A congshu 叢書, "thicket book", is a collection of writings in one series. The writings often belong to a certain category or have a common theme but can also be of special interest for the compiler of the series.
The term congshu is not easy to translate. Most dictionaries explain it as "collection of books", "series" or "reprint series", yet not all of these translations are really fitting. The word "series" suggests a publication of several volumes over time, while the word "reprint" suggests that the source texts were also available in printed form. The translation "collection" is not exact enough. We will use the term "series" throughout, nonetheless. Many congshu emerged as selections of texts from among private libraries, something like "the best/most interesting books in my library". Congshu are collections of books, texts, textual elements, or selected paragraphs related to particular themes or having certain common features.
The origin of congshu are the early encyclopaedias from the Tang period 唐 (618-907). The word congshu does not necessarily appear in the title but can either be replaced by similar terms like congkan 叢刊, congke 叢刻, huike 彙刻, etc., or not be used at all. Lu Guimeng's 陸龜蒙 (d. 881) book Lize congshu 笠澤叢書 from the Tang period, on the other hand, is one book, and not a series.
The oldest series are Zhu Shengfei's 朱勝非 (1082-1144) Ganzhuji 紺珠集, Yu Dingsun's 俞鼎孫 Ruxue jingwu 儒學警悟, and Zuo Gui's 左圭 Baichuan xuehai 百川學海 from the Song period 宋 (960-1279). These series established a tradition perpetuated during the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods.
The most important Ming-period series are He Tang's 何鏜 (jinshi degree 1547) Han-Wei congshu 漢魏叢書 (including 100 books), Cheng Rong's 程榮 Han-Wei congshu (38 books), Shang Weijun's 商維濬 Baihai 稗海, Li Shi's 李栻 Lidai xiaoshi 歷代小史, Jiang Nan's 姜南 Rongtang zazhu 容塘雜著, the anonymous Shuozuan 說纂, the Wenfang xiaoshuo 文房小説 by Master Gu from Yinshan 陰山顧氏, Chen Jiru's 陳繼儒 Baoyantang miji 寶顏堂秘笈, Hu Wenhuan's 胡文煥 Gezhi congshu 格致叢書, and Zhong Renjie's 鍾人傑 Tang-Song congshu 唐宋叢書.
There are two traditions among the Ming-period series. The one follows the example of the Baichuan xuehai (100 books) and extended this series, like Wu Yong's 吳永 (1865-1936) Xu baichuan xuehai 續百川學海 (120 books) and Feng Kebing's 馮可賓 Guang baichuan xuehai 廣百川學海 (130 books).
Many collectors imitated the pattern of choice adopted in the Baichuan xuehai and assembled the most important or most interesting writings of the "hundred masters" or historiographical writings. The most important examples of this kind of series are Zheng Zi's 鄭梓 Mingshi xueshan 明世學山, Gao Mingfeng's 高鳴鳳 Jinxian huiyan 今獻彙言, Wang Wenlu's 王文祿 (1532-1605) Bailing xueshan 百陵學山, Wu Guan's 吳琯 (1546-?) Gujin yishi 古今逸史, Zhou Ziyi's 周子義 (1529-1586) Zihui 子彙, Zhou Lüjing's 周履靖 (1549-1640) Yimen guangdu 夷門廣牘, Shen Jiefu's 沈節甫 (jinshi degree 1559) Jilu huibian 紀錄彙編, or Fan Weicheng's 樊維城 (d. 1643) Yanyi zhilin 鹽邑志林.
The other tradition is that of the series Shuofu 說郛 compiled by Tao Zongyi 陶宗儀 (1329-1410) which does not include whole books but only the most interesting parts of it. The 100-chapters (juan)-long Shuofu contains countless excerpts from more than 1,000 books which are longe since lost. During the 1450s a 120-juan-long Shuofu was printed, and in the late 17th century a 200-juan-long version. Both were not the originals by Tao Zongyi but were "wild" prints of bad quality, the latter organized by Tao Ting 陶珽 (1576-1635). Around the same time the printing shop Jiangnan Shufang 江南書坊 published a crippled and reorganised version of the Shuofu. Other publishers even gave other titles to their reprints but retained the name of Tao Zongyi, like the versions Jinnang xiaoshi 錦囊小史, Shuibian linxia 水邊林下, or Qunfang qingwan 群芳清玩. Other publications even include newly added maps and illustrations, like Chen Jiru's Bagong youxi congdu 八公遊戲叢讀 and Tu Benjun's 屠本畯 Shanlin jingji ji 山林經濟籍.
