Five classics, Four books

2 June 2015

In the Backhouse Collection there is an edition of the Wujing sishu 五經四書, the most important sections of the Confucian canon and essential reading for anyone about to take the official examinations. This edition has puzzled me for over thirty years. During that time – I can’t remember when, where, or how – I came across a catalogue entry for an edition in the Bavarian State Library which I thought might be the same as ours.

Last month, I was able to see the Munich edition, and it is indeed identical. To judge by the quality of the impression, it may be a little later, but not much. Putting my conclusion before the reasoning, if it were in Oxford I would catalogue it as follows:

線裝33冊 ; 31公分
4° L.sin. C 16

周易 四卷 / (宋)朱熹本義
書經 六卷 / (宋)蔡沈集傳
詩經 八卷 / (宋)朱熹傳
禮記 十卷 / (元)陳澔集說
春秋 三十卷 / (宋)胡安國傳
大學 一卷 / (宋)朱熹章句
中庸 一卷 / (宋)朱熹章句
論語 十卷 / (宋)朱熹集注
孟子 七卷 / (宋)朱熹集注

Actually, we have two copies of this edition, but both are incomplete. I was once tempted to shelfmark them together, but this would have been quite wrong as although the paper of both text and covers is the same, as is the thread and the silk used for the corner protectors, the fascicles differ in size by a few millimetres. Also, the seals and tao 套 show that they are ultimately of different provenance (we can ignore the manuscript label 「殿本四書」; if labels were an indication of contents, we would have Song editions – we have none).


The “Five Classics” were originally shelfmarked separately, but as these are obviously part of a set, I have amalgamated them, and now catalogue our copies as follows:

五經四書讀本 殘五經
線裝25冊 ; 28公分
Backhouse 36

周易 四卷 / (宋)朱熹本義
書經 六卷 / (宋)蔡沈集傳
詩經 八卷 / (宋)朱熹傳
禮記 十卷 / (元)陳澔集說
春秋 三十卷 / (宋)胡安國傳

五經四書讀本 殘四書
線裝5冊 ; 27公分
Backhouse 229

大學 一卷 / (宋)朱熹章句
中庸 一卷 / (宋)朱熹章句
論語 十卷 / (宋)朱熹集注
孟子 七卷 / (宋)朱熹集注

In his list of Palace editions (清代殿板書目), the authoritative Republican period bibliographer Tao Xiang 陶湘 inverts the sequence of the two sections of this work in the overall title, calling it Sishu wujing duben 四書五經讀本; and unusually (because for the most part it’s simply a list) he goes into some detail about the edition.

It was supplied to the Guozijian 國子監 (the “Imperial Academy”) and the Baqi Guanxue 八旗官學. The latter was a department of the Guozijian set up in the first year of the dynasty (1644) to educate the offspring of the Eight Banners who were not members of the imperial family. It was also supplied to provincial academies and commercial publishers, who used it as a model for their own editions, which were therefore popularly known as “Academy editions” 監本. When first published, the Chunqiu 春秋 was the version with Hu Anguo’s commentary, as shown above, but during the Qianlong period this was replaced with the Zuozhuan 左傳, and Hu Anguo’s commentary fell into disuse.

In view of all this, it is extraordinary that complete sets of this edition (as distinct from copies of the individual works in it) seem to be rather rare. Other than the Munich and Oxford copies, from both printed catalogues and online databases I have only been able to find copies in the following libraries:


The entry in the descriptive catalogue of government editions prepared by the National Palace Museum Library and Liaoning Provincial Library (清代內附刻書目錄解題, 紫禁城出版社 1995, 18-19) is based on the copies in those libraries, and corresponds with the Munich and Oxford copies in all but one respect: it describes the text frame as having a double border (雙邊), whereas ours is single (單邊), and so does the entry in Weng Lianxi’s 翁連溪 illustrated catalogue of government editions (清代內附刻書圖錄, 北京出版社 2004, 3). The descriptions in the two catalogues are identical, and one must have been copied from the other, or both from the same source.

In WorldCat however, the Liaoning copy is described as having a single border 單邊, like the Munich and Oxford copies. Furthermore, both the CALIS database and WordCat record a copy of the Shijing 詩經 from this edition in the library of the University of British Columbia in Canada which is also described as having a single border. So it seems clear to me that the Chinese printed catalogues are mistaken.

