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China’s Colossal Encyclopedia

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Pen and ink drawing of two women alongside calligraphy
Detail from a page in the Yongle encyclopedia. Asian Division. 

This is a guest post by Qi Qiu, head of scholarly services in the Asian Division. It first appeared in the Library of Congress Magazine’s March/April 2021 issue.

At the dawn of the 15th century, four decades before Johannes Gutenberg introduced the metal movable-type printing press in Europe, the third emperor of China’s Ming dynasty, Zhu Di, ordered the kingdom’s leading scholars to compile a comprehensive work containing all forms of knowledge known to Chinese civilization.

The resulting Yongle encyclopedia, named after the emperor’s reign, comprised 22,937 hand-copied sections bound into 11,095 volumes.

Covered in striking yellow silk, these volumes incorporated a diverse range of topics, from history, art and the Confucian classics to astronomy, medicine and divination. Most of the content was drawn from sections of earlier publications. To facilitate quick searching, compilers arranged entries phonetically into groups according to a standardized rhyming scheme.

More than a century later, after a disastrous fire nearly destroyed the encyclopedia, the Jiajing emperor, Zhu Houcong, ordered a copy of the entire set. A team of 109 court scholars labored over five years before finally completing an exact reproduction in 1567.

Over ensuing decades, however, the original edition was completely lost. Even now, how and when it went missing remains a mystery. Fortunately, parts of the duplicate set have survived — but just barely. Today, only 420 volumes, or 4 percent of the complete set, remain. This includes two newly discovered volumes that sold for more than $9 million at an auction in Paris in July 2020.

Of these, the Library of Congress holds 41 unique, inconsecutive volumes in its Asian Division. Acquired during the early 20th century via purchase and donation, they form the largest assemblage of Yongle specimens outside Asia.

Thanks to collaboration among custodial, cataloging, conservation and digitization teams, the Library’s Yongle collection is now fully cataloged and undergoing careful preservation work. Upon completion of a digitization project in progress, all 41 volumes of this 450-year-old encyclopedia will be made available online for readers around the world to study and appreciate up close.

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  1. An invaluable compilation of Chinese knowledge! I look forward to enjoying digital volumes to appreciate this magnificent historical resource! Greetings !

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