1 Million Pages of History With 1408’s Mega Encyclopedia

Did you know that in 1408, a Chinese encyclopedia nearly hit the one million-page mark? This mammoth work, known as the 永樂大典 or the Great Canon of the Yongle Era, and more commonly as the Yongle Encyclopedia, was not just a vast reservoir of knowledge but also a monumental feat of its time. Commissioned by Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty, it wasn’t merely one of the earliest encyclopedias but also held the title of the largest encyclopedia in the world until Wikipedia surpassed it in 2007 with approximately two million articles.

Imagine, in an era devoid of digital technology, around two thousand scholars came together to handwrite this encyclopedia. They used an astonishing 370 million Chinese characters to cover 22,937 chapters in 11,095 volumes, totaling 917,480 pages. This colossal work, comprising thousands of hand-drawn illustrations, is estimated to have weighed about 40 tons and occupied around 1400 cubic feet of space. The sheer scale and speed of this project, completed in just 17 months of writing over five years (1403-1408), make it a remarkable achievement in human history.

Emperor Yongle’s Vision

Emperor Yongle’s vision was to compile a comprehensive work that encapsulated all significant Chinese knowledge. Drawing from around 8,000 texts, the Yongle Encyclopedia covered an extensive array of subjects, including art, astronomy, drama, geology, history, literature, medicine, science, religion, engineering, agriculture, and philosophy. This encyclopedia was intended as a showcase of the vast and rich Chinese heritage and intellectual wealth.

Originally intended to be widely printed and distributed, the Yongle Encyclopedia’s massive size made this impractical. Only three full copies were ever made: the original in 1408, a second commissioned by Emperor Jiajing in 1557, and a third following a near-loss in a Forbidden City fire. Tragically, the original copy’s whereabouts are unknown, and it’s hoped that it might be found intact someday, as it appears to have vanished entirely as a complete set.

Today, only 400 of the original 11,095 volumes are known to exist. The majority of the known volumes were destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The National Library of China houses the largest remaining section of the encyclopedia with 221 volumes. Other significant holders include the American Library of Congress with 41 volumes and the United Kingdom with 51 volumes. The survival of these fragments serves as a poignant reminder of the impermanence of even the greatest human endeavors and the ongoing challenge of preserving historical artifacts.

Other Encyclopédie Facts

  • You might find it fascinating that the third longest compiled encyclopedia in history, after Wikipedia and the Yongle Encyclopedia, was the French Encyclopédie. Initially comprising 35 volumes, 71,818 articles, and 3,129 illustrations, it expanded to a staggering 166 volumes, thanks to the efforts of over one thousand workers and 2,250 contributors, including luminaries like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. The top contributor, Louis de Jaucourt, impressively wrote about 8 articles per day, totaling 17,266 articles from 1759 to 1765. When you consider the sheer volume of the Yongle Encyclopedia, which is 12 times larger than this renowned French work, the scale of Emperor Yongle’s project becomes even more astounding.
  • Did you know that ‘Yongle’ means perpetual happiness? This name was after the Ming emperor whose reign name was Yongle. He ruled from 1402-1424 and was born in 1360, becoming the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Widely regarded as the greatest of all Ming Dynasty emperors and one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history, Yongle’s reign was marked by significant achievements. Among these were the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the restoration of the Grand Canal, the sponsoring of historic sea voyages, and the promoting of religious tolerance, albeit with a noted exception towards the Mongolians.
  • Consider this: some of the ships used during the sea voyages sponsored by Emperor Yongle were among the largest sailboats in history. This fact, highlighted in National Geographic’s May 2004 issue, underscores the ambitious nature of Yongle’s maritime explorations. These voyages not only reflected the emperor’s desire for exploration but also his commitment to showcasing the might and reach of the Ming Dynasty.
  • The fate of the original Yongle Encyclopedia remains one of history’s tantalizing mysteries. A popular theory suggests that it might be in the grave of Emperor Jiajing, who ruled from 1507 to 1523. If true, uncovering this tomb could lead to one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in history, akin to finding the lost texts from the Library of Alexandria.
  • Speaking of the library of Alexandria, did you know it once held over 700,000 books, encompassing nearly every book available at the time? The loss of this library is considered one of the greatest tragedies in human history, arguably setting back mankind by hundreds to thousands of years in various fields of study. The knowledge lost in this library had to be painstakingly rediscovered, dramatically altering the course of human history.
  • If you’re amazed by the length of these encyclopedias, consider the Spanish Encyclopedia, Universal Ilustada Europeo-Americana, with its 105,000 pages, or the 40-volume novel “Tokugawa Ieyasu” by Sohachi Yamaoka, the longest work of fiction. And for an even more ancient perspective, the Hittites left behind 15,000 clay tablets. These early books, with their triangular symbol-based alphabets, were not only challenging to read but also cumbersome to transport, being made of fired clay to ensure longevity.
  • The volumes of the Yongle Encyclopedia were bound using a traditional Chinese method known as butterfly binding. This involved folding printed sheets in half, with the text on the inside, and sewing them together, resembling a butterfly’s wings.
  • The encyclopedia drew from an incredibly diverse range of sources, including ancient texts, contemporary works, and even folklore and popular stories of the time, making it a comprehensive snapshot of cultural and intellectual life in early 15th-century China.
  • Emperor Yongle intended the encyclopedia to be a resource for statecraft and governance. It included extensive information on administration, legal codes, and even military strategy, reflecting the emperor’s ambition to consolidate knowledge for practical governance.
  • The Yongle Encyclopedia was not limited to Chinese knowledge. It included translations and adaptations of texts from other cultures, indicating a curiosity and openness to external ideas uncommon for its time.
  • Each illustration in the encyclopedia was meticulously hand-copied. These illustrations were not only artistic but also served as educational tools, depicting everything from botanical specimens to architectural designs.
  • The encyclopedia showcased the art of Chinese calligraphy. Each character was handwritten by skilled scribes, making the work not only an intellectual treasure but also a masterpiece of calligraphic art.
  • It contained detailed astronomical charts and geographical maps, which were among the most accurate and comprehensive of their time, reflecting the advanced scientific knowledge of the Ming Dynasty.
  • Some texts referenced in the Yongle Encyclopedia are no longer extant in their original form. This makes the encyclopedia a crucial source for reconstructing lost works of ancient Chinese literature and science.
  • The encyclopedia included extensive descriptions of daily life during the Ming Dynasty, from agricultural practices and culinary recipes to clothing and rituals, offering a vivid picture of the era.
  • The Yongle Encyclopedia served as an inspiration for later encyclopedic works in China and beyond. Its format and scope influenced the organization and compilation of knowledge in subsequent centuries.

The Yongle Encyclopedia stands as a testament to the ambition and scholarly prowess of the Ming Dynasty. Its creation, a blend of artistry, diligence, and organization on a grand scale, showcases the heights of human intellectual endeavor. While much of this great work has been lost to time, the remaining volumes continue to inspire awe and respect for the depth and breadth of ancient Chinese scholarship.