So how do we know that the copies in Munich and Oxford are of the same edition as those in China? In the edition itself there is nothing to help us. The overall title is invented, and there is no prefatory material relating to the edition, only the standard short prefaces to each individual work.

We could make a start with the date, because the edition is a simple, classic example of how works can be dated by examining taboo characters, especially during the reigns of the Kangxi 康熙, Yongzheng 雍正, and Qianlong 乾隆 emperors, when the observance of taboos was particularly strict.

It cannot have been made earlier than the Kangxi period, because the taboo of the first character in the emperor’s personal name, Xuanye 玄燁, has been avoided by omitting the final stroke of the character:

fcfb-02-yi-1-13b   周易 1:13b

Nor can it have been made earlier than the Yongzheng period, because the taboo of that emperor’s personal name, Yinzhen 胤禎, has been similarly avoided:

fcfb-04-shu-2-38b   書經 2:38b

The taboo of the Qianlong emperor’s personal name Hongli 弘曆 is not observed:

fcfb-06-lun-4-13b   論語 4:13b

This does not necessarily mean that the edition was not made in his reign, as only in the thirteenth year (1748) was the order given to avoid the taboo of his personal name by omitting the last stroke. But it is generally reckoned that the edition was made during the Yongzheng period, and the taboos do not preclude that.

We have copies of individual works made from this edition later during the Qing dynasty, and it is instructive to compare them with the orginal edition, and to note how the taboos have been treated.

For example, in this edition of the Shijing, the taboo of Qianlong’s name has indeed been observed:

詩經 八卷 / (宋)朱熹傳
線裝4冊 ; 29公分
Sinica 2607

fcfb-07-shi-5-20a   fcfb-08-shi-5-20a
詩經 5:20a; L: 監本, R: 嘉慶十年本

And consistent with the Jiaqing date of this edition, we find that the taboo of the Jiaqing emperor’s name Yuyan 顒琰 is also avoided:

fcfb-09-shi-5-3b   fcfb-10-shi-5-3b
詩經 5:3b; L: 監本, R: 嘉慶十年本

However the character ning 寧 in the personal name of the Daoguang emperor, Minning 旻寧 is not replaced with ning 甯, which it invariably is in even the Protestant missionary works that were printed in Ningbo (甯波 for 寧波) in that period:

詩經 3:10a

By contrast, in this edition of the Liji:

禮記 十卷 / (元)陳澔集說
線裝10冊 ; 27公分
Backhouse 183

the original edition has been copied without observing the taboo of the Qianlong emperor’s name in the only place in the text where it occurs:

fcfb-12-li-7-31b   fcfb-13
禮記 7:31b

But if we have a Jiaqing edition which doesn’t observe the later taboos (and at this time the observance of taboos was not very strict), how can we be sure that the Munich and Oxford copies are not also a later edition? I believe that a single leaf in one of the Oxford copies provides the answer to that. It is the first leaf of the Four books section:


A large square seal has been excised in the upper half of the leaf and the text replaced in manuscript; and in the bottom right corner, a large vertical seal has been excised and replaced by a new owner’s seal.

What I believe are the same seals are to be found on different pages in this palace edition, and in the same position:

欽定四書文 存化治六卷正嘉六卷隆萬六卷啟禎六卷 / (清)乾隆五年[1740]弘晝等奉敕編
線裝9冊 ; 28公分
Backhouse 5

fcfb-16   fcfb-15

The seals are 「國子監印」 and 「國子監八學官書」, the Imperial Academy and the Baqi Guanxue, precisely the establishments that Tao Xiang says the edition was made for.

Yongle dadian – 3

29 May 2015

Most of the extant parts of Yongle dadian were published by Zhonghua Shuju in 1960, when 730 juan were reproduced in reduced format in 202 ce, contained in 20 han. This publication was continued in 1984 when a further 67 juan were added in 20 ce, contained in 2 han. I catalogue the complete work as follows:

永樂大典 / (明)永樂中解縉等奉敕撰
北京 : 中華書局, 1960-1984
線裝222冊 ; 20公分
第1-20函 永樂大典 殘七百三十卷. – 1960.-  202冊
第21-22函 永樂大典 殘六十七卷. – 1984. – 20冊

Since then, other parts have been discovered in various places, and have been published from time to time either singly or in groups. The Bodleian has recently digitised all its holdings, which can be seen here. A single volume in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin has also been digitised and made available online.

