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date: 03 June 2020

(p. 288) Collecting, Editing, Transmitting

Abstract and Keywords

In China from ancient times the anthology has occupied an important place in literary culture. During the early medieval period the purely literary anthology comes into its own. The emergence of a large number of anthologies in this period is related to changing conceptions of writing as well as attempts to define genres and to establish an independent category for belles lettres. Only a few of the anthologies from this period have survived, the most famous being the Wen xuan, compiled around 526. Another extant single-genre anthology is the Yutai xinyong. The Wen xuan eventually became the Chinese anthology par excellence, and for several centuries was the primary source from which scholars and writers obtained their literary education; it was also important in Japan and Korea.

Editor’s Introduction (Xiaofei Tian)

Literary history is well known to represent a process of unnatural selection, which culminates in the university’s undergraduate literature class syllabus and, in the case of classical Chinese literature, also in authors and works found in Chinese school textbooks. Underlying the agenda of the modern school system is the concept of a coherent “Chinese culture of ours” represented by the “best works” produced over the centuries. The following chapters in this section trace developments in literary history by focusing on anthology making and canon formation, and by providing an outline of the transmission of classical literature from the beginnings through the imperial period. The processes of collecting, selecting, editing, and passing judgment on literary works are informed by larger cultural and social changes, and constitute a crucial aspect of literary production and consumption. This is especially true at a time when inclusion in an anthology could not only cement a text’s status in the canon but also determine its physical survival, or when the reading of a text in the context of a certain anthology impacts the interpretation and evaluation of the text. The historical contextualization of the textual tradition in the following chapters thus aims to present a nuanced picture of the variegated and changing landscape of literary production behind the illusion of a stable national canon.

Toward the end of antiquity, Liu Xiang 劉向 (79–8 bce) and his son Liu Xin 劉歆 (d. 23 ce) organized the messy remains of the pre-Han and earlier Western Han manuscripts, stabilized texts, and created books with authors. Subsequently, there have (p. 289) been several important “moments” in the transmission of classical literature. The first occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries, which witnessed an intense attentiveness to belletristic literature and a revival of interest in earlier poetry. This happened at a time when the Southern Dynasties emperors were actively engaged in the literary representation of kingship and the southern empire, and when literary scholarship was for the first time institutionalized. This period saw the first accounts of literary history as well as an unprecedented boom in literary anthologies, from zongji (comprehensive collection) to bieji (literary collections of individual authors), from multigenre anthology to single-genre anthology. In many ways, the Southern Dynasties literary men shaped and mediated our knowledge and perception of early classical Chinese literature. Three anthologies surviving from this period are particularly important, because they constitute major sources of pre-Tang literature when well over 95 percent of pre-Tang anthologies and individual collections are no longer extant. These anthologies are Wen xuan 文選, a multiple-genre anthology; Yutai xinyong 玉臺新詠, a single-genre anthology of poetry; and Hongming ji 弘明集 (Collection of the Propagation of Light), an anthology of prose from the Eastern Han (25–220) to the Liang (502–557) compiled by the Buddhist monk Sengyou 僧祐 (445–518).

