Two pages of the Yongle Dadian, one of the first encyclopedias ever printed. This was com-missioned by the Yongle Emperor, the greatest of the Ming Dynasty emperors.

Yongle dadian 永乐大典 is a massive, imperially-commissioned encyclopedia compiled in 1408 and composed of thousands of excerpts from all across the Chinese textual tradition. Most of the encyclopedia was destroyed in the wars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Yongle dadian, or Great Compendium of the Yongle Reign, was a massive literary encyclopedia completed in 1408. The work had 22,877 chapters in 11,095 volumes. The table of contents alone was sixty chapters long. In 1900 most of the last known copy of the Yongle dadian was largely destroyed in a fire started during the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising of a Chinese secret society called Righteous and Harmonious Fists against foreign influence in trade, politics, religion, and technology. The New York Times mourned the loss as “perhaps the greatest tragedy in the history of literature,” noting that the encyclopedia was “the most colossal literary work ever carried out by man” (8 February 1914).

The Yongle dadian was commissioned at the behest of Emperor Yongle (reigned 1402–1424) shortly after he usurped the throne from his nephew, the Jianwen emperor (reigned 1398–1402). In 1403 the new emperor ordered one of his leading advisors to direct the project. A staff of 147 scholars was drafted, and the project was completed the following year. The emperor, however, was dissatisfied with the result, complaining that it was too limited in scope. He recommissioned the project on a grander scale, insisting that it include material from all philosophical, technical, and literary fields. The staff of compilers, editors, and scribes was expanded to include over two thousand scholars. When the compendium was completed in 1408, Yongle declared his satisfaction and wrote the preface for it himself, boasting of the great aid this work would be to the scholars of the empire. All the information of the world, he explained, was arranged here in topical and phonetic order.

The encyclopedia was but one of many scholarly initiatives of the court at this time. Yongle ordered several other large projects, including elaborately annotated editions of each of the Confucian Five Classics and the Four Books, a large encyclopedia of neo-Confucian terms and teachings, and the full Buddhist scriptural canon, the Tripitaka. Historians generally regard these ambitious projects as an effort by Yongle to shed his image as a violent usurper and to recast his legacy as that of a cultured and benevolent ruler. Moreover, projects such as the Yongle dadian served to enlist officials from among the wary scholar-elite of the empire.

Imperial Precedent

In commissioning the Yongle dadian and other projects, Yongle followed a longstanding imperial precedent that went back at least to the third century CE. His two Ming dynasty (1368–1644) predecessors, Hongwu (reigned 1368–1398) and Jianwen, had each initiated large compilations. However, the Yongle dadian dwarfed all precedents. The term encyclopedia understates the scope of this work because it included large excerpts from a wide range of texts of the Chinese tradition. Several were transcribed in their entirety. Some pieces, including literary, historical, and dramatic works, have survived only because they were reconstructed or copied from the Yongle dadian.

Yongle originally intended that copies of the Yongle dadian be printed with woodblocks and distributed to various parts of the empire for educational purposes. But this elaborate plan was later abandoned, possibly because the imperial treasuries had been strained by Yongle’s other projects. The compendium was kept at the palace at Nanjing and moved to Beijing along with rest of the imperial library when Yongle relocated his capital to the north. (Some sources say an additional copy was kept in Nanjing.) The Yongle dadian remained on the palace grounds and apparently saw little use in the decades that followed. In 1562 it was nearly destroyed by a fire that engulfed several palace buildings. In response, the Jiajing emperor (reigned 1521–1567) ordered that two copies be made of the original manuscript. (Some scholars say only one copy was made.) This endeavor took five years, supervised by high court officials with a staff of 108 scholars. The original volumes were sent back to the southern Ming capital at Nanjing, while the two copies were kept in Beijing.

The Nanjing copy and one of the Beijing copies are believed to have been destroyed when the Ming dynasty fell in 1644. By the late eighteenth century only one dilapidated copy remained, with some sections missing. Some scholars have speculated that the original edition of the encyclopedia still survives in some hidden location. One theory is that this edition was entombed with the Jiajing emperor when he died in 1567.


No subsequent Ming emperor attempted to emulate Yongle’s ambitious project, but emperors of the early Qing dynasty (1644–1912) did. The Kangxi emperor (reigned 1662–1722) ordered two ambitious encyclopedic projects, although neither attained the scope of the Yongle dadian. In the late eighteenth century the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736–1795) ordered his officials to comb through Yongle’s encyclopedia to reconstruct texts that had been lost in the intervening centuries. Several hundred previously missing works were partially or completely reconstructed.

In 1900 the Yongle dadian was located in the scholarly halls of the Hanlin Academy near the British Legation and other foreign embassies. That summer as Western armies battled against Chinese forces of the Boxer Rebellion, the buildings of the academy caught on fire, destroying most of the library and nearly all of the Yongle dadian. Approximately 400 of the original 11,095 volumes survived. In the ensuing chaotic years individual pages and volumes of the encyclopedia found their way into private hands, and many were eventually acquired by foreigners. Hence, many of the surviving sections of the Yongle dadian are now held outside of China in Europe, the United States, and Japan. (Russia and East Germany returned their volumes in the 1950s.) Two hundred twenty-one of the surviving volumes are currently held in China, sixty of which are in Taiwan.

Various portions of the surviving volumes have been reprinted in modern editions. Several scholars have called for a return of the original volumes of the Yongle dadian to China, arguing that with the reprinted editions now available to researchers, there is no reason not to return the originals to their country of origin. In 2001 the National Central Library in Beijing began to digitize the entire surviving corpus of the encyclopedia, calling for the cooperation of holders of volumes around the globe.

Further Reading

Gu Liren 顧力仁. (1985). Yongle Dadian ji qi jiyi shu yanjiu 永樂大典及其輯佚書研究 [The Yongle dian and its compilation and loss]. Taipei, Taiwan: Wenshizhe Press.

Perseverance can reduce an iron rod to a sewing needle.


Tiě chǔ mó chéng zhēn

Source: Ditmanson, Peter B. (2009). Yongle Dadian. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2587–2589. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Yongle Dadian (Yǒnglè Dà Diǎn 永乐大典)|Yǒnglè Dà Diǎn 永乐大典 (Yongle Dadian)

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