Qing Dynasty scholar Chen Menglei who underwent twists and turns contributed to the publication of the Great Collection of Ancient and Modern Books.
The history of ancient China is replete with major literary compilations, reference books and book series alike. The three greatest works of all, however, were the Yongle Encyclopaedia of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and the Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature and Great Collection of Ancient and Modern Books of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). While the former two were handed down from one generation to another by codex, the latter rose from printing technology based on copper type, marking a turning point in the Qing Dynasty.
During the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1661–1722), the great scholar Chen Menglei, with the help of Prince Cheng, was in charge of compiling the largest reference book. Chen's good fortune was short-lived, however. After Prince Cheng's brother Emperor Yongzheng (reign: 1722–1735), ascended to the throne, the
emperor saw to it that he was sent far off to the remote Heilongjiang Province. The emperor even went so far as to expunge Chen's name from the Great Collection of Ancient and Modern Books, much to his regret.
Chen’s Twists and Turns
In 1673, the three fiefdoms of Yunnan, Guangdong and Fujian were growing in strength and refusing to take orders from the crown. Knowing this, Emperor Kangxi decided to have them dissolved. Contrary to his expectations, immediately after the proclamation was issued Wu Sangui (1612–1678) rose in revolt in Yunnan Province, laying claim to cultural relics of the Ming Dynasty and the rest of China. In aftermath of his revolt, Shang Kexi (1604–1676) in Guangdong and Geng Jingzhong (1644– 1682) in Fujian followed suit (dubbed “the Revolt of the Three Feudatories”). Geng Jingzhong in particular called upon the celebrities of the time, among them well-known scholars, forcing them to take positions within his fiefdom to bolster his rebellion against the empire. Even so, Chen Menglei, a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations, wasn't swayed, fleeing to a temple instead.
Born into a literary family in 1650 in Fuzhou, Chen applied himself assiduously to his studies even as a child, and excelled at writing. At age 12, he passed the imperial examination at the county level, and eight years later, at the provincial level. In 1670, 21- year- old Chen went to Beijing, becoming a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations. Moreover, he was on the shortlist of bachelors at Hanlin Academy and, shortly afterwards, took up compiling at the Academy.
Chen worked his way up, winning high praise from those around him. His mother, however, could never accustom herself to life in Beijing and after three years within the city Chen requested to take leave to send his mother home. Following the outbreak of the revolt, he fled to the temple, only to find himself with little choice but to succumb to Geng Jingzhong's will after his father had been taken captive. Yet Chen still refused to take up the post on the plea of illness. Li Guangdi, Chen's fellow compiler who happened to be in his hometown of Anxi, sided with Geng. During a visit with Chen, Li was so impressed by Chen's detailed analysis of the situation in Fuzhou that he was encouraged turn against Geng. As a result, they both drafted the Memorial to the Throne in Wax Pill in their steadfast determination to defeat the enemy. Affixed with a joint signature, the memorial was expected to be submitted to the court by Li Guangdi while Chen remained in Fuzhou. Before his departure, Li Guangdi swore to his fellow compiler that “If I succeed, you will get the credit.” Yet against these expectations, rather than going straight to Beijing, Li took a wait- and- see approach in Anxi. Finding the odds were very much in favour of the Qing troops, Li expunged Chen Menglei's name from the memorial, placed it in the wax pill and set off to Beijing in 1675. Emperor Kangxi was so impressed from the tactics stated in the memorial that he promoted Li. More than a mere literary novelty, the memorial was passed among ministers and even to generals on the frontlines.
In 1677, Aisin Gioro Jieshu led Qing's forces in defeating Geng and recovered the Fujian Province. Taking all the credit, Li came to Fuzhou and met Chen, noting to his old friend that “I should give you credit for your dedication.” Apart from this, he wrote a poem which read, “Li Ling dedicated himself to the court of the Han Dynasty and the Duke of Liang turned against the court of the Zhou Dynasty.” This was expected to praise Chen for his allegiance.
During the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, however, a certain Chen Fang in Fuzhou surrendered to Geng
and was bestowed with the title of Grand Secretary at Hanlin Academy. Owing to widespread rumours, this grand secretary was mistaken for Chen Menglei, which caused certain officials to petition for severe punishment for the wronged Chen. Chen Menglei was eventually sent to jail and sentenced to death in 1680. During his imprisonment he repeatedly requested Li to provide the court with evidence of his innocence. In response, Li made a statement to serve such a purpose after his return to Beijing during the same year, leaving out a joint petition for dispatching troops on Chen's behalf. With only hatred left for his fellow compiler, Chen put pen to paper and wrote a letter of a relationship broken apart. Once word had been spread, Officials like Zhang Yushu and Xu Ganxue, as well as such Grand Secretaries as Ming Zhu took it upon themselves to rescue him. Thus, Chen narrowly escaped death. Yet he was still reduced to a slave in Shengjing, now known as Shenyang, and during his 17-year servitude, his wife and parents passed away. Apart from teaching, Chen pressed forward, devoted to the compilation of Elementary Introduction of Zhou Yi, General Chronicle of Shengjing and Haicheng County Annals.
