In several places elsewhere in this blog I have explained the nature of Chinese encyclopaedias and their importance as a source of lost texts.
It is well known that when Siku quanshu 四庫全書 was being compiled during the Qianlong period, 385 of the works it contained (more than ten per cent of the total) which were otherwise lost were reconstituted from quotations in Yongle dadian. Less well known is the precise manner in which this was done.
This leads to the second feature of Yongle dadian that has interested me over the years, the Siku quanshu forms that are pasted inside the front covers of some of the volumes. Such forms are found inside four of the Bodleian’s nineteen volumes; three of them are printed, and a fourth is in manuscript. Here’s what they look like:
These forms are extremely valuable pieces of ephemera, as they give us a glimpse of the working practices of the editors which would otherwise be completely unrecorded – Chinese scholars of that period (if not all scholars of all periods) are not known for their interest in the practical and mundane. For this reason, when examining and taking stock of the volumes of Yongle dadian in European libraries, I made a careful note of the existence or otherwise of these forms, which can be summarised as follows: of the total 59 volumes, forms are present in 12, there are traces of forms in 16, and there is no evidence of forms in 31.
And so in the tiny sample that the European corpus represents (scarcely 0.5% of the total), forms, or evidence of them, are present in less than half. Not only is this sample too small to be scientific, but we don’t know whether the volumes lacking forms ever had them, or whether they might have disappeared if the volumes were ever repaired or rebound.
At first I thought that no work could have been done on these forms, because access to original volumes of Yongle dadian is limited, and the Zhonghua Shuju reprint of 1960/1984 (cited in my paper on the European holdings) is somewhat sanitised, reproducing only the text itself and not the covers and associated material. So in spite of the inadequacy of the European sample, I thought the path was open either to me to make a second original contibution to sinology, or to a bright student to make it the subject of a dissertation. But yesterday, my hopes were dashed when after a little searching in CNKI’s online database Chinese Academic Journals, I discovered an article on this very topic by Zhang Sheng 张升, a professor of Ming and Qing history and literature at Peking Normal University with a particular interest in Siku quanshu studies (《四库》馆签佚书单考, in 中国典籍与文化, 2006:3, 61-66).
Zhang Sheng first explains the structure of the forms. This is mostly self-evident, and I will illustrate it in a moment from one of the forms in the Bodleian volumes. He then uses the forms to investigate the identity of the thirty scholars who are known to have worked on extracting the lost passages from each volume. He has been able to identify twenty of the thirty names from the labels he has seen (mostly in China and Japan), together with the range of juan he reckons each of them worked on. Strangely, he gathers evidence from one of the forms preserved in a volume in the Bodleian (juan 5244-5245), but does not mention those in the other two volumes (juan 15073-15075 and 16217-16218) which would have filled a large gap in his list and enabled the names Min 閔 and Chen 陳 (from Guangdong 廣東) to be added; nor does he consider the volumes in the United States and elsewhere in Europe. Next he examines the process of the extraction itself, and finally determines the precise time when this took place. In all these four areas of enquiry, the forms are the primary if not the only source.
Here is one of the forms in a Bodleian volume with the entries explained:
A. name of the editor reponsible for identifying the texts that should be copied from the volume
B. juan numbers contained in the volume
C. titles of works from which text should be copied, followed by the number of passages to be copied from each
D. total number of works to be copied, followed by the total number of passages to be copied (two or more may have to be copied from the same work)
E. date the volume was processed
F. name of the scholar designated to copy out the passages
All the forms were printed from the same block, dated the 38th year of Qianlong (1773) – only the month and and day were to be completed in manuscript (E). We thus know precisely when the work was done. For some reason not yet explained, the name of the person who was to do the copying (F) has not been entered in any of the surviving forms.
So from the example shown, we learn that an editor called Min worked on juan 15073-15075 on the 12th day of the 8th moon of the 39th year of Qianlong (27 September 1773), and identified twenty passages to copied from that volume, taken from seventeen different texts.
Another way of monitoring the texts and passages to be copied, and not noted by Zhang Sheng, is exemplified by the printed form in the facsimile (very fine, as it happens) of juan 7889-7890 made in Nanking in 2003, and the manuscript note in juan 1036-1037, one of the Bodleian volumes:
Here, the titles of the texts are listed in the normal way, but each passage copied from them is indicated by a circle, not the total number; the editor must have been drawing the circles as he went through the volume, so as not to lose count. And so we get a very close look at the actual working practice of the editors, and see that they did the job in exactly the same way as we would do it today.
Another interesting piece of evidence is found in juan 13872-13873, a volume also in the Bodleian, where we have the remains of a printed form together with a manuscript slip bearing the words 「此本無簽」 “this volume has no label”. This must mean rather more than what is obvious, but what, I wonder?
Looking again at the example of a completed form explained above, we see that two passages were to be copied from the text Gujintou 古今黈, which in Siku quanshu and subsequent printed editions is always called Jingzhai gujintou 敬齋古今黈, Jingzhai being the fancy name of its author Li Ye (1192－1279), the famous Yuan dynasty mathematician. The lost work contained his literary anecdotes (biji 筆記):
Here is the first of the two passages in this volume:
And here is how they end up in juan 2 of the reconstituted work, reproduced here from the online version of Siku quanshu:
I have no idea how or on what basis the many fragments of text were assembled to reconstitute the complete work, that is, in what order they were fitted together, and how the juan divisions were decided.
I still feel a sense of excitement when looking at these original volumes of Yongle dadian, seeing the very manuscript from which lost texts were reconstituted, and the evidence of the precise manner in which this was done. Whether these volumes are appropriately located is a different matter, and I’ll be looking into this presently.