An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Wenxuan 文選

Jul 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Wenxuan 文選 "Selected literature" is a literary anthology compiled during the Liang period 梁 (502-557) by Xiao Tong 蕭統 (501-531), Prince Zhaoming 昭明太子. The book is therefore also called Zhaoming Wenxuan 昭明文選.


The Liang period was a time when literature flourished. This apogee had been prepared since the Jian'an reign-period 建安 (196-219) of the late Han era 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). For the coming two centuries writers refined literary styles and developed new genres. The amount of literature produced between the 3rd and the 6th centuries was tremendous. During the Sui period 隋 (581-618) the imperial library (see the bibliography Jingji zhi 經籍志) included no less than 249 collections with a total size of 5,224 juan. There were also first attempts to think about literary theory during the Liu-Song period 劉宋 (420-479) when scholars of the state-sponsored faculties of Confucianism, Daoism, literature, historiography and mantic arts tried to standardize the writings in their respective fields. During the Jin period 晉 (265-420), there were the literary anthologies Wenzhang liubie ji 文章流别集 by Zhi Yu 摯虞 (d. 311) and Hanlinlun 翰林論 by Li Chong 李充 (c. 400). The famous writer Liu Yiqing 劉義慶 (403-444) compiled the literary anthology Jilin 集林. All three books are unfortunately lost. Xiao Tong's Wenxuan is the oldest surviving anthology of fine literature.

Compilation process

Xiao Tong gathered many excellent writers at his court with which he regularly conferred about literary theory and the ideal forms of writing. He disposed of a large library of almost 30,000 juan. The Prince himself was also an ardent writer, and his collected writings have a size of 20 juan, not including his commentaries and prefaces to other texts, with a volume of 10 fascicles. His anthology of five-syllable poems, for instance, is a book of 20 (or 19) juan called Wenzhang yinghua 文章英華 (also called Gujin shiyuan yinghua 古今詩苑英華). The anthology Wenxuan has a size of 30 juan. It is possible that Wenzhang yinghua or Gujin shiyuan yinghua were just alternative titles of the Wenxuan (or a draft of it) because there is otherwise no testimony of these books, and they were "lost" before the Sui period. Xiao Tong was certainly not the only compiler of the Wenxuan, but it must be assumed that he selected the texts together with his retainers, among which persons are found that are also famous for commenting works on literature works, like Liu Xiaochuo 劉孝綽 (d. 539), Wang Yun 王筠 (fl. 531), Yin Yun 殷芸 (471-529), Lu Chui 陸倕 (470-526), Dao Qia 到洽 (477-527) or Liu Xie 劉勰 (b. c. 465), author of the literary critique Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龙.


In 30 juan the Wenxuan includes 514 writings of 130 authors from earliest times down to the very early Liang period. The writings are arranged in 38 genres, beginning with rhapsodies (fu 賦) and the highly estimated genres of regular poems (shi 詩) and then going on to many categories of "miscellaneous writings" (zawen 雜文; a more common term would be sanwen 散文 "prose"). Below the level of genres or sub-genres, the writings are arranged chronologically. Poems and rhapsodies cover the largest part of the book. Because of their great amount the rhapsodies are therefore divided into 15 sub-categories, referring to places (the capital, palaces) or imperial activities, like offering, hunting, ploughing, etc. The many regular poems are likewise divided into 23 subgroups. The literary categories of the Wenxuan are very detailed, and the development of these presents a thorough new picture of how belles-lettres could be arranged in various types of writings, which was never done before.

Xiao Tong and his team only selected literary works and did not include any parts from the Confucian Classics, historiographical texts, or texts from the famous Warring-States-period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) philosophers. Literary comments to such books (zanlun 贊論), nevertheless, were included in the Wenxuan. The criterion thus was literary beauty, well-tasted wording, composition of regular sentences, and an overall harmony. Later scholars often criticized Xiao Tong for including obscure (Tao Yuanming 陶淵明, c. 365-427) or less important (Gushi shijiu shou 古詩十九首) poems while omitting other, more important works. Some of the pieces included have later been found to be forgeries, like Li Ling's 李陵 (d. 74 BCE) Da Su Wu shu 答蘇武書 or Kong Anguo's 孔安國 (2nd cent. BCE) Shangshu xu 尚書序.

