The Siku quanshu 四庫全書

The single most important biliographical work is the selection of annotations to the massive Siku quanshu 四庫全書 (hereafter SK) an imperial collection completed by order of the Qianlong emperor. During the late 18th century, Qianlong ordered all books in the empire to be collected and sent to the capital. There, in 1782, under the auspices of Ji Yun 紀昀, the work was completed. The literary works for the SK were gathered from several sources: 1) works written by imperial edict from the time of Kangxi to Qianlong, 2) works kept in the imperial library and at court for the emperor's use, 3) works contributed by officials in various provinces, 4) works contributed by private collectors, and 5) works selected from the Ming encyclopedia, the Yongle dadian 永樂大典. Works selected for entry include: 1) works from prior generations that instructed on "proper moral behaviour," 2) commentaries, textual criticism, and those extant works of the Hundred Schools that were thought of "practical value," 3) collections of prose and poetry of famous scholars. Works that were excluded from entry in the SK included: 1) works on unofficial matters, such as how to write letters or pass the civil service examination, 2) works whose authors gained their fame through "flashy or meaningless" style rather than solid scholarship, 3) any anti-Manchu work--whether explicit or implicit, 4) work by authors of questionable moral behaviour, 5) any work in the Buddhist or Taoist canon that included religious incantations, and 6) poetry that was designed to be sung.

Qianlong's stated reason for compiling the work was 為天地立心為生民立卸為往聖繼絕學為萬世開太平--"to establish the mind on behalf of heaven and earth, to establish life for the people, to continue the cut-off scholarship of past sages, and to open the way to peace for eternity." This quote, found in the first of the seven editions of SK that were completed was the formal reason; others included a desire to preserve fine literary works, to compile a collection of Confucian materials that would rival the size and complexity of the Taoist and Buddhist canons, and to continue the work done in the Yongle dadian. We must consider, however, that this was, among other things, a way to employ Chinese scholars who still felt the sting of living under alien rule. We may also consider the fact that Qianlong wanted to repress writings critical of the Manchus, of his own birth, of court and clan struggles, and of his attempts to repress both Neo-Confucian and stale literary learning (as represented by his "repression of encyclopedia scholarship." He used the compilation as a way of pointing out the corruption and weakness of the Ming and thereby substantiate Qing rule. Finally, it is clear that it also satisfied a great deal of personal vanity. For a history of the SK, see:

The catalog that accompanies the SK, the Siku quanshu zongmu tiyao 四庫全書提要 (hereafter SKTY) contains descriptive notes on 3461 works copied into the SK; at the end of each of its sections, under the subheading "bibliography of extant works" 存目, it also includes notes on 6793 works not copied into the SK. This classified bibliography, the greatest and most inclusive annotated bibliography every compiled in China, has been reprinted many times (including at least 5 editions since 1985). However, the edition listed directly below is, I feel, the best currently available, since it assembles the SKTY and two other works together in punctuated, typeset form, and provides a four-corner index for each: