Yongle Encyclopedia


Although known for his military achievements, Emperor Yongle was also an intellectual who enjoyed reading.His love of research led him to develop the idea of classifying literary works into a reference encyclopedia, in order to preserve rare books and simplify research.Emperor Yongle”s transformation of the Hanlin Academy was instrumental in this endeavor.Prior to his reign, the Hanlin Academy was responsible for various clerical tasks, such as drafting proclamations and edicts.Emperor Yongle decided to elevate the status of the Hanlin Academy and began to elevate the status of the Hanlin Academy. Prior to his reign, the Hanlin Academy was responsible for various clerical tasks, such as writing proclamations and edicts. Emperor Yongle decided to elevate the status of the Hanlin Academy and began selecting only the highest-ranking recruits for the academy. Administrative tasks were relegated to imperial officials, while the Hanlin Academy, now filled with elite scholars, began working on literary projects for the Emperor.

The Yongle Dadian was commissioned by the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424) and completed in 1408. In 1404, a year after the work was commissioned, a team of 100 scholars, mostly from the Hanlin Academy, completed a manuscript called The Complete Work of Literature. The Yongle Emperor rejected this work and insisted on adding other volumes. In 1405, under Emperor Yongle, the number of scholars increased to 2,169. The scholars were sent throughout China to find books and expand the encyclopedia. In addition, Emperor Yongle assigned his personal advisor, Dao Yan, a monk, and Liu Jichi, the vice-minister of punishment, as co-editors of the encyclopedia, supporting Yao Guangxiao. The scholars spent four years compiling the leishu encyclopedia, under the direction of general editor Yao Guangxiao.

Scholars incorporated 8,000 texts from antiquity to the early Ming dynasty. Many subjects were covered, including agriculture, art, astronomy, theater, geology, history, literature, medicine, natural sciences, religion and technology, as well as descriptions of unusual natural events.

The encyclopedia was completed in 1408 at the Guozijian (Imperial Academy) in Nanjing (now Nanjing University). It consisted of 22,937 manuscript scrolls or chapters, in 11,095 volumes, occupying about 40 cubic meters (1,400 cubic feet) and using 370 million Chinese characters, the equivalent of a quarter of a trillion words in English (about six times as many as the Encyclopedia Britannica). It was designed to include everything that had been written about the Confucian canon, as well as all history, philosophy, arts and sciences. It was a massive compilation of excerpts and works from all Chinese literature and knowledge. Emperor Yongle was so pleased with the finished encyclopedia that he named it after his reign, and personally wrote a lengthy preface stressing the importance of preserving the works.

The physical appearance of the encyclopedia differed from any other Chinese encyclopedia of the time. It was larger in size, used special paper, and was bound in a “wrapped spine” style (包背裝, bao bei zhuang). The use of red ink for titles and authors, an ink reserved exclusively for the emperor, helped confirm that the volumes were of royal production. Each volume was protected by a hard cover wrapped in yellow silk. The encyclopedia was not arranged by subject, like other encyclopedias, but by 洪武正韻 (Hongwu zhengyun), a system in which characters are arranged phonetically and rhythmically. Using this system helped the reader find specific entries with ease. Although book printing existed as early as the Ming dynasty, the Yongle Encyclopedia was exclusively handwritten. Each handwritten entry was a compilation of existing literature, some of which came from rare and delicate texts. The importance of the Yongle Encyclopedia lay in the preservation of these texts and the large number of subjects it covered.

In the late Ming dynasty, scholars began to question the Yongle emperor”s motives for not commissioning more copies of the encyclopedia, rather than keeping them. Some scholars, such as Sun Chengze, a Qin scholar, theorized that Emperor Yongle used the literary project for political reasons. At the time, Neo-Confucians refused to sit for civil service examinations or participate in any imperial duties because of Emperor Yongle”s violent usurpation of the throne. Emperor Yongle”s literary enterprise did attract the attention of these scholars, who eventually joined the project. Since Emperor Yongle did not want a strictly Confucian viewpoint for the encyclopedia, non-Confucian scholars were also included and contributed to the Buddhist, Taoist, and divination sections of the encyclopedia. The inclusion of these topics intensified scrutiny against the Yongle emperor among Neo-Confucians, who believed that the encyclopedia was nothing more than “wheat and chaff.” However, despite varying opinions, the encyclopedia is generally considered an invaluable contribution to preserving a wide range of Chinese historical works, many of which would otherwise be lost.

The Yǒnglè Dàdiǎn was not printed for the general public because the treasury had run out of funds when it was completed in 1408. It was placed in Wenyuan Ge (文淵閣) in Nanjing until 1421, when the Yongle Empire moved the capital to Beijing and placed the Yǒnglè Dàdiǎn in the Forbidden City. In 1557, during the reign of Emperor Jiajing, the encyclopedia narrowly escaped a fire that burned three palaces in the Forbidden City. Emperor Jiajing commissioned a handwritten copy in 1562, which was completed in 1567. The original copy was later lost. There are three major hypotheses about its disappearance, but no conclusion was reached:

The most comprehensive collection is held at the National Library of China in Beijing, with 221 volumes. The next largest collection is held at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, with 62 volumes. In 2007 the National Library of China reissued the Yongle Encyclopedia. In May 2019 an exhibition was held in Beijing where reproductions of plates from the Yongle Encyclopedia could be seen.

Sections of the Yongle Encyclopedia (sections 10.270 and 10.271) are housed at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

51 volumes are in the United Kingdom, in the British Library, the Oxford Bodleian Library, the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and the Cambridge University Library; the Library of Congress of the United States has 41 volumes; the Cornell University Library has 6 volumes; and 5 volumes are in various libraries in Germany.

Two volumes were sold at auction in Paris on July 7, 2020, for 8 million euros.


  1. Enciclopedia Yǒnglè
  2. Yongle Encyclopedia
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