Some paragraphs entitled as "preface" (xu 序) are not really prefaces, like Emperor Han Wudi's 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) Qiufeng ci 秋風辭, and some titles have nothing to to with the content, like Liu Jun's 劉峻 (463—521) Chong da Liu Moling zhao shu 重答劉秣陵詔書. There are also many clerical errors in the transmitted text of the Wenxuan.

Table 1. Contents of the Wenxuan 文選
1.-19. Fu Rhapsodies
1-6 京都 Jingdu 甲乙丙 Capital cities
7 郊祀 Jiaosi Suburban sacrifices
7 耕藉 Gengjie Ceremonial ploughing
7-9 畋獵 Tianlie 丁戊 Hunting
9-10 紀行 Jixing Travel accounts
11 遊覽 Youlan Sightseeing tours
11 宮殿 Gongdian Palace buildings
12 江海 Jianghai Rivers and the sea
13 物色 Wuse Appearance of things
13-14 鳥獸 Niaoshou Birds and beasts
14-16 Zhi 庚辛 Intentions and minds
16 哀傷 Aishang Mourning
17 論文 Lunwen Treatises and writings
17-18 音樂 Yinyue Music
19 Qing Emotions
19.-31. Shi Regular poems
19 補亡 Buwang Supplementing missing (poems)
19 述德 Shude Narration of virtues
19 勸勵 Quanli Adhortations
20 獻詩 Xianshi Presentations
20 公讌 Gongyan Banquets
20 祖餞 Zujian Food offerings for ancestors
21 詠史 Yongshi History
21 百一 Baiyi Natural phenomena
21 遊仙 Youxian The world of immortals
22 招隱 Zhaoyin Invitation of hidden worthies
22 反招隱 Fan zhaoyin Against the invitation of hidden worthies
22 遊覽 Youlan Journeys
23 詠懷 Yonghuai Songs of emotions
23 哀傷 Aishang Laments
23-26 贈答 Zengda 丙丁 Answers to presents
26-27 行旅 Xinglü 丁戊 Travels
27 軍戎 Junrong Military campaigns
27 郊廟 Jiaomiao Sacrifices and tempples
27-28 樂府 Yuefu Music-bureau style poems
28 挽歌 Wange Elegies
28 雜歌 Zage Miscellaneous songs
29-30 雜詩 Zashi Miscellaneous poems
30-31 雜擬 Zani Miscellaneous models
32.-33. Sao Elegic poems
34.-35. Qi "Sevens"
35. Zhao Imperial edicts
35. Ce Patents of nobility
36. Ling Commands
36. Jiao Instructions
36. Wen [Examination] texts
37.-38. Biao Memorials
39. 上書 Shangshu Letters of submission
39. Qi Communications
40. 彈事 Tanshi Accusations
40. Jian Memoranda
40. 奏記 Zouji Notes of presentation
41.-43. Shu Letters
44. Xi Military proclamations
45. 對問 Duiwen Response texts
45. 設論 Shelun Hypothetical discourses
45. Ci Southern-style poems
45.-46. Xu Prefaces
47. Song Eulogies
47. Zan Encomia
48. 符命 Fuming Mandates through prophetic signs
49.-50. 史論 Shilun Treatises from the histories
50. 史述贊 Shishuzan Evaluations from the histories
51.-55. Lun Treatises
55. 連珠 Lianzhu "Linked pearls"
56. Zhen Admonitions
56. Ming Inscriptions
56.-57. Lei Dirges
57.-58. Ai Laments
58.-59. 碑文 Beiwen Epitaphs
59. 墓誌 Muzhi Epitaphs
60. 行狀 Xingzhuang Conduct descriptions
60. 弔文 Diaowen Commemorations
60. 祭文 Jiwen Sacrificial texts


The Wenxuan was, in spite of these shortcomings, a path-breaking book for the study of literary genres in the field of belles-lettres. The study of the Wenxuan even developed into an own discipline (wenxuanxue 文選學). The enormous development of the regular poem during the Tang period 唐 (618-907) cannot be understood without the important study of Xiao Tong in this field. The ability to write poems became part of the state examinations, and this must be led back to the importance Xiao Tong posed on this type of literature. A profoundly educated scholar had to study the Wenxuan.


