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Vast Documents of the Yung-lo Era

Tags: Ming dynasty | National Palace Museum | rare books


Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
50.5 x 30 cm (text: 34.5 x 22 cm) 
Compiled by Chieh Ming, et. al, Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
Ming handwritten copy of the Chia-ch'ing (1522-1566) to Lung-ch'ing (1567-1572) eras

"Vast Documents of the Yung-lo Era" represents a grand ‘lei-shu’ project of the Ming dynasty. In 1403, not long after the founding of the Ming dynasty, the Yung-lo Emperor wanted to gather the books of previous periods, so he ordered the Hanlin Academician Chieh Chin and others to compile a classified book. Completed the following year, it was entitled "Wen-hsien ta-ch'eng (Great Collection of Documents)". However, the emperor was not satisfied with the incomplete and abridged contents, so again he ordered Yao Kuang-hsiao, Chieh Chin, and others to make another compilation. Completed five years later, it was retitled "Yung-lo ta-tien". This classified book comprised 22,877 chapters and was bound in 11,095 volumes.

It included as many as 8,000 books and documents of importance from previous periods, and it reflected a wide range of subject matter, such as the classics, history, philosophy, Buddhism, Taoism, drama, arts, and farming. The subjects include some which had never been recorded before, and it comprises a large number of materials that have since been lost.

The material in this encyclopedia is organized according to a rhyming system for the characters, to which further information was then provided and transcribed from the original text. The name of the text and author were written in red to make them stand out. Particularly noteworthy was the fact that parts of the original texts were transcribed character for character as exact copies. Thus, this lei-shu is also an important dictionary.

After this classified book was completed, it was to be copied and printed. However, only the handwritten copy was preserved due to the expenses of doing so. In the 16th century, a fire at court almost caused the loss of this important encyclopedia. Consequently, the Chia-ch'ing Emperor (r. 1522-1566) ordered that the original be transcribed as a master and secondary copy with the former placed in the Wen-yuan-ko Library and the latter in the Historiography Hall. At around the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, however, the master copy was completely destroyed and portions of the copy were scattered or lost. Even as late as 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, portions were destroyed or taken away by the foreign troops who entered Peking. Consequently, less than 400 volumes (about 3% of the original) survive today (and are located around the world), and the collection of the National Palace Museum includes 62 volumes.

Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum