The Risky Journey That Saved One of China’s Greatest Literary TreasuresRoundup
tags: archives, Chinese history, libraries, literary history, Chinese literature
Janie Chang is the author of the novel The Library of Legends, available now from William Morrow. The Library of Legends draws from family history and is set during the evacuation of Chinese universities at the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
My father was not quite 20 years old in the fall of 1937 when he set out on a thousand-mile trek across China. He didn’t do this on his own, but rather with staff and students from the evacuated Nanjing University—and his school wasn’t unique in doing this, either. Across China, students, professors and staff crammed as much as they could into carts, wheelbarrows and their own backpacks. They packed up supplies, books, lab equipment and machinery. Some even brought along valuable imported livestock from animal husbandry programs.
Japan and China had entered the Second Sino-Japanese war, and cities in eastern China were in danger of attack. In 1937, China’s population stood at 500 million but only 43,000 were university students, a brain trust the Chinese government was desperate to protect. When universities were ordered to evacuate west, toward the relative safety of China’s interior, 77 abandoned their home campuses. It was an exodus unlike any other, yet it remains a chapter in history virtually unknown outside China.
Even less known is the tale of a singular journey that took place during this time to safeguard one of China’s greatest library treasures.
In 1771, the 36th year of his reign, the Qianlong Emperor decreed the creation of an encyclopedia of classical Chinese literature, a work that would outshine a scholarly masterpiece from the preceding Ming dynasty, the massive Yongle Dadian encyclopedia. Named after the Yongle Emperor and completed in 1407, it had contained 370 million words, the largest encyclopedia in the world.
The Imperial libraries already owned vast collections of literature to draw from, yet the emperor asked for contributions from private libraries. The Qing dynasty’s Manchu rulers, conscious that the Han Chinese population considered them foreign usurpers, had conducted several literary inquisitions over the decades, burning books with anti-Manchu sentiments and punishing their owners. So when the encyclopedia project began, the empire’s Han Chinese subjects were understandably reluctant to respond. The emperor then issued decrees that all books donated to the effort would be returned and their owners immune from penalties even if their books contained “Evil Words.” After this, more than 10,000 books were handed in.
A decade later, in 1782, the Siku Quanshu—which can be roughly translated as Complete Library of Four Branches of Literature—was complete. It comprised 35,381 volumes and approximately 800 million characters. It would be 225 years before another encyclopedia surpassed this number—in 2007 when English Wikipedia approached a billion words.
But after all that knowledge had been gathered into one place, the Qianlong Emperor reneged on his promise. His censors destroyed some 3,000 works for being anti-Manchu and their owners were executed.
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