Encyclopedia Is Compiled Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In 1403, Emperor Yonglo commissioned the compilation of a work, the Yonglo Dadian, which would record all existing knowledge and include every monograph in the Chinese empire. Completed in 1407, the encyclopedia consisted of 917,480 handwritten pages within 22,937 sections, filling 11,095 manuscript volumes.

Summary of Event

Zhu Di (Chu Ti; the future emperor Yonglo Yonglo ) was the fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhang Zhu Yuanzhang (Chu Yüan-chang; the emperor Hongwu), the founder of the Ming Dynasty Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). His eldest brother, Zhu Biao (Chu Piao) had died in 1392, and Zhu Biao’s son and heir apparent, Zhu Yunwen (Chu Yun-wen), was named the successor to the throne. When Emperor Hongwu died in 1398, Zhu Yunwen ascended the throne as Emperor Jianwen Jianwen (Ming emperor) (r. 1399-1402). After years of civil war beginning in 1399, Zhu Di, also known as the prince of Yan (Yen), usurped the throne from his nephew and became the new emperor on July 17, 1402. His reign was known as the era of Yonglo (“perpetual happiness”), and one of the great achievements of his reign was the compilation of the Yonglo Dadian (the grand encyclopedia of Yongle), the earliest and largest of its kind in the world. [kw]Yonglo Dadian Encyclopedia Is Compiled (1403-1407) [kw]Encyclopedia Is Compiled, Yonglo Dadian (1403-1407) Encyclopedia, Chinese Yonglo Dadian China;1403-1407: Yonglo Dadian Encyclopedia Is Compiled[3080] Cultural and intellectual history;1403-1407: Yonglo Dadian Encyclopedia Is Compiled[3080] Literature;1403-1407: Yonglo Dadian Encyclopedia Is Compiled[3080] Yonglo Xie Jin Dao Yan

In the first year of his reign, Yonglo saw the need to collect, copy, and preserve all existing Chinese literature in every area of knowledge. In September, 1403, he appointed Xie Jin Xie Jin , the grand secretary and a Hanlin academician, to serve as general director of the project. With a staff of 147 assistants, Xie Jin completed the work by December, 1404. However, Yonglo thought the manuscript was inadequate, so he commissioned his longtime adviser Dao Yan Dao Yan (also known as Yao Guangxiao, or Yao Kuang-hsiao) to serve as a codirector of a major revision. The Chinese government hired 2,180 scholars from the Hanlin Academy, the National University, and government agencies to search the country for texts not found in the imperial library or to work on the copying and editing at the Literary Erudition Pavilion. The final compilation, finished in December, 1407, encompassed approximately 8,000 books from various areas, including art, animals, astronomy, Buddhism, agriculture, Buddhism, classical texts, codes of law, Confucian canon, drama, fiction, geography, geology, history, institutions, literature, mathematics, medicine, military affairs, natural sciences, novels, philosophy, plants, religion, ritual, technology, and Daoism.

The final vast compilation consisted of more than 370 million words, 917,480 pages, and 22,937 sections or chapters (sixty of which were tables of contents) in 11,095 handwritten folio volumes. Subject headings appeared in the outer edges of the pages. The emperor named this work Yonglo Dadian, incorporating the name of his reign. He also wrote a long preface, which included this explanation of why he undertook such an ambitious project:

Ever since I succeeded to my father’s throne, I have thought about writing and publication as a means of unifying confusing systems and standardizing government regulations and social customs. . . . Nevertheless, I ordered my literati-officials to compile The Four Treasuries, to purchase lost books form the four corners of the country, to search and to collect whatever they could find, to assemble and classify them according to both topical and phonetic order, and to make them into enduring classics. The fruit of their labor is this encyclopedia, which includes the breadth of the universe and all the texts from antiquity to the present time, whether they are big or small, polished or crude. . . . I’ve been assiduously studying the Dao taught by the sages and often discuss its aims with learned people

Although obviously proud of this encyclopedia, Yonglo never sent the manuscript for printing. In 1421, when Yonglo transferred the capital from Nanjing (Nanking) to Beijing (Peking), the encyclopedia was also moved to the Forbidden City.

