xi's moments
Home | Society

Rare encyclopedia's repatriation turns page on restoration efforts

By WANG KAIHAO | China Daily | Updated: 2022-05-25 08:50

Coming across a set of the Yongle Dadian these days is something of a literary miracle.

First compiled in the early 15th century during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) following Emperor Yongle's edict, this set of handwritten books is often credited as the largest paper-based encyclopedia in the world. The set extends to an estimated 370 million Chinese characters, and consists of 22,937 volumes in 11,095 copies.

A mere 400-odd copies are known to survive, all copied from a 16th-century duplicate, as the whereabouts of the original are unknown.

So when a copy on the Chinese character hu ("lake") returned to its home country from Canada to be housed at the National Library of China in 2013, it triggered tremendous excitement among Chinese librarians.

"Any clue to finding even a page of the Yongle Dadian would be big news," said Chen Hongyan, deputy director of the NLC's Ancient Book Department. "That encyclopedia bears crucial witness to the lengthy lineage of Chinese culture."

Unlike modern printed encyclopedias, which may be composed of concise explanations, a single entry in the Yongle Dadian could include lengthy citations or even entire ancient texts. As a result, many key books whose original editions have been lost remain accessible today.

Perhaps because its pages were too fragile to be touched, the newly returned entry remained in the library warehouse for several years as experts pondered the best way to preserve and share the national treasure.

Last year, the National Library, the China Foundation for Cultural Heritage Conservation and internet giant ByteDance-the parent company of short-video platform TikTok, or Douyin in China-jointly announced a plan to restore the document.

About 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) will be spent not only on the restoration of the text, but also on training restorers, digitizing the work and creating associated public education programs.

With the new national guideline on ancient books highlighting the importance of wider participation, the public is now being encouraged to explore new ways of taking care of old books.

"We want to make use of short-video platforms to provide the general public another way to grasp the cultural context of the Yongle Dadian," Chu Yingxia, deputy secretary-general of the foundation and head of the ongoing project, told China Daily.

Chu noted that online platforms provide new outlets for scholars to explain ancient texts more easily.

"The original texts in ancient books are often obscure," Chu said. "But by using these platforms, we can explore how to apply the knowledge they contain to modern life, which will benefit the young generation in particular."

Since last year, the foundation has amassed 100 stories on the protection of ancient books from across the country to broadcast on short-video platforms. An online video project with the hashtag "Looking for the custodians of ancient books" has proved popular with netizens. Associated video clips have been viewed 240 million times.

On March 18, Ancient Books Traveling Through Time and Space, a documentary featuring the protectors of today's ancient books, was shown online thanks to the project. It attracted 34 million views within its first month of posting.

"The fruits of the protection of cultural artifacts need to be shared," Chu said. "Many conservation institutions are challenged by a lack of staff, capital and publicity. Now, through online platforms, we can explore other ways of supporting their work."

"Only when all of society has grasped the need to protect ancient books will their importance be understood."

Global Edition
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349