Recently I started thinking about - out of my list of canonical texts, which one should I really spend time to study before it is too late?
I started with the East Asian tradition (the Chinese portion), and found myself selecting texts based on criteria that are not necessarily just "influential", "representative", nor for the list to be "balanced" as laid out in this site's original Concept page.
I ended up thinking about 5 things, which may end up being a better instantiation of the original 3 of "influential", "representative" and "balanced."
1. Texts that are at the root of tradition(s) and/or genre(s)
2. Texts that are currently still very widely read by people in the tradition
3. (relatively less important for me) Texts that are historically influential / significant
Arguably, these are just some parameters of texts being "influential"
4. Excellence - some texts are influential, yet does not have a good reputation of being an excellent text. To me, as a reader now deciding what to read, this trumps "historical significance" considered above.
5. Coverage - this is a hard one to define, but I take it to mean that with one texts it can be considered to be representative of multiple traditions / genres / authors. It may be a "representative" criteria looked at from the perspectives of individual text but not considering the list in total.
I looked at the Chinese texts in my East Asian list, and come up with this ranked groups:
I. Historical Records (1)
II. Wang Bi's Commentaries on Book of Changes and Laozi; Zhu Xi's Commentaries on the Four Books (2)
III. Zhuang Zi's Commentaries by Guo Xiang and Sub-Commentaries by Cheng Xuanying; Correct Meanings of Mao Odes, Selected Literature, 300 Tang Poems, Su Shi (5)
(Notice that all the Buddhist works are outside of this short-list).
Then I pose myself the question, out of group III, if I need to select just 5-6 books from the Chinese tradition, how would I pick given I already has the first 3 - clearly Zhuang Zi is somewhat redundant wtih Wang Bi, so that is out. But among the 4 Literature works:
- Odes are old and Mao odes include layers of Commentaries on Classics, the Odes are classic but the Commentaries are mostly interesting because of historical significance
- Selected Literature is the first summary of the period when Literature became an independent field; its collections include among the more important authors Qu Yuan, the Cao's and Tao Qian. But as a selection it also has many poets no longer widely read or considered very important; while some selections of works before Sima Qian is selected in a limited manner in the Historical Records. But it includes many different genres which speaks to the factor of coverage
- 300 Tang poetry - this is not strong as the root of a tradition but can be considered to be a refounding of the poetic tradition, nor does it covers more than one genre (but it does include 3 main poets Du Fu, Li Bai, Wang Wei plus many more). But this is hugely popular, and Tang poetry are considered exemplary, and historically significant.
- Su Shi is very week as a source of tradition, but he spans many genres in Literature (and also has interesting philosophical, poetical and exegetic works), probably the most reputation author in the history of Chinese literature, still popular nowadays (though probably not so much as Tang poets), and is clearly important historically.
So my ultimate selections among group III?
300 Tang Poetry, and Su Shi. In this case, being at the root of tradition is just not as important to me as a reader. But these are broadly speaking, not texts that are very far apart in too many senses.
And then I feel that if I have to pick between 300 Tang Poetry and Su Shi, I go for the latter as among 300 Tang Poems the only poet I feel is superior to Su Shi is Wang Wei, but the selection's maybe only 10% is with Wang Wei's works. And Wang Wei is less canonized in Tang poetry as Du Fu and Li Bai historically. So here personal taste start to matter, and the subjectively comes into play when considering "Excellence" - which ultimately is a mix of tastes and reputation.
So, if I were just reading for the sake of reading canonical Chinese texts, the 4 will be 1) Historical Records, 2) Commentaries on Four Books; 3) Wang Bi; 4) Su Shi.
This clearly takes out East Asian Buddhism, and no novel / non-Chinese East Asian works. So for "balance", in this round of thinking with a new criteria, and only bring back the view of "balance" at the very end the list of 6 works would add 2 more to the list:
5) Zhiyi (East Asian Buddhism)
6) Tale of Genji (Japanese literature - novel - much earlier than Story of the Stone - and by a female author)