The Siku quanshu 四庫全書 "Complete books of the Four Storehouses" is the largest reprint series of Chinese literature. It dates from the Qing period 清 (1644-1911). The title suggests that it is a complete collection of all Chinese literature. The copy from the Wenjin Hall 文津閣 stored in the Beijing Library 北京圖書館 contains 3,503 books in 79,337 juan "scrolls", distributed over 36,304 thread-bound volumes (ce 冊).
In 1773 the Qianlong Emperor 乾隆 (r. 1735-1795) ordered the compilation of a reprint series embracing the most important books of all types of Chinese literature. A special bureau, the Siku quanshu guan 四庫全書館， was established which had the sole task to take over this tremendous task. The chief ministers in charge of the imperial editing staff (zongcai 總裁) were Yu Minzhong 于敏中, Peng Yuanrui 彭元瑞 and Zhu Gui 朱珪, The chief compilers (zongzuanguan 縂纂官) were Ji Yun 紀昀 and Lu Xixiong 陸錫熊． Among the compilers the names of important personalities are to be found, like Dai Zhen 戴震, Shao Jinhan 邵晉涵, Zhou Yongnian 周永年, Weng Fanggang 翁方綱 or Yao Nai 姚鼐. The task of the staff was to comb all libraries throughout the provinces for interesting material to be included in the reprint series. After ten years of work the first full copy of the reprint series was finished. The compilation of other copies and a revision took a further decade, and the task was not finished until 1792.
In 1781 a special guide to the Siku quanshu was finished, the Siku quanshu zongmu tiyao 四庫全書總目提要. It is 200 juan long and was printed in 1793. It contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of 10,254 books in 172,860 juan, of which in fact only 3,461 books in 79,309 juan (compare the different figures above) were included in the main series. For 6,793 other books, or 93,551 juan only descriptions are given. The latter are called the available and checked books (cunmu 存目).
The whole series is arranged according to the system of the "four storehouses" or "four parts" (siku 四庫 or sibu 四部) into which literature was traditionally divided since the Former Han period 前 (206 BCE-8 CE). The four categories are: Confucian classics (jing 經) and commentaries to these, historiography (shi 史), masters, philosophers, and other specialized treatises (zi 子), and belles-lettres, anthologies and collections (ji 集). This system is apparently derived from an arrangement in the imperial libraries. The compilers of the Siku quanshu refined this system and created some hitherto not used sub-categories (lei 類) and third-level categories (shu 屬). There are 44 sub-categories. Inside the categories books are arranged in chronological order. Each category and sub-category in the Zongmu tiyao is introduced by a preface (xu 序). It is headed by the imperial edict (shengyu 聖諭) on the compilation, a list of the compilers and the dedication to the emperor (biaowen 表文) and the principles of the compilation (fanli 凡例). An abbreviated version of the Zongmu tiyao in 20 juan was also compiled to make orientation in this vast compendium easier to do. This version is called Siku quanshu jianming mulu 四庫全書簡明目錄. A copy of this short version was printed in 1784 by Zhao Huaiyu 趙懷玉 in Hangzhou. The Zongmu tiyao is a very important handbook for the study of virtually all books in traditional China. There is a copy in the Wuying Library 武英殿 in the Forbidden City, as well as a print from 1795 made in Hangzhou and a print from 1868 made in Guangzhou. In 1965 the Zhonghua shuju press 中華書局 published a text-critical version based on the Hangzhou version. This edition also includes detailed descriptions of the books eliminated or annhilated during the compilation process, the Siku chehui shu tiyao 四庫撤毀書提要, and Ruan Yuan's 阮元 description of books not checked by the compilers, the Siku weishou shu tiyao 四庫未收書提要. There are also two supplements correcting errors in the Zongmu tiyao, namely Yu Jiaxi's Siku tiyao zhengbian 四庫提要辯證, and the Siku quanshu zongmu tiyao buzheng 四庫全書總目提要補正 by Hu Yujin 胡玉縉 and Wang Xinfu 王欣夫.
During the compilation process 473 books were selected to be assembled in a kind of extract called Siku quanshu huiyao 四庫全書薈要 compiled by Cinggui 慶桂. It is included in the series Songlin congshu 松鄰叢書.
The series does not only contain Chinese book from ancient times to the beginning of the Qing period, but also a few Korean, Japanese and Indian books, all written in Chinese, as well as Chinese writings by or translations from Jesuit missionaries from the late Ming 明 (1368-1644) and early Qing periods.
The texts are written on folded papers in thread-bound booklets. Each page has a red frame and is divided into to halves, each of the two sections divided into eight columns to be inscribed with 21 characters. The texts are hand-written in kaishu style 楷書 script. The booklets are covered with coloured silk and are included in cases. The books of each section are hold in a different colour: The classics in green, the history books in red, the masters in blue, and the belles-lettres in gray.
The emperor was impressed by the private library of the Tianyi Hall 天一閣 of the Fan family 范氏 in Ningbo 寧波, Zhejiang, and ordered imitating their library system. Seven copies were made of the Siku quanshu which were then distributed in especially built library halls in all important palaces so that the emperor would have access to the series wherever he dwelt: the Wenjin Hall 文津閣 in the Summer Palace 避暑山莊 of Chengde 承德 (built in 1774-1775), the Wenyuan1 Hall 文源閣 in the Yuanmingyuan Palace 圓明園 (built in 1774), the Wenyuan2 Hall 文淵閣 in the Forbidden City (built in 1775), and the Wensu Hall 文溯閣 of the palace in Shengjing (Mukden) 盛京 (built in 1782). Three of these "four northern halls" (beifang sige 北方四閣) or "four palace halls" (neiting sige 內廷四閣) were finished earlier than the Siku quanshu was. The Qianlong Emperor therefore ordered to produce imitations of the boxes of the encyclopedia Gujin tushu jicheng 古今圖書集成 to be put into the shelves of the three libraries. The first copy of the Siku quanshu was finished in 1782 and was deposited in the Wenyuan1 Hall. The second copy was to be sent to the Wenshuo Hall, together with one real copy of the Gujin tushu jicheng. The third copy was stored in the Wenyuan2 Hall in 1784, and a fourth copy was sent to the Summer Palace in 1785. Three other copies were stored in the Wenzong Hall 文宗閣 of Jinshan Monastery 金山寺 in Zhenjiang 鎮江 (built in 1779), the Wenhui Hall 文匯閣 in the Daguan Library 大觀堂 in Yangzhou 揚州 (built in 1780), and the Wenlan Hall 文瀾閣 of the Xinggong Palace 行宮 at the Western Lake in Hangzhou (built in 1783). These are the so-called Jiang-Zhe san ge 江浙三閣 or Jiangan san ge 江南三閣 "Three Libraries of the South". In all halls, there was also a copy of the Gujin tushu jicheng. These seven copies were all manuscripts. There was also a further reserve copy in the Hanlin Academy 翰林院 in Beijing.
The copies in the Wenyuan2, the Wenzong and the Wenhui Libraries, as well as the reserve copy in the Hanlin Academy were destroyed by war influence or fire. The copy of the Wenyuan1 Library is now stored in the Palace Museum 故宮博物院 in Taipeh. The Wenshu copy was kept in the Liaoning Library 遼寧圖書館 in the early years of the People's Republic and in 1966 moved to Lanzhou 蘭州. It is housed in the Gansu Library 甘肅省圖書館. The Wenyuan2 copy was destroyed when the Western allies destroyed the Summer Palace in 1860. The Wenjin copy was moved to Beijing in 1914 and was stored from then on in the Jingshi Library 京師圖書館 (now Beijing Library 北京圖書館). The Wenzong copy in Zhenjiang was damaged by the British during the First Opium war in 1842 and then utterly destroyed by the Taiping rebels in 1853. The Wenhui copy from Yangzhou was likewise destroyed by the Taiping in 1854. The Wenlan copy from Hangzhou was also dissipated during the Taiping chaos but the brothers Ding Shen 丁申 and Ding Bing 丁丙 were able to recollect and rebuy at least part of it, which is now stored in the Zhejiang Library 浙江省圖書館.
In 1935 the Shangwu yinshu press 商務印書館 reprinted a facsimile of 231 books, based on the Wenyuan1 copy, in 1960 volumes. This is the so-called Siku quanshu zhenben chuju 四庫全書珍本初集, parts 2 to 5 of this edition were published between 1969 and 1975, parts 6 to 12 between 1976 and 1982. The first series, the Chuji was already reprinted in 1969 by the Taiwan Shangwu yinshu press. In 1975 the same press published a selection of books in the Siku quanshu extracted from the encyclopedia Yongle dadian 永樂大典, the Siku quanshu ji zi Yongle dadian zhu yi shu 四庫全書輯自永樂大典諸佚書, also called Siku quanshu zhenben bieji 四庫全書珍本別輯. The Taiwan Shangwu yinshuguan also in the same time published 13 series of Siku quanshu books, with 1,878 books. In 1986 the whole Wenyuan copy of the Siku quanshu was reprinted in an edition of 1,500 volumes, of which 1,490 are the main text, a description (zongmu tiyao 總目提要) in 5 volumes, an index in 1 volume, and corrigenda (kaozheng 考證) in 4 volumes. Meanwhile digitalized versions are also available.
The compilation of the Siku quanshu was not only done to assemble the most important books but also to gain an overview of what books existed throughout the empire. At this occasion books not desired to be in circulation were either prohibited (chouhui 抽毀) or destroyed (quanhui 全毀). The Siku quanshu project can thus be dubbed a literary inquisition. It is not clear yet how many books were destroyed but its number must have been considerably. There exist some registers of destroyed books in some provinces, like the Jinshu zongmu 禁書總目 of Zhejiang, and the Wei'ai shumu 違礙書目 of Henan. Books prone to annihilation were mainly such from the late Ming period denouncing the Manchus and hailing the wishful Southern Ming 南明 (1644-1661) emperors.
Dai Shuying 冀淑英 (1993). "Qing Qianlong neifu chaoben Siku quanshu 清乾隆内府抄本四庫全書", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Wenwu bowuguan 文物•博物館, pp. 435-436. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
Guo Songyi 郭松義 (1992). "Siku quanshu 四庫全書", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史, vol. 2, p. 966. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
Ji Shuying 冀淑英 (1993). "Siku qige 四庫七閣", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Tushuguanxue qingbaoxue dang'anxue 圖書館學•情報學•檔案學, p. 394. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
Zhu Tianjun 朱天俊 (1993). "Siku quanshu zongmu 四庫全書總目", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Tushuguanxue qingbaoxue dang'anxue 圖書館學•情報學•檔案學, p. 395. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.