In my editing of a volume about lexicography this week, I came across a reference to a Chinese encyclopedia written in 1408. This was a handwritten encyclopedia of all Chinese knowledge at the time.
Called the Yongle Dadian (Great Canon of the Yongle Era), it comprised no fewer than 370 million Chinese characters and 22,937 manuscript rolls, bound in 11,095 volumes. Remember, handwritten.
The Canon covered history, philosophy, Buddhism, Taoism, drama, arts and farming, and many other topics, including unusual natural events. The content, which was partially transcribed character by character as exact copies of original texts produced during the previous decades, is structured according to a rhyming system for the characters and is also accessible through a complex system of indexes which, together with the preface, comprise 60 chapters in and of themselves. The idea was to make a complete canon of existing texts within a wide range of subject matter at a critical historical moment, when China was recovering from several devastating conflicts and needed this knowledge.
Some two thousand scholars worked on the volumes during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, incorporating eight thousand texts from ancient times up to the Ming Dynasty.
Because of the vastness of the work, it couldn’t be block-printed, and it is believed that only one copy of the volume was made at the time. A third copy was ordered transcribed after a fire burned the Forbidden City. Today, only 400 volumes survive. The original has disappeared, either burned, or destroyed, or perhaps buried in the tomb of the emperor Jiajing, who had ordered the second copy made.
Today, the most complete of the surviving Ming volumes are housed in the National Library of China in Beijing. Private collections house other pieces of the work.
I can’t help but imagine the treasure lost to mankind with the disappearance of the original manuscripts, as works of art, a collection of knowledge, and a trove of Chinese thought and history. Along with the volumes lost from the library at Alexandria, perhaps one day these volumes will be unearthed and finally brought to light again. One can dream.
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