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Sima Qian (; ; ) was a Chinese historian of the early
Han dynasty#REDIRECT Han dynasty The Han dynasty () was the second Dynasties in Chinese history, imperial dynasty of China (202 BC – 220 AD), established by the rebel leader Liu Bang and ruled by the House of Liu. Preceded by the short-lived Qin dynas ...

Han dynasty
(206AD220). He is considered the father of
Chinese historiography Chinese historiography is the study of the techniques and sources used by historians to develop the recorded history of China The earliest known written records of the history of China date from as early as 1250 BC, from the Shang dynasty ...
for his ''
Records of the Grand Historian The ''Records of the Grand Historian'', also known by its Chinese name ''Shiji'', is a monumental history of ancient China and the world finished around 94 BC by the Western Han Dynasty official Sima Qian after having been started by his father ...

Records of the Grand Historian
'', a general history of
China China (), officially the People's Republic of China (PRC; ), is a country in . It is the world's , with a of more than 1.4 billion. China spans five geographical and 14 different countries, the in the world after . Covering an area of ap ...

China
in the ''Jizhuanti'' style () covering more than two thousand years beginning from the rise of the legendary
Yellow Emperor The Yellow Emperor, also known as the Yellow Thearch, or by his Chinese name Huangdi (), is a deity A deity or god is a supernatural The supernatural encompasses supposed phenomena that are not subject to the laws of nature.https://w ...

Yellow Emperor
and the formation of the first Chinese polity to the reigning sovereign of Sima Qian's time,
Emperor Wu of Han Emperor Wu of Han (30 July 157BC29 March 87BC), formally posthumous name, enshrined as Emperor Wu the filial piety, Filial (), born Liu Che (劉徹) and courtesy name Tong (通), was the seventh emperor of China, emperor of the Han dynasty of imp ...

Emperor Wu of Han
. As the first universal history of the world as it was known to the ancient Chinese, the ''Records of the Grand Historian'' served as a model for official history-writing for subsequent Chinese dynasties and the Chinese cultural sphere (Korea, Vietnam, Japan) up until the 20th century. Sima Qian's father
Sima Tan Sima Tan (; 165–110  BCE) was a Chinese astrologer and historian during the Western Han dynasty. Education & career Sima Tan studied astronomy with Tang Du, the ''I Ching The ''I Ching'' or ''Yi Jing'' (, ), usually translated as ...
(司馬談) first conceived of the ambitious project of writing a complete history of China, but had completed only some preparatory sketches at the time of his death. After inheriting his father's position as court historian in the imperial court, he was determined to fulfill his father's dying wish of composing and putting together this epic work of history. However, in 99 BC, he would fall victim to the
Li Ling Li Ling (, died 74 BC), courtesy name A courtesy name (), also known as a style name, is a name bestowed upon one at adulthood in addition to one's given name. This practice is a tradition in the Sinosphere, including China, Japan, Korea, and ...
affair for speaking out in defense of the general, who was blamed for an unsuccessful campaign against the
Xiongnu The Xiongnu (, ) were a tribal confederation A confederation (also known as a confederacy or league) is a union of sovereign groups or states united for purposes of common action. Usually created by a treaty A treaty is a formal ...

Xiongnu
. Given the choice of being executed or castrated, he chose the latter in order to finish his historical work. Although he is universally remembered for the ''Records'', surviving works indicate that he was also a gifted poet and prose writer, and he was instrumental in the creation of the ''Taichu'' calendar, which was officially promulgated in 104 BC. As his position in the imperial court was "Grand Historian" (''tàishǐ'' , variously translated as court historian, scribe, or astronomer/astrologer), later generations would accord him with the honorific title of "Lord Grand Historian" (''Tàishǐ Gōng'' ) for his monumental work, though his ''magnum opus'' was completed many years after his tenure as Grand Historian ended in disgrace and after his acceptance of punitive actions against him, including imprisonment,
castration Castration (also known as orchiectomy or orchidectomy) is any action, surgical Surgery ''cheirourgikē'' (composed of χείρ, "hand", and ἔργον, "work"), via la, chirurgiae, meaning "hand work". is a medical or dental specialty t ...

castration
, and subjection to servility. He was acutely aware of the importance of his work to posterity and its relationship to his own personal suffering. In the postface of the ''Records'', he implicitly compared his universal history of China to the classics of his day, the '' Guoyu'' by Zuoqiu Ming'', Lisao'' by
Qu Yuan Qu Yuan ( – 278 BC) was a Chinese poet and politician in the Chu (state), State of Chu during the Warring States period. He is known for his patriotism and contributions to Classical Chinese poetry, classical poetry and verses, es ...

Qu Yuan
, and the ''
Art of War ''The Art of War'' is an ancient Chinese military treatise dating from the Late Spring and Autumn Period The Spring and Autumn period was a period in Chinese history The earliest known written records of the history of China date f ...
'' by
Sun Bin Sun Bin (died 316 BC) was a Chinese general, Military strategy, military strategist, and writer who lived during the Warring States period of History of China, Chinese history. A supposed descendant of Sun Tzu, Sun was tutored in military stra ...

Sun Bin
, pointing out that their authors all suffered great personal misfortunes before their lasting monumental works could come to fruition. Sima Qian is depicted in the
Wu Shuang Pu ''Wu Shuang Pu'' () is a book of woodcut prints, first printed in 1694, early on in the Qing dynasty. This book contains the biographies and imagined portraits of 40 notable heroes and heroines from the Han Dynasty to the Song Dynasty, all acco ...
(無雙譜, Table of Peerless Heroes) by Jin Guliang.