Scholars also commented on the Wenxuan. Of the circa 90 commentaries from the Sui and Tang periods only very few have survived. The oldest commentary was written by Xiao Gai 蕭該 (c. 535-c. 610) during the Sui period, called Wenxuan yinyi 文選音義. A phonetic commentary with the same title was written during the early Tang by Cao Xian 曹憲 (541-645). Both are lost. The oldest surviving – and most famous – commentary is Li Shan's 李善 (630-689) Wenxuan zhu 文選注. In a lot of modern editions, this commentary is integrated into the main text of the Wenxuan. Li Shan's commentary is of extraordinary quality. Li used more then 1,700 books to revise and explain the difficult texts of the writings included in the Wenxuan. The Wenxuan zhu was submitted to the throne in 658. In general, Li's texts is rather a critical commentary than an explanation of the literary works. It makes use of and quotes from a lot of older commentaries to the particular writings, for instance, Xue Zong's 薛綜 (208-243) commentary on the rhapsody Erjing fu 二京賦 of Zhang Heng 張衡 (78-139), or Wang Yi's 王逸 (c. 110 CE) commentary on Qu Yuan's 屈原 (c. 343-c. 278 BCE) elegies. Another book of Li Shan on the Wenxuan, the Wenxuan bianhuo 文選辨惑, is lost.

Another important Tang period commentary to the Wenxuan is the Wuchen zhu Wenxuan 五臣注文選 "Commentaries of the Five Masters" from 718, a compound edition of commentaries by five persons, namely Lü Yanji 呂延濟, Liu Liang 劉良, Zhang Xi 張銑, Lü Xiang 呂向 and Li Zhouhan 李周翰. This commentary is rated as of a minor quality if compared to Li Shan's commentary. During the Song period 宋 (960-1279) the five commentaries and Li Shan's commentary were put together as Liuchen zhu 六臣注. Later scholars again distilled out Li Shan's book. Most modern publications containing Li Shan's commentary are based on these extractions. There is another Tang-period commentary written by an unknown master, the Wenxuan jizhu 文選集注 surviving in a fragment of 23 juan. It quotes from the other commentaries, but also from the notes of Lu Shanjing 陸善經 and from the books Wenxuan chao 文選鈔 and Wenxuan yinjue 文選音決, which are both lost.

During the Song period, the study of the Wenxuan declined. There were, nonetheless, a few specialized research tools written, like Wenxuan shuangzi leiyao 文選雙字類要 or Wenxuan leilin 文選類林. Some few studies can also be found scattered in various Song-period essays.

The Song-period encyclopaedia Wenyuan yinghua 文苑英華 is often called a continuation of the Wenxuan. It is arranged in a similar style and largely copies the literary categories of the Wenxuan.

There is the Yuan-period 元 (1279-1368) commentary Xuanshi buzhu 選詩補注 written by Liu Lü 劉履 and the Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) book Wenxuan zuanzhu 文選纂注 by Zhang Fengyi 張鳳翼 (1527-1613). The wave of textual critique developing during the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) also embraced the Wenxuan studies, and a few books from that time have to be mentioned: Wang Shihan's 汪師韓 (1707-1780) Wenxuan lixue quanyu 文選理學權輿, Sun Zhizu's 孫志祖 (1737-1801) Wenxuan lixue quanyu bu 文選理學權輿補, Hu Kejia's 胡克家 (1757-1816) Wenxuan kaoyi 文選考異, Zhang Yun'ao's 張雲璈 (1747-1829) Xuanxue jiaoyan 選學胶言, Liang Zhangju's 梁章鉅 (1775-1849) Wenxuan pangzheng 文選旁證, Zhu Jian's 朱珔 (1769-1850) Wenxuan jishi 文選集釋, Hu Shaoying's 胡紹瑛 (1791-1860) Wenxuan jianzheng 文選箋證, Xu Xunxing's (fl. 1793) 許巽行 Wenxuan biji 文選筆記, He Zhuo's 何焯 (1661-1722) Yimen du shuji 義門讀書記, Yu Guanghua's 于光華 (fl. 1781) Wenxuan jiping 文選集評, Gao Buying's 高步瀛 (1873-1940) Wenxuan Li zhu yishu 文選李注義疏 and Luo Hongkai's 駱鸿凱 (1892-1955) Wenxuanxue 文選學.

