China has a long history of producing encyclopedias that goes back thousands of years. One of the most famous works is the fifteenth-century Yongle encyclopedia, which had over 15,000 volumes, and is still the largest paper-based general encyclopedia ever created. More recently, the main publication in this field was the Encyclopedia of China, whose first edition had 74 volumes. Later, CD-ROM and online versions were added. The third edition has just been announced, and although it is not quite on the scale of the Yongle encyclopedia, it is ambitious in its scope:
The third edition of the Chinese Encyclopaedia is currently China’s largest publication project, with more than 20,000 authors from universities and research institutes contributing to articles in more than 100 disciplines.
Designed to be the nation’s first digital book of “everything”, it will feature more than 300,000 entries, each about 1,000 words long, making it twice as large as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and about the same size as the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia.
As the article in the South China Morning Post notes, access to Wikipedia is patchy in China. Most of the uncontroversial articles can be read, but searches for sensitive keywords such as “Dalai Lama” and even “Xi Jinping,” have a habit of timing out. The new project is clearly designed to steer people towards safer opinions:
“The Chinese Encyclopaedia is not a book, but a Great Wall of culture,” Yang Muzhi, the editor-in-chief of the project and the chairman of the Book and Periodicals Distribution Association of China, told senior scientists at a meeting at the headquarters of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing on April 12, according to a report on the academy’s website the next day.
Yang told the meeting China was under international pressure and felt an urgent need to produce its own encyclopaedia to “guide and lead the public and society”.
Speaking of Wikipedia, Yang went on:
“The readers regarded it to be authoritative, accurate, and it branded itself as a ‘free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit’, which is quite bewitching,” he wrote. “But we have the biggest, most high-quality author team in the world … our goal is not to catch up, but overtake.”
China certainly has the resources to complete this huge project by 2018, its planned launch date. And once those 300,000 entries are available to “guide and lead the public,” it’s hard not to think that accessing the rival Wikipedia will be made so hard that most people will give up trying, and stick with the new Chinese Encyclopedia. At that point, the Chinese authorities will indeed have created a “Great Wall of culture” to complement that Great Firewall of China, both designed to keep out all those inconvenient ideas.
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Author: Glyn Moody