A group of hitherto undiscovered volumes was published the year after the 2002 conference in Peking:

海外新發現永樂大典十七卷 / 胡道靜撰序 ; 許中毅, 余嵐責任編輯
上海 : 上海辭書出版社, 2003
精裝1冊 ; 30公分
ISBN 7-5326-1285-6

I must confess to having been rattled by this, as three of the volumes it reproduces are in Ireland, and I thought I’d taken full stock of what is located in European libraries; now, I had to start again.

It is irritating that no details are given as to the precise whereabouts of the volumes, only the countries where they are located. But I suppose this is a little better than the Zhonghua Shuju edition, which gives no details at all. Thus we are told that of the 17 juan reproduced, 2 are in America, 2 in Japan, 5 in England, and 8 in Ireland.

Those in England are contained in two volumes in the British Library, and a colleague told me that the ones in Ireland were in the Chester Beatty Library. Later, a little searching on the internet quickly revealed the locations of the volumes in America and Japan. Here they are, seven volumes in total:

  1. juan 803-806 — Chester Beatty Library (Republic of Ireland)
  2. juan 8569-8570 — Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures 黑川古文化研究所 (Kobe 神戶, Japan)
  3. juan 10110-10112 —  Chester Beatty Library (Republic of Ireland)
  4. juan 13201-13203 — British Library (United Kingdom)
  5. juan 14219-14220 — British Library (United Kingdom)
  6. juan 15957-15958 — New York Public Library (United States of America)
  7. juan 19866 — Chester Beatty Library (Republic of Ireland)

Actually the last of these, containing juan 19866, had already been reproduced by Zhonghua Shuju in 1984, but page 8a had been omitted, perhaps because it was accidentally omitted when the photostats were being made in 1931. The Shanghai reproduction makes good that omission.

It seems clear to me that the reason why Shanghai Cishu Chubanshe didn’t name the libraries in which these volumes are held is because the images were reproduced without authorisation. This certainly seems to have been the case with the Chester Beatty volumes, as when I visited that library last autumn, the staff there had no knowledge of the reproduction.

More serious, however, is how the reproduction was made. Like the Zhonghua Shuju edition, only the text is reproduced, not the matter that appears before and after it. Thus we lose the Siku quanshu forms (see Yongle dadian – 2) as well as any inscriptions and details of provenance. Whether by accident or design, the history of these volumes has been erased.

So we find that the extensive water damage that resulted from the British action to extinguish the fire that had been started by the Boxers has been airbrushed out. This is particularly obvious from the last leaf of one of the Chester Beatty volumes –  I reproduce the image from Shane McCausland’s Copying and transmitting, knowledge and nonsense (in Original intentions : essays on production, reproduction, and interpretation in the arts of China, University Press of Florida  2012) alongside the Shanghai Cishu Chubanshe version:

sac250a shcscbs1

The images have also been heavily edited in other ways. For example, instead of reproducing each page as photographed, the black text has been extracted and an identical red frame superimposed on it. This may be because the editors were working from black and white or greyscale images, and wanted to reproduce the appearance of the original. But in the case of one of the Chester Beatty volumes, absurdly, a red text frame has even been printed over an illustration:

sac249 shcscbs2

Most recently, the Bodleian has received visits from Li Honglin 李虹霖, Deputy Director of the National Library of China, and Fang Zijin 方自金, Director of the National Library of China Publishing House. Their aim is to produce a full-size facsimile of all extant volumes of Yongle Dadian, and to that end last week we presented them with high-resolution scans of all 19 volumes in our library. As mentioned above, these are already accessible online, and were included in the Zhonghua Shuju’s printed edition in 1960. We still have a copy of the microfilm from which this edition was made. It was produced for us in the 1950s by Oxford University Press, presumably because at that time we didn’t yet have our own filming studio.

It will be interesting to see how the National Library’s facsimile turns out. I’m on the lookout for airbrushing, as a very prominent inscription which defaces the first leaf of the volume containing juan 14607-14709 (MS.Chin.b.9) leaves its history in no doubt:

“Peking 1900. One volume from a Chinese Encyclopaedia found in the ruins of the Hanlin Library during the Boxer rising, 1900 … which the Chinese burnt in the expectation that its flames would set fire to adjacent British Legation buildings. T. Biggin.”

The bronze man

21 May 2015

On Friday 8 July 2011 I moved out of my office in the New Library in Broad Street having worked there since Monday 5 April 1976 sitting at a desk in the same corner of the same room, a continuous occupancy of more than thirty-five years and almost certainly a record.

In August 2011 work started on the redevelopment of the New Library into what is now called the Weston Library, and was sufficiently complete to enable me to begin the move to my new office there on Monday 6 October 2014. I suppose it’s doubtful that I’ll occupy my new office for quite as long as I occupied the old one.

In the meantime, the special Chinese collections (that is, the materials that are the subject of this blog) were temporarily housed in the basement of the Radcliffe Science Library, and my office was in the Library’s building on Osney Mead. Although this building isn’t in the centre of town, it’s not that far out, and was actually rather pleasant once one had recovered from the shock of working on an industrial estate. I had a beautiful view of the river and its willows from my window, and my commuting time was halved to three minutes and 45 seconds by bicycle.

One of the jobs I undertook before moving out of the New Library was to sort out the Oriental Department’s collection of rolls and other oddly shaped material, which was then crammed into a grill on L-floor at the very bottom of the building, three floors below ground level. The collection included a number of Chinese items, some of which I had never seen in over three decades of working with the collection – they were quite literally buried in other things, in dark and dirty conditions.

It was then, in the summer of 2010, that I first set eyes on what was then shelfmarked Chin.a.4. It was a yellow box bearing the words “Chinese anatomical designs”, and containing 12 rolled paper hanging scrolls stamped with the date 24 January 1907, but lacking any indication of provenance. Tucked into the scrolls was a scrap of paper bearing the three characters tongrentu 同人圖 (the first being a simplification of tong 銅), meaning “pictures of the bronze man”.




The twelve scrolls turned out to be three sets of acupuncture charts, each consisting of four scrolls, which I shall describe presently. These “pictures of the bronze man” are so called because the art of acupuncture was taught by using a hollow bronze model in which the acupunture points are represented by holes. Here is a photograph of such a model that I took two years ago in the National Museum of China (中國國家圖書館) in Tiananmen Square:



The prototype was a life-sized model kept in the state medical college of the Song Dynasty (Yiguanyuan 醫官院). The model was covered with wax, thus sealing the holes, and was then filled with water. The examiner named a point, and if the candidate located it correctly with his needle, the water would flow out. If he located the hole correctly five consecutive times, he qualified.

The model disappeared when the Jin invaders overran Kaifeng – presumably it was looted and destroyed. But during the Ming, which is generally regarded as the heyday of acupuncture, many such figures were created, but not all of them life-size, and many are extant. Huang Longxiang 黄龙祥 and others have argued that the bronze man preserved in the Hermitage at St Petersburg is the only one to have been copied directly from the Song original (see 圣·彼得堡国立艾尔米塔什博物馆藏针灸铜人研究, in 中华医史杂志 35:2(2005:4), 67-73).

Acupuncture charts are also called mingtangtu 明堂圖, meaning “pictures of the human body”. Needham explains the term mingtang in Celestial lancets (Cambridge, 1980, 100 note c). It originally referred to the ancient imperial cosmic temple or ritual palace, and from the Han onwards its use was extended to the body, and subsequently it appears in the titles of anatomical and physiological writings. This idea of the human body as a temple is, of course, not uniquely Chinese.

In another work, his compendious two-volume illustrated history of Chinese acupuncture, Huang Longxiang distinguishes two main series of what he calls “mingtang diagrams”, the first being “general diagrams”, and the second “diagrams of acupuncture bronze statues” (中国针灸史图鉴, 青岛出版社, 2003, 上卷:79ff, 200ff).