The complicated cultural politics of literary history is most clearly revealed in the cases of the last two anthologies. Yutai xinyong is the first anthology of poetry after Shijing (The Classic of Poetry) and Chuci (Verses of Chu) that has survived more or less intact. Manifestly compiled for an upper-class female readership, it was an extremely popular anthology read by both men and women. Its popularity was attested by its very survival in a continuous manuscript tradition from a time of overwhelming textual losses, as well as by anthologies inspired by it, such as the Yutai houji 玉臺後集 and Yaochi xinyong 瑤池新詠 in the Tang (618–907). It was printed as early as the Northern Song (960–1127), and the earliest current printed editions date to the late Ming (1368–1644). It includes many poems overlapping with the Wen xuan through the end of the fifth century, demonstrating that the compilers shared similar literary values. Yet, whereas Wen xuan allegedly excludes living authors, Yutai xinyong contains copious representation of contemporary works, including romantic poems by the Wen xuan compiler himself, and enables us to see the rich, variegated literary landscape of the sixth century. It also preserves numerous poems that would otherwise have been lost or transmitted in fragmentary forms, including a rare long narrative poem on a tragic love story. Classical Chinese literature would have been much poorer without Yutai xinyong. In modern times, however, Yutai xinyong is consistently ignored or denigrated, taken to exemplify the “decadence” of the southern court. While a branch of learning formed around Wen xuan and was dubbed “Xuan xue” (“Wen Xuan studies”), Yutai xinyong has only begun to receive serious attention in recent years. The same can be said of the Buddhist anthology Hongming ji. This anthology includes defenses of the Buddhist faith and writings by detractors so that the reader can see both sides of the argument. It allows us to glimpse some of the (p. 290) most controversial issues in the early transmission of Buddhism in China and contains some of the best examples of analytical prose written in the Southern Dynasties. It inspired a seventh-century sequel, Guang hongming ji 廣弘明集, which is still extant and preserves numerous writings in multiple genres that would have otherwise lost. Yet if some of the writings from the anthologies have been independently studied by scholars of religion and of literature, these anthologies as a whole are not treated as great points of interest in most literary historical accounts, reflecting a later bias against women and religious writings that was, however, not characteristic of the period in which these anthologies were made.

The second important moment in the transmission of early and early medieval literature is the early seventh century. The state oversaw a series of large cultural projects, such as the compilation of encyclopedias and anthologies, and the writing of commentary and history. In all areas of cultural and intellectual life, an attempt to consolidate, rearrange, and order the textual tradition was underway. In practice, the early Tang court continued to write poetry and prose in the Southern Dynasties courtly style, but in discourse it condemned that style as weightless, ornamented, and immoral. Such a view prevailed for the next fifteen hundred years to modern times and created an artificial division in conventional literary historical accounts in the use of dynastic rule as a way of conceptualizing periodization—that is to say, seeing the Southern Dynasties as frivolous and decadent, but the Tang as serious and vigorous. The discrepancy between practice and theory has led to many problematic consequences. For instance, the Northern Dynasties belletristic writings, though endorsed in early Tang public discourse as being full of “substance” as opposed to the Southern Dynasties’ perceived excessive ornament, are not at all well represented in the early Tang encyclopedias that, together with the three anthologies mentioned above, are the main sources for pre-Tang literature; as a result, Northern Dynasties writings are largely lost.

There is another way in which the Tang is crucial to our understanding of the historical process of canon formation: extant Tang anthologies are all anthologies of poetry, the genre this dynasty is most famous for, yet if the canon of classical prose formed in the Song (960–1279) has remained remarkably stable till this day, in the realm of poetry Tang tastes differed dramatically not just from those of Song readers but also from those of late imperial readers. The canon of Tang poetry as we know it has undergone great transformation.

The third important moment in the transmission of earlier literature is not so much a “moment” as an extended period, with many changes and new developments, marked by the transition from the age of manuscripts to the age of print and by the significant social and cultural changes from the medieval to the late imperial world. The Northern Song literati devoted considerable energy to sorting out the messy remains of the Tang manuscript legacy. Partially because of the increasingly prominent role of printing, which brought the illusion of stabilizing texts and creating an (p. 291) authoritative version, disagreements among manuscript copies of belletristic writings were, for the first time in history, noted with passionate concern. Textual variants were examined before a determination of the “genuine version” of the text was reached, and “inauthentic” variants were edited out from a poet’s collection, often motivated by ideological concerns.

If Song men of letters largely ignored pre-Tang literature in favor of Tang poetry and old-style prose (guwen), this changed dramatically in the last six hundred years of the imperial period. There was a revival of interest in pre-Tang literature, including Southern Dynasties parallel prose (pianwen 駢文 or pianti wen 駢體文). This was manifested in the Ming dynasty reconstitution of early medieval individual literary collections from encyclopedia and anthology sources, which in turn became the basis of modern editions, and in the printing of classical literature, often with commentaries.

