In the first year of Yongle’s reign (1403), Zhu Di, who had just seized the throne of his nephew by armed force and started his reign of Ming, decided to strive towards accomplishment of an ambitious plan not long after his ascent to the throne in Nanjing – to compile a giant collection of books which included all the classics and records since ancient China. He ordered Xie Jin, a member of the Han Lin National Academy, to be responsible for carrying out this magnificent project. With the joint effort of Xie Jin and some 140 scholars led by him, the collection was finished the following year, and Zhu Di bestowed upon it the title ‘Wen Xian Da Cheng’ (The Complete Documents). Nevertheless, Zhu Di soon discovered that quite a number of classics had not been compiled into the ‘Wen Xian Da Cheng’. He therefore commanded there be a large-scale revision of the collection, presided over by scholars including Yao Guang Xiao, Liu Xiu Chi and Xie Jin. They used the abundant book collection of Yuan Dynasty as a basis, and they also sent officials to collect ancient classics that had been handed down among the masses. The revision mobilised nearly 3,000 scholars and can be viewed as an all-time magnificent cultural feat in its assembly of so many great talents.

The compiling of the collection took three years and in the fifth year of Yongle’s reign (1407), this encyclopaedic collection with more than 22,800 sections bound in over 11,000 books was finally completed. Zhu Di was very satisfied with this unprecedented transcript, containing approximately 7,000 to 8,000 types of books and some 370 million words. He proudly bestowed the name of his reign in the title upon the collection, which was ‘Yong Le Da Dian’ (Yong Le Encyclopaedia), and the collection was carefully kept in the restored Wen Yuan Ge (The Imperial Library) located at Nanjing.

Since then, ‘Yong Le Da Dian’ and Wen Yuan Ge have become symbols of the maturity of the Chinese civilisation signifying the people’s love, treasuring, protecting and inheriting of traditional culture.

Words are unique symbols for humans to use to express their feelings, thoughts, experiences and concepts. In China, people have special esteem for the written word and classics. The ancient Han characters derived from the pictographs and the Han languages developed from them have been passed down and used over the ages, and such an inheritance has contributed to the continuous development of the Chinese civilisation for thousands of years. ‘Merrily the ospreys cry, on the islet in the stream. May dainty maidens, be the noblemen’s quest…’ (‘The ospreys cry’, Guo Feng, ‘Book of Odes’). Long-lived works such as this give students nowadays opportunities to read and appreciate the ancient poems that were composed before the birth of Confucius. At the same time, the teachings and experiences of the sages and the wise can therefore be accumulated and organised, which become an important reference of confirming and implementing personal or even the whole generation’s ideals of life.

Since ancient times, the compilation of historical records and editing of books have been peculiar cultural habits of the Chinese and, due to political considerations, emperors did engage in such activities during politically stable ages. Zhu Di (Emperor Yongle) is a very good example of this.

Since the mid 17th Century, after the Manchu started ruling the country, the nobles of Qing maintained their political control by highhanded measures while posing as the inheritors of the traditional culture of Han. They chose Cheng-Zhu’s Neo-Confucianism as the ideology for administrating the country. That is, they set out to rule the country according to Confucian thinking. Due to such an approach, the rulers during the early Qing Dynasty were generally conscious of paying attention to the use of classics and documentary records, by which the emperors vigorously developed cultural industry, so as to give a good impression to the stratum of Han intellectuals.

Following the increasing strength of the regime, Qing emperors continued to expand the collection of documents, books and records while inheriting the abundant collection from their previous emperors. Through the reigns of emperors Shunzhi, Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, the number of books collected from the masses and book collectors of different regions reached its peak during feudal times. Meanwhile, in a countrywide project which proceeded according to the nation’s strong will, a large number of Confucian courtiers were gathered in the imperial court, and this caused an unprecedented blooming of activities including the accumulating, organising, compilation, authenticating, collating and verifying of diverse classics and documentary records. In the aspect of printing technology, a great number of magnificent publications were produced with skills including handwritten copies, illustration, engraving printing, woodblock printing and movable type. All of these achievements offered an unrivalled sight for the people.

In the 38th year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1773) – who was highly cultivated in culture and art – he launched a project on organising classics that was even more tremendous than that of Zhu Di: the compilation of the ‘Si Ku Quan Shu’ (Complete Library of Four Branches of Books). The collection of books of the ‘Si Ku Quan Shu’ is much more extensive than ‘Yong Le Da Dian’. According to records, the number of scholars that participated during the peak of the compilation effort reached 4,000. By the 46th year of the reign of Qianlong (1782), the most voluminous and extensive series of books in the history of China was finally complete. The ‘Si Ku Qian Shu’ was divided into 4 categories, these being classics, history, philosophy and belles-letters. This work with 997 million words was bound into more than 36,000 books. It can be considered the peak of book compilation in Chinese history or even the world history. To properly preserve this cultural achievement, Qianlong gave orders to build another Wen Yuan Ge in the Forbidden City for storing the ‘Si Ku Qian Shu’.

Compared to the ‘Yong Le Da Dian’ of the Ming Dynasty, the meticulous ‘Si Ku Quan Shu’ assigned by Emperor Qianlong had a more obvious political intention. After all, ‘Yong Le Da Dian’ transcribed all the classics without making any changes in the contents, while in ‘Si Ku Quan Shu’ all the contents collected had gone through a strict selection and examination process by the government, and any details which might have threatened the reign of the Qing Dynasty were changed or even deleted. The ‘Si Ku Quan Shu’ included in its collection a world of valuable documentary records, handing down innumerable classics from Song, Yuan and Ming Dynasties. This epoch-marking work is, without doubt, a great masterpiece that signifies the greatest achievement and the level of the academic circle of China in the 18th Century.

In the library of the Palace Museum located in Beijing, which mainly features the imperial collection of books of the Qing Dynasty, there resides an abundant and unique collection of classics and records gaining worldwide acclaim. It is really an honour for the Macao Museum of Art to be entrusted and supported once again by the Palace Museum and its administration to hold ‘Eternal Knowledge: Imperial Books, Art Works and Culture of the Qing’.This exhibition, focused on the culture of the imperial classic collection of Qing, shows the outstanding cultural achievements in the flourishing ages during the Kangxi to the Qianlong reigns by displaying a large collection of valuable relics from the Palace Museum, including ancient classics, calligraphy works, paintings, seals, porcelain wares, robes and handicrafts. On behalf of the Macao Museum of Art under the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau, I hereby express my devoted appreciation for the full support, over many years, from the Palace Museum, for the high priority given by the administration and the hard work of the professionals and staff of the Palace Museum. At the same time, I would avail myself of this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation to the Macao Foundation, the Macao Government Tourist Office, and Macao Daily News, for their long-term support and cooperation. Without the support and assistance of our friendship organisations, it would be difficult for our Museum to bring our influence as a cultural interchange platform into full play.

‘Eternal Knowledge: Imperial Books, Art Works and Culture of the Qing’ will be a valuable opportunity to display the erudite and profound Chinese civilisation. Through this exhibition, audiences can deepen their knowledge in different aspects including the ancient traditions, thoughts, politics, regulations and education of China, therefore understanding the true definition of ‘administration through culture and education’. Meanwhile, the exhibition will also offer the world a closer look to the abundant knowledge system and the vast ocean of culture which have been accumulated and constructed, with heart and soul, by the ancestors of China for thousands of years.

Ung Vai Meng
Director of the Macao Museum of Art

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