Yongle dadian – 4

18 March 2021

Between December 2014 and May 2015, I posted three blog entries on the subject of Yongle dadian 永樂大典. It was always my intention to post a fourth one in which I would discuss the relocation of roughly half the volumes that survived the burning of Hanlin Yuan 翰林院 on Saturday 23 June 1900 during the Siege of the Legations. In the meantime, the sale of two newly discovered volumes in Paris last year has provided some new and quite unexpected food for thought, which I now throw into the mix.

The Paris volumes contain juan 2268-2269 and 7391-7392, and are explained fully in articles by Weng Lianxi 翁连溪, Director of the National Palace Museum Library and an authority on Chinese bibliography, and Gao Shuwei 高树伟, a doctoral student of classical Chinese literature at Peking University who wrote his master’s thesis on Yongle dadian.

Here they are:

翁连溪: 新出现的两册《永乐大典》趣闻
高树伟: 读巴黎新见两册《永乐大典》记

The volumes were auctioned as Lot 231 by Beaussant Lefèvre in Paris at the sale “Archéologie – Art d’Asie” which began at 2pm on Tuesday 7 July 2020. They carried an estimate of €5,000-8,000.

Full details of the sale in English sources are difficult to come by, and although it was obviously much bigger news in China than in the west, already some of the Chinese internet reports that I bookmarked at the time have disappeared. So my thanks are due to Xu Haiyan 许海燕 at the National Library of China (who is currently masterminding the reprinting of all the extant volumes) for helping me to gather much of the information contained in this entry, which I reproduce in the hope that it will be available for longer than the sources from which it is derived.

The bidding started at 4.47pm, and opened at €10,000. In a few moments it reached €500,000, and after a minute and half it amounted to a number larger than the auctioneers’ screen could display. The Chinese lady who secured the volumes entered the bidding at €2,000,000 and finally secured the lot with a bid of €6,400,000. With the auctioneers’ commission of 27%, this brought the price of the two volumes to €8,128,000; that is, more than one thousand times the estimate.

The Chinese lady, whose identity I haven’t been able to establish, was acting on behalf of a businessman called Jin Liang 金亮, who had been informed of the sale and persuaded to bid by Weng Lianxi. Jin Liang is a native of Zhejiang Province 浙江省, and chairman of two companies whose names I can only cite in Chinese, as I can’t find an English version of them: 上海春竹集团有限公司, 浙江奥特莱斯广场有限公司. He is passionately interested in old Chinese books, of which he is both a collector and and a generous benefactor, having donated Song editions to Zhejiang Library 浙江图书馆 and Dunhuang manuscripts to Qixia Temple 栖霞寺. It is naturally a source of great pleasure to the Chinese that these volumes have now been returned to Chinese ownership, and the hope is that one day they will again be in a public collection.

This leads me to consider the original intention of my fourth Yongle dadian post, which is to discuss the problem of where the surviving volumes are currently located. For the Chinese, the fact that half them are in foreign hands is a highly emotive subject. This truth was brought home to me at the international conference held at the National Library of China in April 2002 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the compilation of Yongle dadian, where I read a paper on the British holdings of this work. (The paper has subsequently been modified to include all the European holdings, and is reprinted and distributed with all the National Library’s reprints of them).

At the conference reception, I was surrounded by a group of very angry young journalists from the Xinhua News Agency who accused me of theft, and demanded that I return the volumes to China without delay. My protestations of personal innocence cut no ice, nor was it accepted that the volumes were not mine to return. And even now, from time to time angry comments are sent to my blog.

The relocation of parts of Yongle dadian is regarded as the bibiographical equivalent of the looting of Yuanming Yuan 圓明園, but the two events could not be more different. The destruction of Yuanming Yuan in October 1860 was entirely the work of the British and French, and the more I think about it, the sicker I feel.

But in June 1900, Hanlin Yuan was set on fire by the Boxers, and it was the British who extinguished it. In fact, if they had not extinguished it, no volumes of Yongle dadian would have survived at all other than a few of the 10,000 or more which had already been removed by the Chinese themselves, and which now seem to have mostly disappeared.

In round numbers, only 800 volumes of Yongle dadian were left in Hanlin Yuan before the fire; of these, 400 were burnt and 400 survived; and of those that survived, roughly half are in China and the rest were taken by foreigners in the immediate aftermath of the Siege. Many Chinese, however, maintain that Hanlin Yuan was looted at the same time as Yuanming Yuan, as can quickly be discovered by the most casual internet search.

In fact there is no evidence for this assertion. I have personally examined every volume in Europe, and described them exhaustively in the table appended to my paper. Wherever their provenance is documented, it points to the Siege. There is nothing to suggest that any volumes of Yongle dadian came to Europe earlier than this, much less that there is a cache somewhere of previously stolen volumes hidden away from public view.

The provenance of the Paris volumes however is different. And for me, given the fact that Yongle dadian gave up its secrets long ago, their provenance is the only interesting thing about them. It is therefore most unfortunate that so little is known about it – or that so little has been divulged – and that it is so vague. Near the end of his article, Weng Lianxi reports that the volumes were offered for sale by the descendants of a French naval officer who was in China in the 1870s, and that he received them together with other gifts from Chinese officials with whom he had dealings. He goes on to say that all this is quite plausible.

If this is indeed the case, the two Paris volumes would be the only ones yet discovered that came to Europe before the Siege, and which were not removed from Hanlin Yuan by foreigners.

I mention all these things not to justify the present location of what little survives of Yongle dadian, much less how it got there, but to introduce a few facts into an argument often clouded by unreason and emotion.

One Response to “Yongle dadian – 4”

  1. christervdb Says:

    Dear David,

    Entertaining, good arguments and well-written as always. A joy to read and learn from you.

    All the best. Christer


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