In the reception of Tang literature during the Song Dynasty, the anthology Wen cui 文粹 (Literature's Finest), compiled by the Northern Song scholar Yao Xuan 姚鉉 (968–1020) in 1011, survives as the earliest attempt by an individual scholar to provide a comprehensive overview of Tang literature. The Wen cui collected over two thousand pieces of prose and poetry, making it the largest anthology of Tang literature to circulate widely in the Song and later dynasties in multiple editions. It became famous for its polemical views of “excellence” in Tang literature, which are laid out in the preface to the anthology, and focused its selections on mid-Tang writers, especially those associated with Han Yu 韓愈 (768–824) and antiquity. In this essay, the author demonstrates that the Wen cui vision of the “finest” Tang literature was more nuanced and carefully constructed than its later reputation as simply a guwen 古文 (ancient-style prose) anthology would suggest. By analyzing the claims of the preface, Yao Xuan's unusual organizational strategies, and some key theoretical texts in the “letters discussing literature” section of the anthology, the author shows that Yao Xuan used his selections to defend the necessity of wenzhang 文章 (literary composition) in governance and literati culture more broadly defined. Although this view of literature's importance was challenged by later Daoxue adherents, the Wen cui gives us an important window on the more catholic and diverse conceptions of literature's place in the culture that flourished in the early years of the Song Dynasty.

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