An Encyclopedia Finished in 1408 That Contained Nearly One Million Pages

Yongle EncyclopediaToday I found out about an encyclopedia finished in 1408 that contained nearly one million pages.  This particular encyclopedia was called the “永樂大典”, which translates to “The Great Canon of the Yongle Era”; today it’s  just called, in English, the “Yongle Encyclopedia”.  This encyclopedia was originally commissioned by Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty in China.  It was not only the largest written encyclopedia in history, but was also one of the first.  It held the record for the largest overall encyclopedia in the history of the world (written or not) until September 9, 2007 when Wikipedia surpassed it.  At that point, Wikipedia had about two million articles.

As impressive a project as Wikipedia is, I think we can all agree that writing out by hand about one million pages of Chinese text, with most of the information needing to be gathered from all across China in the 1400s, is probably more impressive as far as the scope of the project.  Don’t think so?  Consider that the finished version of the encyclopedia is estimated to have weighed about 40 tons and took up about 1400 cubic feet of space.  It also comprised 22,937 chapters in 11,095 volumes and 917,480 pages.  This encyclopedia also included many thousands of immaculate hand drawn illustrations.   Most impressive of all was that it used over 370 million Chinese characters from start to finish; all of these hand written by some two thousand scholars in just 17 months, with the entire scope of the project, including information gathering, taking just five years, from 1403-1408.

The Yongle encyclopedia itself was the vision of Emperor Yongle, who wanted to compile a single work that held all worthwhile Chinese knowledge.  Drawing from about 8,000 Chinese texts, it covered everything from art, astronomy, drama, geology, history, literature, medicine, science, religion, engineering, agriculture, philosophy, etc.

Because of how massive this work was, it could not be readily copied, although it was originally meant to be printed with many copies to be made.  However, the sheer size of the work made this impractical.  As such, only three full copies were ever made, the original, in 1408, and two others; the second copy was made in 1557 under the supervision of Emperor Jiajing and then another was made, shortly thereafter, when the first two were nearly lost in a fire that spread through the Forbidden City.

Today only 400 of the original 11,095 volumes are known to still exist.  Although, no one knows what happened to the original copy and there is some hope it will someday be found in tact due to the fact that the entire first copy seems to have disappeared together.  The remaining two copies were gradually dissipated and eventually most of the remaining known volumes were destroyed in a fire during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.  The largest remaining chunk of the Encyclopedia is housed in the National Library of China and comprises 221 volumes.  Other large holders of the work are the American Library of Congress, which has 41 volumes; and the United Kingdom, which has 51 volumes.

Bonus Facts:

  • The third longest compiled Encyclopedia in history, behind Wikipedia and the Yongle Encyclopedia, was the French Encyclopédie.  This originally comprised of 35 volumes with 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations.  It later was expanded to 166 volumes by over one thousand workers and 2,250 contributors.   Famous contributors to this encyclopedia included Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu.  The top contributor was Louis de Jaucourt who wrote 17,266 articles spanning from 1759-1765 at a rate of about 8 articles per day.  One presumes he was paid by the article and not by the hour for that kind of efficiency. 😉
  • The Yongle Encyclopedia is a full 12 times larger than this famous French Encyclopédie.
  • The name “Yongle” is after the Ming emperor who’s reign name was “Yongle”; he ruled from 1402-1424.  Emperor Yongle was born in 1360 and eventually became the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty of China.   He is considered by most scholars to be the greatest of all the Ming Dynasty emperors.  More than that, he is often considered to be one of the greatest emperors to ever rule China.
  • “Yongle” means “perpetual happiness”.
  • Among his many accomplishments, Emperor Yongle had the Forbidden City built in Beijing; he had the Grand Canal of China repaired and reopened in order to provide Beijing with a steady supply of food and other goods; he commissioned several historic sea voyages;  and he was tolerant of a variety of religions and encouraged people to be so, regardless of their own personal beliefs (though this did not extend to Mongolians who he despised in just about every way, including passing laws against anyone mimicking Mongolians in any way;  one of his many goals was to eradicate any trace of the Mongolians from China).
  • Some of the ships used during the Yongle sponsored sea voyages are reported to have been among the largest sail boats in the history of the world, according to National Geographic (May, 2004 issue).
  • The fate of the original copy of the Yongle Encyclopedia is not known.  One of the more popular and tantalizing theories is that it is in the grave of Emperor Jiajing, considering it disappeared around his death.  Emperor Jiajing ruled from 1507-1523, being the 11th emperor of the Ming dynasty.  If this is true, once that tomb is located, the full Yongle Encyclopedia should be found; this would no doubt make it one of the greatest archeological finds in the history of the world.  Somewhat akin to someone stumbling on much sought after lost texts from the library of Alexandria, such as the complete “History of the World” three book set the “Books of Berosus”, written in 290 B.C. and lost when the great library at Alexandria was destroyed.
  • The library of Alexandria once held over 700,000 books, which was pretty much every book or copy of a book workers at the library of Alexandria could find in the known world.  The loss of this library set mankind back from a few hundred to two thousand years, in certain fields of study.  In many cases, we had to re-discover things that we have record that we once knew, with that knowledge being kept at the library of Alexandria.  As such, the loss of this library is arguably one of the greatest tragedies in human history and one of the more momentous occasions, as far as changing the course of history.
  • Another insanely long printed work includes the Spanish Encyclopedia, “Univeral Ilustada Europeo-Americana” which has 105,000 pages.
  • The longest ever work of fiction is the 40-volume novel “To-kugawa leyasu” by Sohachi Yamaoka.
  • If these works seem like they’d be tedious to write out by hand, consider that the Hittites left us a 15,000 clay tablets.
  • Some of the earliest “books” were these clay tablets.  The alphabets on them were sometimes very interesting, by today’s standards.  The Sumerians, for instance, had an alphabet that comprised of letters made by triangular symbols.  Combinations of the symbols pointing up, down, left, or right formed specific letters. (wow that must have been hard to read)
  • In order to make these clay tablets, the traditional method was to press the symbols into the clay then fire the tablet.  This ensured they lasted for a very long time, though were presumably hard to carry around. 🙂
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  • patientetherizd

    The Library of Congress won’t give back those 41 volumes to the National Library of China, either.

  • I like this site because of it’s crisp and clear articles…generally i go to wikipedia to know about something but get bored after a few paras because of the size of the articles! But here i just read on and on until i reach the bonus points and believe me they are really a treat for the reader:)
    Thank you so much for sharing awesome stuff like this cause i just love to “feed my brain” 🙂
    p.s. Please write an article on nalanda in Bihar,India (if possible) which was a kind of university with a huge library i guess…quite curious about it…:)