The most famous “World’s Greatest Library” ever consumed by fire is that of Alexandria over 2,000 years ago (thanks, Caesar)—we don’t know exactly what was lost but we know that it was a lot. This, perhaps, is what makes such a conflagration particularly tragic: we are tantalized by the eternally unknowable, those lost documents of human genius that may have—that surely!—held the key to wisdom, that would have shown us the way if only they hadn’t been destroyed…
And so it is with the destruction of the Hanlin Library, which at the time was certainly in the conversation for “World’s Greatest Library.” Part of the Hanlin Academy, an institution of learning founded in the 8th century in what is now Beijing, the Hanlin Library—and the accumulated wisdom therein—was lost to us in a fire on this day (June 24) in 1900, the result of clashes in the Boxer Rebellion during “The Siege of Peking.”
The Hanlin Academy, a sizable complex of buildings, had the misfortune of sitting adjacent to the quarters of the British Legation, which is where the Brits had consolidated their people—including Chinese Christians—in the face of the Dowager Empress’s ill-fated rebellion. Operating under the assumption that the Chinese would take extra care in their assault—out of veneration for the thousand years of cultural accumulation sitting right next door—the Brits were shocked to see the whole area go up in flames. But things get a little murky when it comes to responsibility: the Brits claimed the Chinese torched the place (as had been their approach to parts of the city abandoned by the colonizers during the rebellion), and the Chinese claimed the Brits set fire to the library as an act of cultural hostility… Whatever the case, the library was destroyed.
Unlike the great Library of Alexandria, we do have some idea of what was lost in the Hanlin fire, despite the fact that no known records of its contents survived. Renowned among its innumerable volumes was a massive 15th-century encyclopedia commissioned by the Ming Dynasty emperor Zhu Di in 1403. Called the Yongle Dadian, the encyclopedia contained some 22,000 sections, into which were crammed 370 million(!) words covering topics as varied as agriculture, drama, geology, medicine, art, history, and literature. To get a sense of the scope of the project, if you stacked every word in the Yongle Dadian one upon the other, they would reach the moon (do not attempt this by yourself).
The loss of the great encyclopedia represents but a fraction of the learning consumed by the fire and we can never know what other glimmerings of scholarly curiosity went forever dark on that day. Nonetheless, it remains heartbreaking to contemplate. And remember, when one “world’s greatest library” burns to the ground, another rises from the ashes of obscurity to take its place… So please, please, please don’t go smoking any cigarettes around the Bodleian.