China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

4 - Classical Prose for Dummies: The Guwen Guanzhi and Its Model of Literary History

Thursday, March 22
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Location: Roosevelt Room 5, Exhibit Level

Has any book throughout Chinese literary history been so widely read yet so little studied as the literary anthology Guwen guanzhi 古文觀止 (Finest examples of ancient-style prose)? First published in 1695, the Guwen guanzhi became an extremely popular textbook within a few decades, and remained so throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Even today, look in the classical literature section of any Chinese bookstore and you will likely find multiple new editions. Partly due to this ubiquity, it is difficult to read the Guwen guanzhi without assuming that its contents are somehow representative of classical Chinese prose more broadly. This assumption is encouraged by claims to neutrality made in the book's original prefaces and strengthened by a lack of critical studies, creating a circular logic whereby the book’s longstanding popularity is attributed to its representativeness. My paper remedies this scholarly neglect in three ways. First, I argue that the method of selection and arrangement employed in the Guwen guanzhi represents a distinct model of literary history. Second, despite the claims of the book’s compilers, I argue that this model was by no means neutral. Comparison with other seventeenth-century anthologies reveals that, at the time, it was only one among several possible models. Finally, drawing on Jonathan Rose’s notion of “cultural lag” and conservative canons, I argue that the subsequent success of the Guwen guanzhi model should be understood with reference to the social expansion of Qing dynasty commercial printing and the growing market for middlebrow literature.

Timothy Clifford

Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania

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