I interpret this to mean that the first series of images is purely theoretical in the sense that from the start, the points and meridians were plotted in two dimensions on paper. The second series, on the other hand, is a two-dimensional expression of points and meridians that were originally plotted on a three-dimensional bronze man. It is clear that of our three sets of charts, two belong to the first series, and one to the second. I’ll call them Series A and Series B.

Series A

We have two closely related sets of these, described as follows in my catalogue, taking all details of authorship and imprint from what is clearly printed on them:

明堂圖 / (元)滑壽撰 ; (明)吳崑校
4幅 ; 106 x 33公分
Sinica 6335

明堂圖 / (元)滑壽撰 ; (明)吳崑校
4幅 ; 108 x 34公分
Sinica 6336

The charts have been scanned, and the links at the shelfmarks give access to these scans. Clearly, they are the same in content and design, but are from different blocks.

There is a problem with their attribution to the famous Yuan 元 dynasty physician Hua Shou 滑壽. Huang points out that as there are significant points of divergence from the illustrations in his treatise Shi si jing fa hui 十四經發揮, they cannot possibly have come from his hand. But it is quite possible that Wu Kun 吳崑 was indeed the editor, as the illustrations are close to those in his Zhen jiu liu ji 針灸六集 and the text is mostly accurate.

I have found no record of either of these editions in another library. What I thought may have been a copy of the 1782 edition in the National Library of China turned out to be no such thing; it is reproduced in Huang’s book, and although it bears exactly the same imprint and is identical in format, it is clearly from different blocks and the titles of the charts are in seal script, not kaishu 楷書 as in the Bodeian copy.

A Google search for the printer “魏玉麟” and “明堂圖” will lead only to the apparently very well-known copy in the National Library of China and to our own, while a search for “鄒啟華” and “明堂圖” will currently lead only to the Bodleian. I can therefore only assume that our copies are either unique, or that others are lying somewhere uncatalogued, or even unnoticed, exactly like ours were for over a century.

Series B

I describe our set of charts from Huang’s second, “bronze statue” series as follows:

銅人明堂之圖 / (明)趙文炳繪製
4幅 ; 112 x 56公分
Sinica 6334

Here is a detail from the first of the four charts, showing how it relates to an actual bronze man, using an images I found on the internet:

charts4 bronzeman3

Actually the first surviving charts to be taken from a bronze man were made by Shi Su 史素 on the basis of charts preserved in Zhenjiangfu 鎮江府 by the Song dynasty physician Shi Zangyong 石藏用. The blocks were cut in 1474 (成化十年) in the Ming medical college. Neither the Song dynasty charts nor the original printing of Shi Su’s charts are extant.

Shi Su’s charts were two in number, the bronze man from the front (正人) and from the back (伏人). Although a manuscript copy of the front view is preserved in Japan, we only have a modern reconstruction of the back view.

The first charts based on the bronze man in the Ming medical college, of which the Bodleian’s edition is a copy, were made in 1601 (萬曆辛丑) by Zhao Wenbing 趙文炳. Now, to the front and back views are added two side views – really 45° views, one from the front, the other from the back (正側、背側). There are no extant copies of this edition.

Zhao’s edition was re-cut in 1665 (康熙四年) by Lin Qilong 林起龍, a jinshi 進士 of the Shunzhi 順治 period, and I originally thought that Sinica 6334 might be an example of it. But I had failed to spot (or rather, to realise the significance) of the characters used for expressing the Wanli period (萬歷 for 萬曆). Clearly, our copy cannot have been printed earlier than 1760, when the order was given that the taboo of the characters in the Qianlong 乾隆 emperor’s personal name Hongli 弘曆 might be avoided by the use of homophones.

There is actually no extant copy of Lin Qilong’s edition, so that all surviving editions of Zhao Wenbing’s charts, including ours, are re-takes dating from the Qianlong period or later.

Yongle dadian – 2

9 December 2014

In several places elsewhere in this blog I have explained the nature of Chinese encyclopaedias and their importance as a source of lost texts.

It is well known that when Siku quanshu 四庫全書 was being compiled during the Qianlong period, 385 of the works it contained (more than ten per cent of the total) which were otherwise lost were reconstituted from quotations in Yongle dadian. Less well known is the precise manner in which this was done.

This leads to the second feature of Yongle dadian that has interested me over the years, the Siku quanshu forms that are pasted inside the front covers of some of the volumes. Such forms are found inside four of the Bodleian’s nineteen volumes; three of them are printed, and a fourth is in manuscript. Here’s what they look like:


These forms are extremely valuable pieces of ephemera, as they give us a glimpse of the working practices of the editors which would otherwise be completely unrecorded – Chinese scholars of that period (if not all scholars of all periods) are not known for their interest in the practical and mundane. For this reason, when examining and taking stock of the volumes of Yongle dadian in European libraries, I made a careful note of the existence or otherwise of these forms, which can be summarised as follows: of the total 59 volumes, forms are present in 12, there are traces of forms in 16, and there is no evidence of forms in 31.

And so in the tiny sample that the European corpus represents (scarcely 0.5% of the total), forms, or evidence of them, are present in less than half. Not only is this sample too small to be scientific, but we don’t know whether the volumes lacking forms ever had them, or whether they might have disappeared if the volumes were ever repaired or rebound.

At first I thought that no work could have been done on these forms, because access to original volumes of Yongle dadian is limited, and the Zhonghua Shuju reprint of 1960/1984 (cited in my paper on the European holdings) is somewhat sanitised, reproducing only the text itself and not the covers and associated material. So in spite of the inadequacy of the European sample, I thought the path was open either to me to make a second original contibution to sinology, or to a bright student to make it the subject of a dissertation. But yesterday, my hopes were dashed when after a little searching in CNKI’s online database Chinese Academic Journals, I discovered an article on this very topic by Zhang Sheng 张升, a professor of Ming and Qing history and literature at Peking Normal University with a particular interest in Siku quanshu studies (《四库》馆签佚书单考, in 中国典籍与文化, 2006:3, 61-66).

Zhang Sheng first explains the structure of the forms. This is mostly self-evident, and I will illustrate it in a moment from one of the forms in the Bodleian volumes. He then uses the forms to investigate the identity of the thirty scholars who are known to have worked on extracting the lost passages from each volume. He has been able to identify twenty of the thirty names from the labels he has seen (mostly in China and Japan), together with the range of juan he reckons each of them worked on. Strangely, he gathers evidence from one of the forms preserved in a volume in the Bodleian (juan 5244-5245), but does not mention those in the other two volumes (juan 15073-15075 and 16217-16218) which would have filled a large gap in his list and enabled the names Min 閔 and Chen 陳 (from Guangdong 廣東) to be added; nor does he consider the volumes in the United States and elsewhere in Europe. Next he examines the process of the extraction itself, and finally determines the precise time when this took place. In all these four areas of enquiry, the forms are the primary if not the only source.

Here is one of the forms in a Bodleian volume with the entries explained:


A. name of the editor reponsible for identifying the texts that should be copied from the volume
B. juan numbers contained in the volume
C. titles of works from which text should be copied, followed by the number of passages to be copied from each
D. total number of works to be copied, followed by the total number of passages to be copied (two or more may have to be copied from the same work)
E. date the volume was processed
F. name of the scholar designated to copy out the passages

All the forms were printed from the same block, dated the 38th year of Qianlong (1773) – only the month and and day were to be completed in manuscript (E). We thus know precisely when the work was done. For some reason not yet explained, the name of the person who was to do the copying (F) has not been entered in any of the surviving forms.

So from the example shown, we learn that an editor called Min worked on juan 15073-15075 on the 12th day of the 8th moon of the 39th year of Qianlong (27 September 1773), and identified twenty passages to copied from that volume, taken from seventeen different texts.

Another way of monitoring the texts and passages to be copied, and not noted by Zhang Sheng, is exemplified by the printed form in the facsimile (very fine, as it happens) of juan 7889-7890 made in Nanking in 2003, and the manuscript note in juan 1036-1037, one of the Bodleian volumes:

form-7889 form-1036

Here, the titles of the texts are listed in the normal way, but each passage copied from them is indicated by a circle, not the total number; the editor must have been drawing the circles as he went through the volume, so as not to lose count. And so we get a very close look at the actual working practice of the editors, and see that they did the job in exactly the same way as we would do it today.

Another interesting piece of evidence is found in juan 13872-13873, a volume also in the Bodleian, where we have the remains of a printed form together with a manuscript slip bearing the words  「此本無簽」 “this volume has no label”. This must mean rather more than what is obvious, but what, I wonder?