There is controversy regarding Yonglo’s real motives for compiling but not publishing the encyclopedia. According to what he said in the preface, Yonglo’s purpose was to preserve all extant Chinese literary treasures and heritage, and he had a genuine scholarly interest in the project. Also, it appears likely that the additional expense of woodblock cutting for such a huge work would have been too much of a burden on the imperial treasury by the time the encyclopedia was completed.

The preface also suggests some political motivation. Yonglo was a warrior king, but he sought the reputation and legacy of being a sage ruler and patron of learning in the traditional sense, as evidenced in his references to the Dao, sages, and learned people. He also sponsored numerous other literary projects and thus helped legitimize his rule. Posthumously, he was given the name, Wen Huangdi (Wen-huang-ti), or “emperor of culture,” a high distinction for a Chinese emperor. However, the Qing scholar, Sun Chengze (1593-1675), held another opinion; he concluded that Yonglo used the encyclopedia project to employ and placate the restless literati, who were resentful of Yonglo’s bloody usurpation of the throne.

Whatever the reason for not printing the encyclopedia, it was unfortunate that it never went to the printing shop or into multiple production. After the encyclopedia narrowly escaped destruction in a fire in 1556, Emperor Jiajing (Chia-ching; r. 1522-1567) ordered that two manuscript copies be made. After five years, the project was completed, and the copies were placed in the Literary Erudition Pavilion and the Imperial Library. The original was returned to Nanjing. Unfortunately, the original and one of the copies were destroyed with the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in 1644. During the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (Yung-cheng; r. 1723-1735), the remaining copy was transferred to the Hanlin Academy Library. Unfortunately, due to theft, rodents, and poor environmental conditions, much of the encyclopedia was lost. By 1900, it was estimated that of the original 11,095 volumes, only about 800 had survived. Then in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, the Hanlin Academy was set on fire and the Yonglo Dadian was almost completely destroyed or stolen.


The Yonglo Dadian was one of the greatest achievements of the Ming Dynasty and helped establish Emperor Yonglo as a patron of Chinese literature and culture. Involving more than two thousand scholars, it was the largest compilation project in Chinese history. The scope of the encyclopedia included all existing literature Literature;China that could be found in the country. One of the largest encyclopedias ever produced, the Yonglo Dadian helped preserve rare and fragile works that otherwise would have disappeared.

It is estimated that only about four hundred books remain, but they are the only copies of numerous ancient works that were lost or destroyed. In April, 2002, acknowledging its significance in Chinese cultural history and scholarship, the Xinhua news agency announced that the Beijing Library Press would begin publishing photocopies of the entire encyclopedia in its original size, color, and style.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chan, Albert. The Glory and Fall of the Ming Dynasty. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. Contains a section on the Yonglo Dadian and a well-researched history of the loss and survival of parts of the encyclopedia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chan, David B. The Usurpation of the Prince of Yen, 1398-1402. San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center, 1976. Provides a detailed study of how the Yonglo emperor, also known as the prince of Yan, usurped the throne. Especially interesting is the active role in the usurpation by the monk Dao Yan, who later was assigned a major role in the Yonglo Dadian project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Donald G., and Cheng Huanwen. “The Destruction of a Great Library: China’s Loss Belongs to the World.” American Libraries 28 (October, 1997): 60-62. This article focuses on the destruction during the Boxer Rebellion of the Hanlin Academy library housing the encyclopedia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mote, Frederick, and Denis Twitchett, eds. The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644. Vols. 7-8 in The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Scholarly work on the Ming Dynasty, including sections on the Yonglo Dadian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tsai, Shih-shan Henry. Perpetual Happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. A biography about the emperor who had the encyclopedia created. Includes a detailed description of the compilation and the later history of the work. Extensive bibliography, notes, and a glossary of Chinese characters.

Categories: History