The late imperial period presents us with a dizzying array of works—from encyclopedias (leishu) and collectanea (congshu) to anthologies (zongji), often compiled with a clear critical agenda in mind, and reconstituted individual collections (bieji). There are several salient points to be highlighted regarding the transmission of the classical textual legacy in this period. First there is the complex interaction between printing and manuscript. Printing popularizes the manuscript copy on which the printed version is based but inadvertently “obscures” other manuscript versions, which could still circulate among more local audiences. This is what happened to the version of the early Tang poet Wang Ji’s 王績 (590?–644) collection in three scrolls which was printed and became widely known, whereas an earlier, larger Wang Ji collection in five scrolls existed in three manuscript copies in private collections and was only “discovered” as late as the 1980s. Sometimes a printed edition claiming to be based on an old manuscript or an earlier (usually Song) printed edition would go into many reprints and eclipse other versions. In the case of Yutai xinyong, its oldest datable printed edition from 1540 was based on a manuscript copy purchased at Jinling (modern Nanjing). It was largely overshadowed by the 1633 edition claiming to be based on a Southern Song edition put together by Chen Yufu 陳玉父 in 1215. The 1540 recension became widely available in a modern typeset edition only in 2011. It contains nearly 200 poems more than the 1633 version, and many of them might indeed have been interpolated from encyclopedias and collections by the editor himself, the unknown producer of the Jinling manuscript, or during the murky transmission process that had led to the Jinling manuscript. This in some ways is typical of a certain practice in the Ming of augmenting an early collection as much as possible, sometimes changing the text unscrupulously, before putting it in print, resulting in much criticism from scholars in the Qing and modern times. Yet, since we do not have the Yutai xinyong from the sixth century, it is impossible to determine with certainty its original content or the original ordering of that content. More importantly, the Southern Song edition collated by Chen Yufu was itself based on one manuscript copy and two printed (p. 292) editions, one with a missing page and riddled with errors and the other being only half of the original text. The point is that “Song editions” became mythologized because they came from the early stage of the age of printing and were taken to represent the authentic original, but the very concept of “authentic original” must be called into question.

The final point to be addressed is the blurring of boundaries between traditional generic boundaries in what I call the diffusion of wen. This blurring is testified by numerous prose anthologies from the Southern Song on. While Zhen Dexiu’s 真德秀 (1178–1235) Wenzhang zhengzong 文章正宗 began to include excerpts from Confucian classics and works of history such as Zuozhuan, Guoyu, Zhanguo ce, and Shiji, Tang Shunzhi’s 唐順之 (1507–1560) Wen bian 文編 is considered by scholars to be the first anthology to include selections from pre-Qin Masters texts, such as Xunzi, Zhuangzi, and even Sunzi’s book of war. Subsequently, many anthologies followed suit. By the late seventeenth century, including excerpts from Confucian classics, dynastic histories, and Masters Texts in a prose anthology had become such a norm that we witness it from The Imperial Selections of Exemplary Classical Prose (Yuxuan guwen yuanjian) to the wildly popular Best Examples of Classical Prose (Guwen guanzhi). When the famous prose stylist and classics scholar Fang Bao 方苞 (1668–1749) compiled Condensed Selections of Classical Prose (Guwen yuexuan), a textbook for young Manchu patricians largely based on the aforementioned Imperial Selections, he felt the need to explain his decision to exclude Guoyu, Zhanguo ce, and most of the Shiji, which he emphatically praised as forming “the proper pedigree of classical prose.” He was certainly not paying lip service to please his princely patron who believed the same, as Fang had famously and tirelessly advocated the classics, especially the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals) and Zuozhuan (the Zuo Tradition), as embodying the “principles and methods” (yifa 義法) of prose writing in many independently authored works throughout his life. Fang’s literary approach toward the classics and histories, influenced by the general trend since the Southern Song and more directly by the early Tongcheng prose stylist Dai Mingshi 戴名世 (1653–1713), can be further seen in the works of the next generation of great Qing scholars such as Ji Yun 紀昀 (1724–1805) and Zhang Xuecheng 章學誠 (1738–1801). The gradual collapse of traditional bibliographical categories of jing (classics), shi (histories), zi (masters texts), and ji (literary collections), despite the habitual use of these designations, culminated in modern times, when Shijing is studied as “belletristic literature” rather than as a Confucian scripture, Zhuangzi is analyzed for its literary value, and Sima Qian is considered the ancestor of “narrative literature.” With this we have effectively entered a new phase in the formation of a classical Chinese “literary” canon.