Chen wasn't called to Beijing until Emperor Kangxi made an inspection tour of Shengjing in 1698. Following that day Chen began a life of ease and luxury, and was made tutor of the emperor's third son, Aisin Gioro Jieshu Yinzhi (also titled “Prince Cheng”). Chen's devotion impressed his student. Three years later, he was under orders to compile a reference book entitled the Great Collection of Ancient and Modern Books.
The Old Man Compiles a Masterpiece
Following his return to Beijing, Chen became one of Emperor Kangxi's most favored scholars. The emperor once paid a visit to Chen's study and inscribed the words “the pine abounds with towering branches and verdant needles, the crane's old wings moult new feathers.” Indebted to the emperor, Chen referred to his study as the “House of Pine and Crane.” As his study became this new House, the emperor likewise presented Prince Cheng with the Xichun Garden of the Old Summer Palace. Chen's House happened to be on the second floor of the Xichun Garden, adjacent to the auditorium of today's Tsinghua University.
During his many years of reading and teaching, Chen made the discovery that most reference books laid less stress on style while focusing on regulations. For this reason, he decided to compile a comprehensive reference book on order and law. Under the auspices of Prince Cheng, Chen was given assistants to finish the manuscripts for his compilation, along with the “Harmony Hall” collection presented by the prince.
Starting on October 1701, Chen Menglei began the classified compilation of over 10,000 volumes according to the Harmony Hall collection and his own home collection. Labouring for five years to produce the Great Compilation of Ancient and Modern Books, Chen completed the manuscript in 1716. Emperor Kangxi was lavish in his praise for the masterpiece and renamed it the Great Collection of Ancient and Modern Books (known as the Authorized Version of the Great Collection of Ancient and Modern Books). Prince Cheng took charge of the business affairs in the Collection Hall and Chen of compilation. The hall itself boasted a total of 80 employees responsible for editing and transcription. Four years later, their final version was completed. Kangxi rewarded all those engaged in its compilation and referred the manuscript to the Hall of Military Prowess for typesetting and printing.
The majority of typesetting and
printing was completed in 1722. As it happened, Kangxi passed away and Emperor Yongzheng acceded to the throne in the same year. Prince Cheng was sent to guard the Jingling Mausoleum of Emperor Kangxi, then imprisoned in Jingshan Mountain. The princedied. Being on intimate terms with Prince Cheng, Chen Menglei found himself caught in the middle of the grudge between the two brothers. For his part, Emperor Yongzheng decreed to his ministers that Chen had been a traitor and should get his just desserts. As a result, he was once more forced into exile in Heilongjiang Province in 1723 on four counts: collusion, interference in national affairs, blatant publicity and heinous crimes.
Furthermore, the emperor ordered Jiang Tingxi to edit the Great Collection of Ancient and Modern Books again and replace the name of Chen Menglei with his own. Moreover, Chen's relatives, disciples and fellow villagers all found themselves under the emperor's wrath and were sent home immediately. Local officials were given orders to impose strict discipline on anyone associated with Chen. Regarding the masterpiece, some changes were made to the category titles and volumes by Jiang Tingxi. The Great Collection of Ancient and Modern Books was published in 1726. This edition was prefaced by Emperor Yongzheng and signed by such editors as Jiang Tingxi.
Immortal Book of Copper Characters
During the reign of Emperor Kangxi, many movable copper printing types were available, 60 years before wooden type. In his old age, books like Ephemeris Origin and the Essence of Mathematics and Physics were typeset and printed. Chen likewise had his Poetry Anthology of the House of Pine and Crane go to press. The Great Collection of Ancient and Modern Books published in 1726 captured the quintessence of splendid paperback and imperial style. Only 64 copies of the encyclopedia with its numerous volumes were published. Aside from those copies, a rare sample book was available, which saw limited printing. Apart from those housed in the Imperial Library, the Hall of Imperial Zenith and Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Collection was also kept in six other pavilions. Later, the book was delivered to highranking officials, along with collectors, each donating over 500 books during the compilation of the Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature. That said, the extant copies that have survived are few and far between. Today, an unabridged version is housed in the National Library of China, as well as the Palace Museum.
Following the printing of the Great Collection of Ancient and Modern Books, no other literary work was published from the emperor's government. The moving copper type was stored away in the copper character library of the Hall of Military Prowess, with no special attention given to its safekeeping. Regrettably, a custodian made a small fortune in stealing the copper type. Living in dread of the consequences, the custodian suggested destroying the copper type and casting coins. What little remained in 1744 was likewise put to the furnace for making coins, leaving a sad ending to printing during the Qing dynasty.
The masterpiece itself, with its massive 10,000 volumes had 40 volumes dedicated to cataloging alone. It was divided into six parts: the motion of celestial bodies, geography, understanding of human relations, museum, science and economy; and each consisting of 32 canons. The whole book, across its 5,020 volumes contained 160 million characters and 520 cases. It ranged over a number of topics and enjoyed tremendous popularity.
While the Great Collection of Ancient and Modern Books had far-reaching influence, the true compiler Chen Menglei, together with his son, was condemned to a life of hardship in Heilongjiang until the end of his life in 1741. He was buried by his son in his hometown of Fujian.
A photocopied version of Great Collection of Ancient and Modern Books
The Grand Auditorium at Tsinghua University
The Hall of Martial Valour within the Forbidden City in Beijing