Although the series of the Ming period deserve high attention because they preserved numerous rare texts the quality of them is often not very high because the publishers frequently altered the wording or cut out paragraphs.
The late Ming-period scholar Mao Jin 毛晉 (1599-1659) was the first publisher of series who earnestly undertook text-critical work and tried to reconstruct the original wordings of many texts from the Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 AD) and Tang periods in his series Jindai mishu 津逮秘書. A similar work has already been achieved in Hu Zhenheng's 胡震亨 Mice huihan 秘冊彙函 (Bice huihan 袐冊彙函).
From the Qing period on the rules for the composition of a congshu became very strict: Only whole books were to be included, and the term congshu appears regularly (yet not always) in the title. There are numerous series specializing in writings from Ming-period authors, like the anonymous Mingji yeshi huibian 明季野史彙編, Ye Tengxiang's 葉騰驤 Chongzhen congshu 崇禎叢書, Feng Menglong's 馮夢龍 (1574-1646) Jiashen jishi 甲申紀事, or the series Jingshe yishi 荊蛇逸史 by a master called Chenhu Yishi 陳湖逸士.
The Qing period was a time of vivid compilation of series. There were large, officially-compiled series of which the Siku quanshu 四庫全書 is the most important. Another public series is a collection of books stored in the imperial library, the Wuyingdian juzhenban congshu 武英殿聚珍版叢書.
Yet there is also a vast amount of privately published series, like Cao Rong's 曹溶 (1613-1685) Xuehai leibian 學海類編, Zhao Chao's 趙潮 Zhaodai congshu 昭代叢書, Bao Tingbo's 鮑廷博 (1728-1814) Zhibuzuzhai congshu 知不足齋叢書, Sun Xingyan's 孫星衍 (1753-1818) Pingjinguan congshu 平津館叢書, Zhang Haipeng's 張海鵬 (1867-1949) Jieyueshanfang huichao 借月山房彙鈔, Gu Yuan's 顧沅 (1799-1851) Ciyantang congshu 賜硯堂叢書, Wu Yuanwei's 伍元薇 (1810-1863) and Wu Chongyao's 伍崇曜 (1810-1863) Lingnan yishu 嶺南遺書, Huang Zhimo's 黃秩謨 Xunmintang congshu 遜敏堂叢書, Wu Chongyao's Yueyatang congshu 粵雅堂叢書, Ma Guohan's 馬國翰 (1794-1857) Yuhan shanfang ji yishu 玉函山房輯佚書, Gu Xiang's 顧湘 Xiaoshishanfang congshu 小石山房叢書, Qian Xizuo's 錢熙祚 (d. 1844) Shoushange congshu 守山閣叢書, Li Xiling's 李錫齡 (1794-1844) Xiyinxuan congshu 惜陰軒叢書, Ding Bing's 丁丙 (1832-1899) Wulin zhanggu congbian 武林掌故叢編, Cai Erkang's 蔡爾康 (1851-1921) Xieyu congshu 屑玉叢書, or the Shenbaoguan congshu 申報館叢書 published in Shanghai.
The series published in the 20th century often focus on Ming-period authors, like the Guxue congkan 古學叢刊 by Deng Shi 鄧實 (1877-1951) and Miao Quansun 繆荃孫 (1844-1919), Deng Shi's Guocui congshu 國粹叢書 and Fengyulou congshu 風雨樓叢書, Sun Yuxiu's 孫毓修 (1871-1922) Hanfenlou biji/miji 涵芬樓秘笈, Zhang Shouyong's 張壽鏞 (1876-1945) Siming congshu 四明叢書, and Zheng Zhenduo's 鄭振鐸 (1898-1958) Xuanlantang congshu 玄覽堂叢書.
The large publishing houses of China created voluminous series containing huge collections of authors from all periods of time. Those are the Sibu congkan 四部叢刊 and Congshu jicheng (chubian) 叢書集成初編 published by the Commercial Press 商務印書館, and the Sibu beiyao 四部備要 published by the Zhonghua Book Company 中華書局.
The Sibu congkan contains facsimile copies of old Song-period printings. Very worth mentioning is the series Baibu congshu 百部叢書, a re-organisation of the Congshu jicheng chubian and published by the Yiwen Yinshuguan Press 藝文印書館 in 1965-1970 which contains in itself one hundred series. Several of these large series were published in different editions, like for instance the Sibu beiyao, which exists in a traditional thread-bound edition and an edition of small, modern paperback volumes. Some of the series follow the traditional four categories into which Chinese literature was divided.