The emperor's new database
Technology is breathing new life into an old Chinese project
to capture the best of all human knowledge, says Peter Cochrane
DURING his long life, Emperor
Qian Long never lost a conflict and was the victor of 10 major battles. But
in his early sixties, he decided he did not want to be remembered for his military
prowess alone and embarked on a project to record all human knowledge worthy
of preservation. By his decree, all the books in China were collected under
pain of death. He recruited a 300-strong editorial board comprising his most
eminent scholars, supported by countless scribes and clerks. They catalogued
and sorted more than 100,000 manuscripts into the four divisions of Chinese
literature: classics, philosophy, history and letters. Between 1773 and 1782,
they selected the best versions and accounts from all the books, and compiled
the Sikuquanshu, or Complete Library in Four Branches. By edict, any writings
detrimental to Qian Long's reputation were destroyed . . . well, no one is perfect.
The final version comprised
some 3,460 works on 36,000 scrolls, having roughly 800,000,000 characters -
the single biggest work ever. Even today, such a task looks formidable, but
most impressive is the precision and style. Every page is laid out on a regular
grid with standardised characters. Each work has a descriptive note, brief biography
of the author, summary of contents, examples of strong and weak points, and
a critical evaluation. If people did this today, we would save a great deal
of time in the reading.
The Sikuquanshu charts 5,000
years of Chinese civilisation, and only seven copies were produced; today just
three survive, locked away in dark vaults. Good-quality paper has a half-life
of about 500 years and is biodegradable, so this work will be irrecoverable
in about 300 years. In anticipation of some accident, photocopies have been
produced and are available to scholars.
Of course, no one has read
all of the Sikuquanshu because it is effectively an infinite work, and is generally
considered far too complex for non-academic interests. Obviously, it lacks a
search engine, and it is impossible to navigate, to know where everything is
and how things are related. But now, a new project has started: the Sikuquanshu
is being digitised. Because of the standardised format, Optical Character Recognition
can be used to capture every page. In its final form, the 4,600,000 pages will
be scanned on to 175 fully indexed and searchable CD-Roms.
So, an electronic Sikuquanshu
will soon be available, and it will be possible to search and cross-reference
everything with a minimum of fuss. Who knows what secrets it will reveal? One
thing is certain: this version will be closer to the original intention of making
all known knowledge available. I suspect Qian Long would be impressed.
Since 1782, we have generated
far more fundamental scientific knowledge, philosophical works, history and
letters than contained in the Sikuquanshu. Many millions of original volumes
now fill our library shelves. Should we not be digitising all this for posterity
and reference, too? I think so; we would undoubtedly benefit from cross-referencing
and searching all the works of our species. But we would now need more talent
to read, filter and select the best versions (especially on the Net) than there
are humans on the planet. It looks like we will have to wait for a digital Qian
Long to evolve and clean up our 21st-century Sikuquanshu.
Peter Cochrane holds the
Collier Chair for the Public Understanding of Science & Technology at the
University of Bristol.
The above article was
published in Electronic Telegraph on
Thursday 27 May 1999 Issue 1462.
We would like to express our gratitude to Prof. Peter Cochrane for his
permission to publish this article here.
Cochrane was Head of BT Research from 1993 - 99, in 1999 he was appointed
Chief Technologist. A graduate of Trent Polytechnic and Essex University,
he is currently the Collier Chair for The Public Understanding of Science
& Technology at The University of Bristol. He is a Fellow of the IEE,
IEEE, Royal Academy of Engineering, and a Member of the New York Academy
of Sciences. He has published and lectured widely on technology and the
implications of IT.
Prof. Peter Cochrane's home page: http://www.cochrane.org.uk/