Well over one hundred classical essay anthologies were published during the printing boom in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ming dynasty China. These anthologies testify to a voracious appetite for “ancient-style prose” (guwen) among the expanding reading public, and their contents represent a valuable resource for studying the formation of taste during this crucial moment in literary history. But how are we to compare the contents of such a large group of anthologies, when each individual anthology contains at least a few hundred individual selections? How might such a method clarify or revise our understanding of Ming literary culture? This article describes how Gephi was used to compare the contents of thirty-four anthologies and visualize clusters of anthologies corresponding to distinct editorial strategies. The author argues that the synchronic and diachronic relationships among these clusters suggest a new way of narrating Ming literary history in terms of successive waves of alternative canon building, each wave representing a new critique of the civil service examination curriculum's overriding focus on model examination essays. He also shows that, whereas the Qin-Han and transdynastic canons were first promulgated in a mix of government and commercial anthologies, the xiaopin 小品 (informal essay) canon was purely the invention of early seventeenth-century commercial printers.

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