An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Yongle dadian 永樂大典

Sep 14, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Yongle dadian 永樂大典 "Great statutes of the Yongle reign" is a large encyclopaedia compiled on imperial order of the Yongle Emperor 永樂帝 (r. 1403-1424) of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644). The compilation started in 1403 and was finished four years later. The projected title was Leiyao 類要, the original title of the compilation was Wenxian dacheng 文獻大成 "The great complete [statutes] based on literary and documentary sources", and it was only renamed Yongle dadian after a revision. The then-size was 22,937 juan in 11,095 volumes, with an index of 60 juan. The compilation team of 2,169 persons was supervised by Xie Jin 解縉 (1369-1415) and Yao Guangxiao 姚廣孝 (1335-1418). When the encyclopaedia was submitted to the throne in 1407, the emperor was not content that the compilation had been achieved so quickly and therefore suffered of shortness in many parts. He therefore ordered to carry out a revision. The team of compilers was enlarged to more than 3,000 persons and a regular ad-hoc bureau was installed in the Imperial Library in the Wenyuan Hall 文淵閣. Yao Guangxiao and Liu Jidi 劉季篪 (jinshi degree 1394) supervised the work together with Xie Jin. The Hanlin 翰林院 academicians Wang Jing 王景 and Wang Da 王達 (jinshi degree 1405) were the chief editors (zongzai 總裁), and Zou Ji 鄒輯, Liang Qian 梁潛 (1356-1418) and Wu Bo 吳溥 (1363-1426) vice editors. When the book was finished in 1407, the emperor renamed it and wrote a preface.

Immediately after his usurpation of the throne, in 1402, Emperor Chengzu 明成祖, the Yongle Emperor, issued an edict to compile an encyclopaedia on the base of all literary and documentary sources available. His incentive was the mobilisation of the officialdom for his cause. Such a large joint project as the encyclopaedia was would support the usurper's justification. The method was to make use of all available written sources of the empire. The topics of the encylopaedia were not, as usual until that date, arranged according to content, but according to the rhyme group of the keywords. The rhyme system had been established by the early Ming period dictionary Hongwu zhengyun 洪武正韻.

The 11,095-volumes-large encyclopaedia was for imperial purpose and was therefore bound and lined in a very prodigious style. The Yongle dadian was introduced by a very large description of methodology (fanli 凡例) which was used for the analysis and use of the more than 8,000 sources. One of the main principles was to quote sources as they were, without altering one word or even a brush stroke. This makes the Yongle dadian a very important source for textual critique. The Yongle dadian preserved a tremendous amount of earlier literature which is otherwise long since lost.

Figure 1. Coloured version of the Yongle dadian 永樂大典
One page of a surviving fascicle of the Yongle dadian discovered abroad. From Li (2003).

The Yongle dadian was very comprehensive and covered all aspects traditionally treated in Chinese encyclopaedias, from the universe, human relations and statecraft to stories and tales, plants and animals. With every lemma, all words were explained, in which the lemma character appears, also in second position (for instance, the lemma 律 included the expressions lülü 律呂 as well as falü 法律). Objects with several names are also listed in one position, and the terms are mutually explained, with cross references. This is of special value for the names of plants, animals and materia medica.

The lemmas are arranged according to a phonetic system and are therefore not easy to find. All term relevant in astronomy, for example, are listed under the head word 天 "Heaven", and all geographic terms under the head word 地 "Earth". In the Yongle dadian, all place names are explained through history, the names of palaces and temples, the system of administration with all state offices and their duties, the names of dynasties, states and reign periods, the names and genealogy trees of the eminent families, as well as terms in music. The same detailed explanations can be found for the Confucian Classics, the books of history, and the sacred scriptures of the Daoists and Buddhists.

With the removal of the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, the Yongle dadian was also moved to the north and was stored in the Wenzhao Hall 文昭閣 where it was rarely used, as for example, by Emperor Xiaozong 明孝宗 (r. 1487-1505) in the search for medical recipes, or Emperor Shizong 明世宗 (r. 1521-1566), who consulted the book for information on state rituals. In 1557, an incendiary broke out in the Imperial City and destroyed several large halls of the palace, but the Yongle dadian survived without damage. Basing on this experience the emperor ordered in 1562 to copy the whole encyclopaedia. This work, supervised by Xu Jie 徐階 (1503-1583) and Gao Gong 高拱 (1513-1578), was finished in 1567. The original was stored in the Wenyuan Hall, the copy in the Capital Archives (huangshicheng 皇史宬).

The first and only printing of a part of the Yongle dadian was realised in 1629 on the request of the astronomer Xu Guangqi 徐光啟 (1562-1633), who liked to have the chapter on sun eclipses as an excerpt. At the end of the Ming period, the Wenyuan Hall burnt down and the whole book was destroyed. During the 1720s, the copy in the Imperial Archives was removed to the library of the Hanlin Academy 翰林院, where the academicians made use of it, like Quan Zuwang 全祖望 (1705-1755), who created many manuscript copies from the Yongle dadian.

When the imperial series Siku quanshu 四庫全書 was compiled, a substantial part of the Yongle dadian was already missing. The compilers of the Siku quanshu were, nevertheless, able to extract more than 500 complete books from the Yongle dadian (66 books of the Classics category, 41 historiographical texts, 103 books of the category "masters and philosophers", and 175 writings of the belles-lettres category). Yet there were some books quoted in the Yongle dadian which found not their way into the Siku quanshu, like the Song-Yuan liangzhen zhi 宋元兩鎮志, Fengtianlu 奉天錄 or Jiuguozhi 九國志, or the Song huiyao (jigao) 宋會要輯稿.

Over the 19th century, more and more booklets of the the Yongle dadian went missing. But the worst blow came in 1900, when the joint armies of the eight imperial powers (Baguo lianjun 八國聯軍) plundered Beijing. Part of the whole book was burnt, and the other volumes were stolen. Of the whole encyclopaedia, only 64 volumes or booklets were left that found their way into the Beijing Library 北京圖書館 after 1911.

The reconstruction of the encyclopaedia was a hopeless undertaking. Nevertheless, it was possible to obtain 215 original volumes, plus 730 juan that had been copied. The arrangement of the fragments followed the Song-period 宋 (960-1279) encyclopaedia Yunfu qunyu 韻府群玉 by Yin Youyu 陰幼遇 (late 13th cent.), and Qian Feng's 錢諷 Huixi shiyun 回溪史韻. Following the pattern of the lost encyclopaedia Yunhai jingyuan 韻海鏡源 by the Tang-period 唐 (618-907) writer Yan Zhenqing 顏真卿 (709-785), each lemma was presented in four different writing styles (seal script, chancery script, standard style, and cursive script). The sources and their authors were indicated in red characters.

The earliest reproduction of the Yongle dadian fragments was published in 1935 by the Shanghai Shangwu Press 上海商務印書館, representing the 15 fascicles running from 11,127 through 11,141. The Japanese Tōyō Bunko Press 東洋文庫 published in 1930 the fascicles 19,416 through 19,426. In 1959, the Zhonghua Shuju Press 中華書局 printed a facsimile of these holdings, in 220 hardcover volumes, a preface to which was written by the scholar Guo Moruo 郭莫若 (1892-1978). The Shijie Shuju Press 世界書局 in Taipeh reprinted the preserved parts in 1977. Other parts of the Yongle dadian could be obtained later. These 63 juan were, together with the already known parts, reprinted in a downscaled version in 1986 by the Zhonghua Shuju Press, in 10 volumes.

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