In the vast corpus of books of historical China, the lei-shu and ts'ung-shu occupied an important and unique position in that they, encompassing an extensive array of writings from across the ages, had contributed immensely to the collation and preservation of ancient books and to the continuation of China's cultural legacy.
The lei-shu, or classified books, are traditional reference tools covering a wide range of topics. They are compilations of the classics, histories, philosophical writings and literary works of all genres. Rather general in scope, the lei-shu may very well be taken as encyclopedias in the broadest sense. The first set of Chinese classified books is the Huang-lan (Emperor's Digest), which was compiled during the Three Kingdoms period (220-265) by scholar-officials for Emperor Wen-ti of the Kingdom of Wei (i.e., Ts'ao P'i). Among the better known compilations of the succeeding dynasties are the I-wen Lei-chu (A Categorized Collection of Literary Writing) and Pei-t'ang Shu-ch'ao (Excerpts from Books in the Northern Hall) of the T'ang, the T'ai-p'ing Kuang-chi (Extensive Gleanings of the Reign of Great Tranquility), T'ai-p'ing Yu-lan (Imperial Digest of the T'ai-p'ing Reign Period) and Ts'e-fu Yuan-kuei (Outstanding Models from the Storehouse of Literature) of the Sung, the Yung-lo Ta-tien (Vast Documents of the Yung-lo Era) and San-ts'ai T'u-hui (Assembled Pictures of the Three Realms) of the Ming and the Ku-chin T'u-shu Chi-ch'eng (Completed Collections of Graphs and Writings of Ancient and Modern Times) and Yuan-chien Lei-han (A Classified Encyclopedia of History and Literature) of the Ch'ing. Of these, the Yung-lo Ta-tien was once the most encyclopedic and voluminous lei-shu in Chinese history. Regrettably, most of the set has been destroyed or lost in the flames of wars, and less than three percent of the original work has survived. This leaves the Ch'ing imperial compilation of the Ku-chin T'u-shu Chi-ch'eng to be the largest lei-shu extant to date. Divided into six major categories and thirty-two individual sections, the encyclopedia comprises a total of 6,109 volumes of detailed, accurate textual accounts and exquisite illustrations. With texts and illustrations complementing each other, the work is generally considered the primary source of information for historical investigation and verification and for literary comparison.
On the other hand, the ts'ung-shu, or collectanea, are collections of individually printed books brought together according to certain pre-coordinated rules or pre-defined genres. To be sure, compilations of this type very well served to preserve the constituent works as integral sets. Chinese collectanea were usually issued under generic titles, and the earliest extant compilations are the Ju-hsueh Ching-wu (Lessons for the Scholars) and Pai-ch'uan Hsueh-hai (A Sea of Knowledge Formed by Hundreds of Streams), both date back to the end of the Southern Sung Dynasty (1127-1279). While it appears that this approach to collating collectanea had become a standard practice in the dynasties that followed, the compilations of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in particular deserve mention here, not because of their considerable growth, but because their scope had been substantially enlarged to incorporate works of mixed contents and of different literary forms. The development of collectanea compilation reached its peak during the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1912), a period when cultural pursuits were endorsed by members of all walks of life. Quite naturally, works of the time, from the imperially commissioned Ssu-k'u Ch'uan-shu (Complete Library of the Four Treasuries) to compilations initiated by private collectors, all showed unprecedented achievements in terms of quality and quantity.
Chinese classified books and collectanea share one thing in common, and that is, compilers of both types of works drew their materials directly from the books themselves. In the collating process, they were not only preserving the source materials in their original, unadulterated form, but were also doing a great service to scholars of later times by providing easy access to the contents. They differ, however, in one significant aspect. The compilation of collectanea did not follow any pre-determined principle; in other words, collectanea were merely reprints of individual works that still retained their independence within the larger set. The materials presented in the classified books, on the other hand, were selected and transcribed from various books and categorically arranged.
Constituting an important portion of the ancient literature of China, classified books and collectanea are the embodiment of the wisdom of the past. Visitors to the exhibition will surely agree that not only do they serve to illuminate the cultural achievements, but also bear witness to the advancement of civilization over the ages.