Looking again at the example of a completed form explained above, we see that two passages were to be copied from the text Gujintou 古今黈, which in Siku quanshu and subsequent printed editions is always called Jingzhai gujintou 敬齋古今黈, Jingzhai being the fancy name of its author Li Ye (1192-1279), the famous Yuan dynasty mathematician. The lost work contained his literary anecdotes (biji 筆記):


Here is the first of the two passages in this volume:


And here is how they end up in juan 2 of the reconstituted work, reproduced here from the online version of Siku quanshu:


I have no idea how or on what basis the many fragments of text were assembled to reconstitute the complete work, that is, in what order they were fitted together, and how the juan divisions were decided.

I still feel a sense of excitement when looking at these original volumes of Yongle dadian, seeing the very manuscript from which lost texts were reconstituted, and the evidence of the precise manner in which this was done. Whether these volumes are appropriately located is a different matter, and I’ll be looking into this presently.

Yongle dadian – 1

3 December 2014

My only original contribution to sinology is to discover a hitherto unrecorded volume of the well-known Chinese encyclopaedia Yongle dadian 永樂大典.

The discovery took place in April 1997 during the course of a conference held at the University of Aberdeen to mark the centenary of the death of James Legge, a missionary to China from the nearby town of Huntley who subsequently became a pioneering sinologist and first Professor of Chinese at the University of Oxford.

At a soirée in the University Library in connection with this event, I asked Myrtle Anderson-Smith if the special collections, of which she was currently in charge, contained any Chinese books. She could only recall a large fascicle covered in yellow silk, with the text in black and red. It could only have been a fascicle of Yongle dadian, and an examination of it the following day confirmed that this was indeed the case – the unusually large size of Yongle dadian‘s fascicles, in addition to the unique binding and distinctive presentation of the text, make an impression that is relatively easy to recall. Easy, that is, if you’ve ever seen or handled them.

Thereafter, I came to be regarded as something of a specialist in Yongle dadian studies, and was asked to present an account of the British holdings of this work at a conference in Peking in 2002 to mark the 600th anniversary of the start of its compilation. For my presentation there, I gathered as much information as I could about the circumstances under which the surviving fascicles of Yongle dadian were scattered in the aftermath of the Siege of the Legations in the summer of 1900, carefully recording the precise provenance of every single fascicle.

I subsequently expanded this paper to include all the fascicles of Yongle dadian in European libraries, completing the account only in October when I visited Dublin to see the three fascicles in the Chester Beatty Library. My work is rather turgid, and consists largely of footnotes and a detailed table. The text itself is essentially the talk that I gave at the conference in Peking. It can be seen here.

Later, I was invited to give a talk about the Aberdeen fascicle at a meeting of the University’s Chinese Studies Group in March 2009, and took the opportunity of recording my understanding of what Chinese encyclopaedias are, and how the Yongle Dadian fits into the scheme of things. The text of that talk can be seen here.

Most recently, I have refashioned my work for the current issue of Arts of Asia (44:6, 2014, 82-89) in a series of articles commissioned to coincide with the British Museum’s Ming exhibition, where a fascicle of Yongle dadian from the British Library’s collection is on show.

Very few people have even seen any of the surviving parts, let alone handled them. This is because we are dealing with a work that was never printed, and whose surviving parts are held by only a few libraries. The National Library of China holds most, but even when visiting that library as a representative of the great Bodleian Library in Oxford, I would not ask to handle them. It would be like a Chinese colleague coming to the Bodleian and asking us to produce a Gutenberg Bible or a First Folio. In any case, a number of very faithful facsimiles give a good idea of what the original volumes feel like.

The scholarly content of Yongle dadian has been thoroughly exhausted, starting in 1773 with its use as a source for reconstructing lost works for the Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 project (and I can still remember the frosty reception that one of the participants got when he said as much at the Peking conference in 2002; rather like the reception that A.B. got at the hagiographical Legge conference in Aberdeen, when she said that the great man’s understanding of Chinese mythology was virtually nil).