Versions and editions

The oldest surviving versions of the Wenxuan are the above-mentioned Wenxuan jizhu from the Tang period, a plain text (without commentaries) from the Tang period, a version including Li Shan's commentary, and a phonetic commentary Wenxuan yin 文選音. All have survived as fragments discovered in Dunhuang 敦煌. Part of these fragments is included in the collections Mingshashishi guji congcan 鳴沙石室古籍叢殘 and Dunhuang miji liuzhen xinbian 敦煌秘籍留真新編. The oldest print of the Wenxuan was produced during the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126). It is surviving as a facsimile edition in the series Sibu congkan 四部叢刊, including the six commentaries. The Zhonghua Shuju Press 中華書局 has published a reprint of an edition from 1181 produced by You Mao 尤袤 (1127-1194), including Li Shan's commentary. The most common version is the Qing-period print by Hu Kejia, based on You Mao's edition from the Song era. It has been republished in 1977 by the Zhonghua Shuju Press, enriched by a short critical study at the end.

Supplements and sequels

The first sequel to the Wenxuan, called Wenxuan buyi 文選補遺 or Bu wenxuan 補文選, was compiled by Chen Renzi 陳仁子 (fl. 1279). The preface, written by Zhao Wen 趙文, states that some types of texts found in the Wenxuan were not appropriate because of several political and philosophical reasons, namely Sima Changqing's 司馬長卿 (Sima Xiangru 司馬相如, c. 179-117 BCE) Fengshan wen 封禪文 on the sacrifices to Heaven and Earth, and Pan Yuanmao's 潘元茂 (Pan Xun 潘勖, d. 215)Ce Wei Gong jiuxi wen 冊魏公九錫文 on the bestowal of the nine privileges to the warlord Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220). Zhao also criticized that Prince Zhaoming had shortened Zhuge Liang's important memorial [Hou] chushi biao [後]出師表. Zhao was also amazed that of the famous Nine Songs (Jiuge 九歌) of the Southern Elegies (Chuci 楚辭), only the text Shejiang 涉江 was accepted. He was furthermore critical to Prince Zhaoming’s concept of the genre "Treatises from the histories" (shilun 史論), which should also extend to writings of the eminent historiographer Sima Qian 司馬遷 (c. 145-86 BCE).

The anthology of 40 juan length thus includes Sima Tan’s 司馬談 (190-110 BCE) Liujia yaozhi 六家要旨 and Lu Zhonglian yi Yan jiang shu 魯仲連遺燕將書, Liu Bang’s 劉邦 (i.e. Han Gaozu 漢高祖, r. 206-195 BCE) Honghu ge 鴻鵠歌, Yang Xiong’s 揚雄 (53 BCE-18 CE) Fan Lisao 反離騷, Cai Yan’s 蔡琰 (177-249) Hujia shiba pai 胡笳十八拍 and the southern song Li Yannian ge 李延年歌.

There exist several prints, namely the Dongshan Shuyuan 東山書院 edition, a print from 1737, the version in the imperial series Siku quanshu 四庫全書, and a print from Hunan from 1826.

During the Ming period, several supplements to Prince Zhaoming’s Wenxuan were compiled. The oldest is Liu Jie’s 劉節 (fl. 1520) Guang wenxuan 廣文選. However, the authorship of Liu Jie cannot be substantiated because of several reasons. The preface (xu 序) speaks of a different size than the real book (60 juan), and might thus belong to a different collection. Moreover, the afterword (ba 跋), written by Chen Hui 陳蕙 (jinshi degree 1529), criticizes the "old version" (jiu ben 舊本) of Liu Jie because of its many flaws, and states that Wang Zisong 王子松, Lin Bi 林璧, Zeng Chen 曾辰, and Li Shiyong 李世用 revised this edition, eliminated some texts and added some others. It must thus be assumed that the Guang wenxuan was in fact edited by Chen Hui. Yet even after some revisions of Chen’s team, the texts still includes many clerical errors and mistakes in the attribution of genres.

