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Complete Library of the Four Treasuries

Tags: National Palace Museum | rare books


Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1911)
31.8 x 21 cm (print: 22.4 x 15.4 cm) 
Ordered by the Ch'ien-lung Emperor (r. 1736-1795), Ch'ing dynasty
Edited under imperial decree by Chi Yün, et al.
Handwritten Wen-yüan Pavilion edition

Throughout Chinese history, ancient books have been complied and edited into collections in order to study the ways of old and honor superior literary works. A monument of this fine tradition is the “Ssu-k'u ch'üan-shu (Complete Library of the Four Treasuries)”, compiled during the early Ch'ing dynasty.

The “Complete Library of the Four Treasuries” is a collection of major literary works produced in China over successive dynasties. It comprises over 3,400 titles bound in more than 36,000 volumes. These are arranged into four main sections--classical writings, histories, philosophical texts, and literature, which themselves are divided into several sub-categories. Among the included works are assembled editions, palace works, imperial selections, books in general circulation, titles presented to the emperor, and the “Yung-lo ta-tien (Vast Documents of the Yung-lo Era)”. Officials of the Library of the Four Treasuries collated and classified each work, selecting rare books and manuscripts among them and adding textual criticisms according to a tradition of exacting standards.

The Complete Library of the Four Treasuries was originally compiled to reconstruct lost works from the “Vast Documents of the Yung-lo Era”. The Ch'ien-lung Emperor issued a decree in early 1772 to assemble in the capital rare books from all parts of the country and to build a library for their preservation. The greater part of the project was completed in 1787. During this 15-year period, seven sets of the collection were copied by more than 3,800 scholars. One set was kept at the imperial palace (Wen-yüan Pavilion) in Peking, and the others were preserved at the Shenyang imperial palace (Wen-su Pavilion), Jehol Mountain Resort (Wen-chin Pavilion) in Ch'eng-teh, Yüan-ming Garden (Wen-yüan pavilion), Chin-shan Temple (Wen-tsung Pavilion) in Chen-chiang, Ta-kuan Hall (Wen-hui Pavilion) in Yangchow, Sheng-yin Temple (Wen-lan Pavilion) in Hangchow, and the Hanlin Imperial Academy. In less than two centuries, three copies of the collection have been destroyed, including those at the Wen-yüan, Wen-tsung, and Wen-hui pavilions. Only parts of the Wen-lan Pavilion copy survive and the Hanlin Academy copy exists in scattered form. The Wen-yüan copy, preserved today at the National Palace Museum, consists of 3,471 titles bound in 36,381 volumes and over 79,300 chüan (chapters). In term of integrity and refinement, it far surpasses the other surviving copies of the Wen-su Pavilion and Wen-chin Pavilion.

Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum