Yongle Encyclopedia (partially found encyclopedia from the Ming Dynasty; 1408)

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Status: Partially Found

The Yongle Encyclopedia is a large-scale encyclopedia from the Ming Dynasty of China. Spanning around 11,095 volumes, it was the largest known encyclopedia in the world as well as being one of the earliest encyclopedias written. Subjects such as philosophy, astronomy, and theology from all periods of Chinese history up until the Ming Dynasty were written in the Yongle Encyclopedia.[1] Over time, warfare would cause many fragments of the Yongle Encyclopedia to disappear only to resurface, while other fragments were destroyed.


In 1402, the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424) became the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. In the year 1403, work began on the encyclopedia by order of royal decree. Using 9169 scholars (2180 of which were student scholars) from Nanking University to write the encyclopedia, it was complete by the year 1408. The completed encyclopedia spanned 11,095 volumes, approximately 22,000 rolls, and 50 million Chinese characters. After its completion, the Yongle Encyclopedia was placed in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

Due to the constant shift in power that took place in Imperial China, many places of value were always under threat of attack. The first time Yongle Encyclopedia came under threat was during a fire in 1557 when three palaces in the Forbidden City burnt, one of which contained the encyclopedia. Though it was narrowly saved due to the encyclopedia's massive size, it is possible that parts of it were burnt in the fire. After the fire, Emperor Jiajing (1507-1567) ordered that another transcription of the encyclopedia be written. During the Boxer Rebellion, which lasted from 1899-1901, the Forbidden City suffered a great deal of damage by fire and looting. Due to this, over 800 volumes of the Yongle Encyclopedia were lost.[2] Only 400 volumes of the encyclopedia are known to exist,[3] however, volumes of the encyclopedia are still being rediscovered around the world.[4]


With the number of scholars recruited to work the encyclopedia, vast areas of subjects ranging from famous objects, yin-yang philosophy, crafts, natural disasters, natural science, medicine, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucian, geography, human affairs, literature, astronomy, and history were all contained in the Yongle Encyclopedia.[5]