In three (perhaps more) blog entries, I’m going to elaborate on features of Yongle dadian that have interested me, starting with its arrangement, which I think is both original and peculiar. It is illustrated in the following images of the cover and first leaf of text from one of the nineteen fascicles in our possession, which I catalogue as follows:

永樂大典 殘一卷(19735) / (明)永樂中解縉等奉敕編
包背裝1冊 ; 51公分
MS.Backhouse 1j = Arch.O.a.6/17

aoe0003 aoe0001

The cover has been repaired, but both the labels have been retained. In some cases one or both these labels have disappeared.

The label on the left is quite straightforward, giving the title of the work and the juan contained in that volume. In this case there is only one, but most of the surviving fascicles contain two or three. The juan are numbered consecutively throughout the work, giving no indication of their content. This is provided by the small label on the right.

Before the compilation of Yongle dadian, the biggest works ever produced in China were the Taiping yulan 太平御覽 (1000 juan, and completed in 983) and the Cefu yuangui 冊府元龜 (also 1000 juan, and completed in 1013); these were two of the so-called “Four great books of the Song Dynasty” 宋四大書 (the other two being the Taiping guangji 太平廣記 and Wenyuan yinghua 文苑英華, completed in 981 and 982 respectively). All these works had been arranged by subject.

But Yongle dadian was more than twenty times bigger than the biggest of these “Four great books”, and it is recorded in the Ming Shilu that the emperor himself had required that the entries be arranged by rhyme, so that locating them would be “as easy as taking things out of a bag” 便如探囊取物 (明太宗文皇帝實錄, 20, 132). So far as I know, this is the first time that the entries in a Chinese encyclopaedia were arranged not by subject, which is inevitably arbitrary to some extent, but in the fixed order of a commonly accepted sequence of characters – the Chinese equivalent of our alphabetical order.

The rhyming sequence adopted was the one that had been used in a fairly recently compiled work that for a time became standard, the Hongwu zhengyun 洪武正韻, or “Correct rhymes of the Hongwu period”. This had been compiled in 1375 at the behest of the first Ming emperor, and was an attempt to establish the northern pronunciation of Mandarin as standard, but it actually reflects the southern Mandarin speech of its compilers.

We have two Ming editions of this work in our collections, which I will take the opportunity of presenting.

洪武正韻 十六卷 / (明)洪武八年[1375]樂韶鳳等奉敕撰
線裝5冊 ; 31公分
Backhouse 406


洪武正韻 十六卷 / (明)洪武八年[1375]樂韶鳳等奉敕撰
線裝5冊 ; 30公分
Sinica 539


It is clear from these specimen pages that both editions belong to the same family, being identical in format. Like all the editions curently represented in the CALIS database with the exception of a single edition from the very end of the dynasty (明崇禎四年[1631]), they must surely be copied from the first edition which was presumably an imperial edition made in the early Ming, although I have failed to find an edition so described in any catalogue.

The content of Hongwu zhengyun is arranged firstly by the four tones (which are not the same as those of modern Mandarin), and within each tone, by initial consonant and rhyme. Our Backhouse edition preserves its original labels and covers (they’re a bit damaged, but I’ll be getting them repaired), so that we can see how convenient the work is for locating the required character (indeed, as easy as taking it out of a bag):


Returning to the fascicle of Yongle dadian illustrated above, we see that the label indicates that the volume is the 76th (of a total 251) in the rhymes under the character wu 屋, the first character in the former fourth, or “entering” tone 入聲.


Here is where the character is located in Hongwu zhengyun (but finding it it was for me, at least, not quite as easy as taking it out of a bag):

lu3a lu2a

The table of contents of Yongle dadian, if there ever was one, has long ceased to exist. But in 1932, in the bulletin of the National Library of Peiping as it was then called, Yuan Tongli 袁同禮 reproduced a manuscript table of contents of the encyclopaedia that had recently come into the library’s possession, bearing the seal of the Hanlin Academy 翰林院, where the encyclopaedia was formerly housed (永樂大典存目, in 國立北平圖書館館刊 6:1, 1932, 93-133). Yuan Tongli (1895-1965), a graduate of Peking University who went on to become a distinguished librarian, was fascinated with Yongle dadian, and made great efforts to establish the whereabouts of extant volumes, as noted in my paper on the European holdings referred to above.