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Friday, September 30, 2011

The Greatest Collection of Edited and Revised Books

The Qianlong Emperor, aka Hongli, 1736.

The Siku Quanshu, aka Imperial Collection of Four, Emperor's Four Treasuries, Complete Library in Four Branches of Literature, or Complete Library of Four Treasuries, is a catalog of 3,461 titles from the imperial collection and libraries of Qing China.  They were bound in 36,381 volumes of more than 79,000 chapters.  It took 9 years to complete.

Front page of the Siku Quanshu.

When it was commissioned, the Yongle Encyclopedia was the world's largest encyclopedia, made in 1403 during the Ming dynasty.  The Qianlong Emperor wanted to demonstration the superiority of the Qing dynasty, so he initiated it in 1773.

Việt Sử Lược, a Vietnamese Chronicle.

The chief editors were Ji Yun and Lu Xixiong, who had an editorial board of 361 scholars to work with.  They initially collected over 10,000 manuscripts.  15,000 copyists work on the project.  Over 3,000 of the works were destroyed, as they were considered to be anti-Manchu (the Manchus led the Qing dynasty).

A copy of a book written by a Jesuit missionary to introduce western knowledge
to the Ming empire, written circa 1623, and included in the collection.

There are four parts to the collection, named for the imperial library divisions:  "Classics"; "Histories", histories and geographies; "Masters", philosophy, arts, and sciences from Chinese philosophy; and "Collections", anthologies from Chinese literature.  The books were further divided into 44 categories, and include major texts from the Zhou Dynasty on, covering all fields of learning.

Page one of the Sea Island Mathematical Manual.

Four copies were made for the Emperor and stored in specially constructed libraries in the Forbidden City, Old Summer Palace, Shenyang, and Chengde. Three other copies were placed in libraries in Hangzhou, Zhenjiang, and Yangzhou for the public.  There are four copies extant today at in Beijing, Taipe, Lanzhou, and Hangzhou.

Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, originally written in 646 CE.

The Emperor initially had a tough time getting citizens to lend the project their books, for fear of persecution and the loss of their books.  So small a number turned in books that the Emperor issued a decree stating the books would be returned when the project was finished, and that the owners would not be persecuted.  This resulted in more books being loaned.  The Emperor also made promises and offered rewards to the owners, saying he would add his own personal calligraphy to the books.  The amount of books turned in doubled.

A Ming dynasty text.

While it preserved many works, the destruction and suppression of opposing political views is a loss.  These unfit works were considered rebellious, anti-Qing, insulted previous (albeit "barbarian") dynasties, or dealt with the problems of defending the empire and its borders.  Some works were merely modified to make them more politically correct.  Most of the works destroyed were from the Ming dynasty.  The Siku Jinshu is the catalog of all the books that were banned, containing 2,855 titles which were burned.

An example of the Emperor's calligraphy.

Aside from editing, revising, and destroying texts, the authoritative body examined new writings.  If any word or sentence was deemed derogatory, the author(s) would be persecuted.  In the Qianlong Emperor's time there were 53 cases of literary inquisition.  The punishments were beheading, corpse mutilation, or being sliced into pieces until dead.

The Emperor doing calligraphy, mid-18th century.

The Qianlong Emperor was a major patron of the arts, and saw his efforts to preserve and restore Chinese culture as very important.  He acquired rare paintings and antiquities by any means necessary.  He often added poetic inscriptions to paintings, which were considered a mark of distinction.  Unique to him was the habit of using his reflections on paintings to mark them, almost like a diary.

Example of the Emperor's calligraphy, mid-18th century.

He, himself, was a prolific writer, publishing over 40,000 poems and 1,300 prose texts in a series of his collected writings done between 1749 and 1800.  He eventually became bored and disillusioned with being an emperor, and left the governing of the empire to his officials, who were corrupt.  Between the monies spent collecting art and literature and living a very luxurious life, and the embezzlement and corrupt actions of his officials, his dynasty and empire gradually declined.

A work on Tibetan Buddhism by the Emperor, 1792.

Today, while this is looked upon as an achievement, it is more of an example of censorship, book banning, and historical deletion.  The Qianlong Emperor would probably be very dismayed, as he thought of himself as the ultimate scholar.  We think that the internet is merciless in tracking our sins, but the centuries have not been kind to the Emperor.  He receives his just but rather evil reputation, and we mourn the loss of not him, but the books he destroyed.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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