On February 28th, the Lanzhou Museum in Gansu province, Northwest China, opened an exhibition on the ancient Chinese encyclopedia “Yongle Dadian.” The exhibition showcases approximately 70 pieces of material related to Lanzhou city in the classic, providing visitors with a glimpse into the rich history and culture of the region.
Commissioned by Emperor Yongle in 1403, the “Yongle Dadian” is a collection of over 7,000 ancient Chinese books and records. It covers a wide range of topics, including literature, art, history, geography, philosophy, and religion from the pre-Qin period to the early Ming Dynasty. The encyclopedia is a testament to China’s intellectual and cultural achievements during this period.
The “Yongle Dadian” is renowned for its vast size, with a total of 11,095 volumes and around 370 million characters. It has been recognized as the “largest encyclopedia in the world” by the “Encyclopedia Britannica.” To protect this valuable compilation, Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty ordered a re-recording of the classic, which took five years to complete.
Despite the meticulous efforts to protect the “Yongle Dadian,” many hand-copied books have been lost over time. Today, only slightly over 400 volumes and a few fragments of the original book remain in the world, representing less than 4 percent of the original work. This makes the remaining copies even more precious and valuable.
The exhibition at the Lanzhou Museum provides a unique opportunity for visitors to appreciate the cultural significance of the “Yongle Dadian.” The showcased pieces of material related to Lanzhou city in the classic offer a glimpse into the local culture and history, enhancing the visitors’ understanding of the region.
The “Yongle Dadian” represents an important milestone in Chinese intellectual and cultural history. Its wide range of topics and vast size showcase the depth and breadth of Chinese knowledge during the period it was compiled. The remaining copies of the classic are not only valuable artifacts but also a reminder of China’s rich cultural heritage.
The exhibition at the Lanzhou Museum not only celebrates the “Yongle Dadian” but also highlights the importance of cultural preservation. As many hand-copied books have been lost over time, it is crucial to protect and preserve the remaining copies for future generations. The exhibition serves as a call to action to protect and promote cultural heritage.
The National Library of China has released the Yongle Canon HD Images Database to facilitate the dissemination and professional study of the ancient encyclopedia. The database, which contains the content of 1,800 books from the National Library of China’s collection of the “Yongle Dadian,” was developed jointly by the National Library of China Publishing House and the Research Center for Digital Humanities of Peking University.
The Yongle Canon HD Images Database is freely accessible to the public for reference, and using advanced technology, it vividly displays the binding and layout of the encyclopedia and the whereabouts of the existing volumes. To achieve this, the database adopts GIS techniques and three-dimension restoration techniques, according to Wei Chong, the director of the National Library of China Publishing House.
The release of the database is part of China’s efforts to bring classic literature back to daily life. In 2022, Chinese central authorities issued a set of guidelines, promising greater efforts to digitize ancient books and encouraging libraries and archives to open their collections and digital resources to the public. The guidelines stated that ancient books are vital to China’s efforts to carry on its cultural tradition, foster a Chinese ethos, and enhance its cultural strength.
Digitization efforts also extend to the “Complete Library in Four Sections,” also known as “Siku Quanshu,” a collection of Chinese classical works. The collection is being digitized in Lanzhou, Gansu Province, using advanced technology. This effort will enable greater access to Chinese classical works and provide scholars with invaluable resources for research.
The digitization of ancient books is crucial to the preservation and dissemination of China’s cultural heritage. As hand-copied books continue to deteriorate and be lost over time, digitization provides a means to protect and preserve these invaluable resources. Digitization also offers an opportunity for wider dissemination, making it easier for scholars and the public to access these works.
China’s efforts to digitize ancient books and make them freely accessible to the public for reference highlight the country’s commitment to preserving and promoting its cultural heritage. By providing greater access to Chinese classical works, China aims to enhance its cultural strength and foster a Chinese ethos. These efforts also demonstrate China’s advanced technological capabilities and its potential to make significant contributions to the field of digital humanities.
The Yongle Canon HD Images Database is an invaluable resource for scholars and the public alike. Its release and the digitization of other ancient books demonstrate China’s commitment to preserving and promoting its cultural heritage. Through these efforts, China aims to enhance its cultural strength and foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of its rich history and culture.
During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a monumental work of Chinese literature, the “Siku Quanshu,” was created. It was duplicated seven times and stored in different imperial libraries across China. However, only three and a half duplicates remain today. One of them is stored in the Wensu Pavilion library in Lanzhou, containing 36,315 volumes. This duplicate was initially stored in the Shenyang Imperial Palace and was moved to Lanzhou in the 1960s.
To preserve this valuable copy, the local government invested over 100 million yuan (about 14.57 million U.S. dollars) in upgrading the library’s conditions. The library director Chen Jun reported that the library uses international-standard, temperature- and humidity-controlled storage with an average temperature of 12 degrees Celsius in January and a constant humidity of around 50 percent throughout the year.
Digitization efforts began in 2021 to make the copy more accessible to the public, with an expected completion date of 2024. The library plans to make the digitized resources of the ancient texts available for various purposes, such as research and development of cultural products, while ensuring copyright protection. “This effort aims to promote the in-depth study of cultural relics and bring them closer to the general public,” said Chen.
The Sun Yat-sen Library in Guangdong Province has also finished digitizing several rare and precious editions of ancient books, as well as 1,013 kinds of periodicals and 480 kinds of newspapers published before 1949. They have also carried out text data recognition and database-building work on about 20,000 microforms, allowing for full-text search and text copying.
According to Zhang Hongxin, deputy director of the library’s digitization department, the database-building work allows for more efficient use of the library’s collection. “Digital transformation is a trend of the times,” said Liang Jihong, director of the digital humanities research and education office at Renmin University of China. “Ancient books will be integrated with other cultural carriers in the digital space, allowing the public to understand the overall picture of our traditional culture through various digital forms.”
China’s central authorities issued guidelines in 2022 promising greater efforts to digitize ancient books and encouraging libraries and archives to open their collections and digital resources to the public. Ancient books are seen as vital to China’s cultural tradition, fostering a Chinese ethos and enhancing its cultural strength.
To facilitate public dissemination and professional study of ancient books, the National Library of China Publishing House and the Research Center for Digital Humanities of Peking University jointly developed the Yongle Canon HD Images Database. The database contains the content of 1,800 books from the National Library of China’s collection of the “Yongle Dadian” and uses high-definition images, GIS techniques, and three-dimension restoration techniques to vividly display the binding and layout of the encyclopedia and the whereabouts of existing volumes.