Huntington archivist finds historic piece of China's largest book

Rare Chinese encyclopedia is discovered at the Huntington Library

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens announced Thursday that it has portions of a rare and important Chinese manuscript called the Yongle Encyclopedia -- with 11,095 volumes, the largest book ever written in China.

The book was commissioned by the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 1403 in an attempt to gather in one place a broad range of Chinese knowledge, including astronomy, geography, medicine, religion, technology and art.

The resulting document, which Huntington archivist Li Wei Yang said is more like a compendium or a canon rather than an encyclopedia in the traditional sense, consisted of 22,877 sections in thousands of volumes.

In 1562, years after the Yongle Emperor's death, the Jiajing Emperor commissioned 109 scribes to transcribe the entire encyclopedia as a backup copy. It took them five years to complete the work.

"That was the only copy made," Yang said. "Eventually the original copy disappeared, and there is lots of speculation about what happened."

No conclusive evidence of its fate ever emerged.

Fast forward to the mid-19th century, which saw the British and French empires pitted in brutal battle against the Chinese. At that time, much of the Yongle copy was lost or destroyed in looting. What remained was further depleted during the Boxer Rebellion at the end of that century, when rebels may have burned buildings without realizing they were destroying precious Chinese books.

Yang said only 419 volumes are known to exist. Most are in China, in the Library of Congress or at institutions of higher learning like Harvard, Princeton and Cornell.

It was with more than a little bit of surprise that Yang stumbled across one volume containing two sections while going through the San Marino library's stacks in August. The first section has 28 leaves, and the second contains 21.

"When I opened the book my attention was grabbed right away by the nature of the pages," Yang said. "This is a manuscript, not a printed work."

He spent a good month researching the discovery before the Huntington was able to fly in Liu Bo, a scholar on the staff of the National Library of China, who was stationed at Harvard at the time. Bo confirmed that the Huntington's volume was authentic and that it contained sections 10,270 and 10,271.

These are sections from the Book of Rites, which has been attributed to the disciples of Confucius. They pass down knowledge about the proper ways to educate a prince, particularly when it comes to etiquette and ritual.

"In Imperial China etiquette and ritual was everything," Yang said. "Although we haven't yet gotten into exactly what the text is saying because it's written in Classical Chinese, which is very different from Chinese."

What they do know, however, is that the sections contain references to 12 rare Chinese books, some of which have been lost and not recorded in current catalogs.

How the book ended up at the Huntington turned out to be not so mysterious. It was donated to the library in 1968 by Mabel Whiting, the daughter of Joseph Whiting, a Presbyterian missionary living in China during the Boxer Rebellion who apparently salvaged the book from the Hanlin Academy while Beijing burned.

"At the time the Huntington wasn't known as a place that collected Chinese history, so whoever took it in just put it on a shelf," Yang said.

The book will be on display at the Huntington from Dec. 13 to March 16, 2015 in the East Foyer of the Library Main Hall. The Huntington also has digitized the volume with plans to make it available online.

Yang and Duncan Campbell, the curator of the Chinese Garden, will give a free public lecture on the Yongle Encyclopedia at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 8 in the Huntington's Ahmanson Room.

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