China mega-book gets new lifeManuscripts of the encyclopedia have been scattered all over the world
By Marianne Bray
CNN Hong Kong
BEIJING, China -- The world's largest nonfiction work and its earliest encyclopedia is going to be given a new lease of life when it gets reprinted for the first time in 600 years.
The Yongle encyclopedia (Yongle Dadian) -- made up of 22,877 volumes in 11,095 books -- is being republished by the Beijing Library Press, China's state-run Xinhua news agency said on Thursday.
The move came as experts from China and around the world gathered in Beijing to attend a global meet to mark the 600th anniversary of the compilation.
There they talked about ways of preserving and publishing the "cultural treasure," which is 12 times the size of the encyclopedia put together by the French author Diderot in the 18th century, and which experts predict hit the scales at 40 tons.
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More than 3,000 scholars and officials spent four years from 1403 to compile the volumes under the order of Emperor Chengzu of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Up to 8,000 books were gathered from all parts of China to boost the imperial library's collection, making the encyclopedia the only source for ancient books now long lost, Ren Jiyu, director of the National Library of China, told the state-run China Daily newspaper.
The book was prefaced by the emperor himself, who likened its compilation to gold mining: "It is (as difficult) as sieving the sand for gold, or scouting the sea for diamonds."
The book covered 3.7 hundred million traditional Chinese characters, many which are no longer used, and collected enormous materials from the Pre-Qin Period (before 22l B.C.) to the Ming Dynasty.
Considered a key milestone in Chinese cultural history, much of the Yongle Dadian was destroyed when allied forces, including troops from Britain, the United States, Russia and Japan, invaded Beijing in 1900.
Volumes were set alight while others were plundered or carried overseas, according to China media reports.
Experts predict that only about 400 books remain in the world, less than 4 percent of the original work.
The scholars at the Beijing symposium agreed that it was key to reprint all the remaining parts of the encyclopedia, which were so studiously put together.
The book is considered a treasure because it preserves many ancient works that are now destroyed.
Because it is so large, the Yongle Dadian was never printed and only manuscripts remained.
The Beijing Library Press has begun making full-size replicas of all the remaining volumes of the Yongle Dadian collected at the National Library of China.
"It is the first time in the world to have photocopies of the encyclopedia in its original size, color and style," Guo Youling, director with Beijing Library Press, told Xinhua.
"We are making every effort to make it resemble the originals so as to give readers an idea of the Yongle Dadian."
The press plans to publish photocopies of the 163 books housed in the Chinese mainland within one year and a half. Later publications will extend to the 200 books scattered overseas.
"Even a small part of it will be important for scholarship and any effort to publish it is remarkable," Soren Edgren, professor with the Princeton University, told the state-owned China Daily newspaper.
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