Around 1600, Zhou Yingzhi 周應治 (1556-1621) compiled a further supplement, Guangguang wenxuan 廣廣文選, with a length of 33 juan.

A non-commentary supplement is Tang Shaozu’s 湯紹祖 (fl. 1602) Xu wenxuan 續文選 from 1602. The book of 32 juan length assembles from the Tang period, and – strangely enough – the Ming period. Among the latter, most texts were written by the so-called "Later Seven Masters" (Houqizi 後七子), with the exception of Liu Ji 劉基 (1311-1375) and Gao Qi 高啟 (1336-1373). The sub-categories of rhapsodies are fewer than in the original Wenxuan. The sections capital cities, suburban sacrifices, and ceremonial ploughing are not used, and the sub-category on Rivers and the Sea (Jianghai 江海) is changed to contain texts on "Mountains and the sea" (Shanhai 山海). Quite surprising is the categorization of Lu Nanshou’s 盧楠壽 rhapsody Chenggao wang fu 成皋王賦 as a "mind-text" (zhi 志), and of Xu Zhenqing’s 徐禎卿 (1479-1511) Fanfan Lisao 反反離騷 as a "treatise" (lunwen 論文).

Sun Kuang 孫礦 (1542-1613) edited a "modern" Jin wenxuan 今文選 with 12 fascicles. The last 5 fascicles are actually a supplement to the first seven, and therefore bear the headline Xuxuan 續選. The anthology only includes texts of Ming-period writers.

Another "modern" collection was edited during the early Qing period by Chen Weisong 陳維崧 (1625-1682) and Pan Mei 潘眉 (fl. 1692). Even if the book has just a length of 8 juan, it includes several prefaces and a guideline (fanli 凡例) summing up the principles of the compilation. The anthology includes writings of 75 person, many of whom had experienced difficulties and disasters ("martyrs", zhonglie 忠烈) in the last decades of the Ming period, like Xia Yunyi 夏允彝 (1596-1645), Chen Zilong 陳子龍 (1608-1647), Jiang Dingrui 江鼎瑞 (d. 1644), Zhao Erbian 趙而汴 (d. 1570), Wu Yingji 吳應箕 (1594-1645) or Zhou Lianggong 周亮工 (1612-1672). Chen's anthology has therefore historiographical value. It was printed around 1648.

Lei Jin 雷瑨 (1871-1941) edited another supplement called Xu wenxuan 續文選 with a length of 20 fascicles. It was published in 1919 by the Shanghai Zhonghua Tushuguan 上海中華圖書館 as a lithographical print. This anthology includes writings from the Liang to the Ming period. It attempts to rectify errors in Chen Renzi’s Wenxuan buyi from the very late Song period, and adds commentaries on texts included in Tang Shaozu’s Xu wenxuan from the Ming period, a book that only presents original texts without comments. The texts selected by Lei Jin differ in a few points from other sources of transmission.

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Wang Yuguang 王余光, Xu Yan 徐雁, eds. (1999). Zhongguo dushu da cidian 中國讀書大辭典 (Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe), 1170.
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Wu Feng 吳楓, ed. (1994). Zhonghua gu wenxian da cidian 中華古文獻大辭典, Vol. Wenxue 文學卷 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 85, 103.
Xibei Shifan Xueyuan Zhongwen Xi Wenyi Lilun Jiaoyan Shi 西北師范學院中文系文藝理論教研室, ed. (1985). Jianming wenshi zhishi cidian 簡明文學知識辭典 (Lanzhou: Gansu renmin chubanshe), 301.
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Zhao Zecheng 趙則誠, Zhang Liandi 張連弟, Wan Bichen 畢萬忱, eds. (1985). Zhongguo gudai wenxue lilun cidian 中國古代文學理論辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 216.