interesting topic. I hope to look further into all aspects of this historical project to reinforce my knowledge in all areas that I am capable to approach.
Thanks so much Ian for your commemorative and thorough material history of the Yongle Encyclopedia. An enticing article that will inspire more scholarship on what remains of this great work, rather than what has been lost. Remarkable not only in original scope and length, but material, visual, and literary compass. Such a gift to the digital world.