The Yongle Emperor writes a book

I want to talk about Yongle.  He was the Third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty.  He  reigned from 1402-1424.  In my feeble mind he is one of the greatest of China's Emperors. However, by taking a look at any "Top Ten" list, he is not mentioned.

However, if that list was to simply include "modern day" emperors, of say the Ming onward, or of the past millenia, surely he would be one of the greatest emperors during that period.

Yongle did many things, so let's simply start off with what he is most famous for;  the building of the Forbidden Palace.   He also expanded upon the Grand Canal, as well as obviously moving the capital to Beijing.  

He kept good relations with Tibet, as well as building the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing.  He also codified the Imperial Exam System, making it more selective by the actual passing of a test than by appointment.

Oh, and he also funded the voyages of Zheng He as well. 

Yongle was not perfect, and of course he did unpopular things as well, such as banning Mongol culture, and at one point executing over 2000 of his concubines and eunuchs over a sex scandal.   

Yongle reflects the complexity of human nature.  Known not just for cruelty but great contributions to Chinese Culture.  In many regards, he is responsible for the foundation of many tenets of Chinese Culture as we know  them today.  His cultural achievements surpassed by few.   In my view, however, the most intriguing contribution made by Yongle was his creation of the Yongle Encyclopedia.  

If Yongle represents one's ideal of a Chinese Soldier Scholar, then the Yongle Encyclopedia in my view represents China.  Its Rise and Fall.   Its Charm and Allure, its  Vast Cultural Superiority to other Civilizations.  And its terrible inability to maintain its Promise, its Destiny, its Desire to lead the first rank of nations.

It is here I must acknowledge the Greeks.  And we must acknowledge Homer.  His Iliad and Odyssey both predate Yongle's Tome by 2000 years. That's twenty centuries folks. 

Alas, these great poems were 24 books each.  Let's call them volumes. 48 total volumes.  Yongle's project however was a tad longer. 

The purpose  of Yongle's  cultural "odyssey"  was to be the compilation of all known knowledge up to that time, within the realm of The Chinese Experience.  This "Encyclopedia" was to be it's repository of all Chinese Knowledge.

In short while we contemplate in awe the massive undertaking of such a project, we are equally impressed that it only took a few years for its completion.  It eventually reached over 11,000 volumes(Remember Homer?). Even though it was compiled of various topics, it very much dwarfs anything the West put together.  Even a copy was eventually made!

There are two aspects of China I want to briefly address here:

The first is China always goes big. The Great Wall, the Grand Canal, The Forbidden City,  even its Famine and its Civil War and Rebellion are all enormous and unimaginable on a scale unknown to others.  That's just how China rolls folks.

But why?

Because of the other aspect of China that allows this:  It's Imperial System.  Similar to today, China's structure of governance like any other nation allowed for China over many a millenia, to "go big".   It is how China thought, and how China managed its affairs.  Big, Centralized Power has been the way to go.  It is not "new" to the CCP.  Rather the CCP is just an incarnation of what China has always been.  

Go big, belly first and without thought.  Collateral Damage be damned.  We just won't write about that in the History Books.  How many people were conscripted to build the Great Wall?  The Forbidden City? Were they paid? How were they fed? Could they "quit" or take a holiday?

George Washington's biggest fear at Trenton(look it up in the archives) was the expiration of his troops enlistments.  Shall we say.....China didn't have this concern? 

So while we are to be rightfully in awe of Yongle's massive compilation of knowledge, we shouldn't be overly surprised either.  Still, this shepherding of Chinese Resources into such a fantastic creation of literature is simply mind boggling.  It is a simple reflection of China's intellectual and cultural superiority to the West.  And as I stated before, a copy was made!

And then true to Chinese Form, it was all lost. 

The original was lost, sometime in the 16th Century, approximately 140 years after it's original creation.  We know not how or where. Most likely via fire.  However, some claim it was simply buried with the Jiajing Emperor. 

For the next 300 years, no attempt was made to expand upon the contents of the encyclopedia.  No poetry, or expansion of new knowledge was added.   So of course, over time, it began to slowly vanish.  By 1860, with over 90% of the Yongle Dadian still intact, rapid decline set in.  This was of course the beginning of China's Century of Chaos.   War, Revolution and Looting slowly led to the inexorable extinction of perhaps Planet Earth's greatest literary creation.  

Finally, the greatest Chinese cultural relic perhaps of all time came to a fiery end.  Of course The Barbarian was involved.  Otherwise, how could this be a good story? 

In June 1900, the Western Legations were under siege.  Next to them was the famous Hanlin Academy, an institution created by the Tang, and transformed by Yongle himself, into an institution where China's Best and Brightest worked.   It was this sacred ground that housed what was left of the Encyclopedia, less than perhaps 10% of the original number.  

The Boxers, in the end, nothing more than a gang of peasants that could not read, blinded by it's surreal hate of anything foreign, simply used the Hanlin Academy, the academic center of Chinese Culture, to "burn out" the beseiged foreigners.  Inevitably that meant burning the contents of what was inside the Hanlin Academy, in order to smoke out the Barbarian.   George Morrison, the famous British reporter and later foreign adviser to China, was there.  He writes,

"what can we think of a nation that sacrifices its most sacred edifice, the pride and glory of its country and learned men for hundreds of years, in order to be revenged upon foreigners? It was a glorious blaze. The desecration was appalling".  (The Boxer Rebellion, Diana Preston)

One wonders why over the preceding centuries no further copies had been made?  China had time to build many things.  A Summer Palace.  A Jade boat.  Why did it not take the investment and print more copies?  Was the Qing the twilight of China's intellectual curiosity?

Keep in mind the Qing were NOT Chinese.  Perhaps they lacked a true appreciation of China's History.


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