Early life and education

Sima Qian was born at Xiayang in
Zuopingyi Pingyi ( zh, 馮翊), also known as Zuo Pingyi ( zh, 左馮翊), was a historical region of China located in modern Shaanxi Shaanxi (, ; Chinese postal romanization, alternately Shensi) is a landlocked Provinces of China, province of the Chi ...
(around present-day
Hancheng Hancheng () is a city in Shaanxi Shaanxi (, ; Chinese postal romanization, alternately Shensi) is a landlocked Provinces of China, province of the China, People's Republic of China. Officially part of Northwest China, it borders the provinc ...
,
Shaanxi Province Shaanxi (; , ; Chinese postal romanization, alternately Shensi) is a landlocked Provinces of China, province of the China, People's Republic of China. Officially part of Northwest China, it borders the province-level divisions of Shanxi (NE, ...

Shaanxi Province
). He was most likely born about 145, though some sources say he was born about 135. Around 136, his father,
Sima Tan Sima Tan (; 165–110  BCE) was a Chinese astrologer and historian during the Western Han dynasty. Education & career Sima Tan studied astronomy with Tang Du, the ''I Ching The ''I Ching'' or ''Yi Jing'' (, ), usually translated as ...
, received an appointment to the relatively low-ranking position of "grand historian" (''tàishǐ'' , alt. "grand scribe" or "grand astrologer"). The grand historian's primary duty was to formulate the yearly calendar, identifying which days were ritually auspicious or inauspicious, and present it to the emperor prior to
New Year's Day New Year's Day is a festival observed in most of the world on 1 January, the first day of the year in the modern Gregorian calendar The Gregorian calendar is the used in most of the world. It was introduced in October 1582 by as a modi ...

New Year's Day
. The grand historian's other duties included traveling with the emperor for important rituals and recording daily events both at the court and around the country. By his account, by the age of ten Sima was able to "read the old writings" and was considered to be a promising scholar. Sima grew up in a
Confucian , Shanxi Shanxi (; ; Chinese postal romanization, formerly romanised as Shansi) is a landlocked Provinces of China, province of the China, People's Republic of China and is part of the North China region. The capital and largest city of th ...
environment, and Sima always regarded his historical work as an act of Confucian filial piety to his father. In 126, around the age of twenty, Sima Qian began an extensive tour around China as it existed in the Han dynasty. He started his journey from the imperial capital,
Chang'an Chang'an (; ) is the traditional name of Xi'an Xi'an ( , ; ; Chinese: ), sometimes romanized as Sian, is the capital Capital most commonly refers to: * Capital letter Letter case (or just case) is the distinction between th ...
(near modern
Xi'an Xi'an ( , ; ; Chinese: ), sometimes romanized as Sian, is the capital Capital most commonly refers to: * Capital letter Letter case (or just case) is the distinction between the letters that are in larger uppercase or capitals ...
), then went south across the
Yangtze River The Yangtze or Yangzi ( or ) is the longest river in Asia, the third-longest in the world and the longest in the world to flow entirely within one country. It rises at Jari Hill in the Tanggula Mountains The Tanggula ( Chinese:  ...
to
Changsha Kingdom The Changsha Kingdom was a kingdom within the Han Empire of China, located in present-day Hunan Hunan () is a landlocked province A province is almost always an administrative division within a country or state. The term derives from t ...
(modern
Hunan Province Hunan (, ; ) is a landlocked province A province is almost always an administrative division Administrative division, administrative unitArticle 3(1). , country subdivision, administrative region, subnational entity, first-level subdi ...

Hunan Province
), where he visited the
Miluo River The Miluo River (, and with modified Wade–Giles using the form Mi-lo) is located on the eastern bank of Dongting Lake, the largest tributary of the Xiang River in the northern Hunan, Hunan Province. It is an important river in the Dongting Lake D ...
site where the
Warring States The Warring States period () was an era in characterized by warfare, as well as bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation. It followed the and concluded with the that saw the annexation of all other contender states, which ultimate ...
era poet
Qu Yuan Qu Yuan ( – 278 BC) was a Chinese poet and politician in the Chu (state), State of Chu during the Warring States period. He is known for his patriotism and contributions to Classical Chinese poetry, classical poetry and verses, es ...

Qu Yuan
was traditionally said to have drowned himself. He then went to seek the burial place of the legendary rulers Yu on
Mount Kuaiji Mount Xianglu () is a mountain near Shaoxing Shaoxing (; ) is a prefecture-level city A road sign shows distance to the "Huangshi urban area" () rather than simply " Yangxin County from the neighboring Xianning), but still from the Huangsh ...
and Shun in the
Jiuyi Mountains The Jiuyi Mountains ( ''Jiuyi Shan'') are a mountain range in Hunan province, China. They are located in the Yongzhou, Ningyuan County, Ningyuan and Lanshan County, Lanshan region, bordering Guangdong province. They are part of the Mengzhu Mountain ...
(modern
Ningyuan County Ningyuan County () is a counties of China, county of Hunan, Hunan Province, China, it is under the administration of Yongzhou, Yongzhou prefecture-level City. also see Located on the southern part of the province, the county is bordered to the n ...
, Hunan). He then went north to Huaiyin (modern
Huai'an Huai'an (), formerly called Huaiyin () until 2001, is a prefecture-level city in central Jiangsu province of East China, Eastern China. Huai'an is situated almost directly south of Lianyungang, southeast of Suqian, northwest of Yancheng, almos ...
,
Jiangsu Province Jiangsu (; ; Postal romanization, formerly romanized Kiangsu) is an eastern-central coastal Provinces of the People's Republic of China, province of the China, People's Republic of China. It is one of the leading provinces in finance, education, ...
) to see the grave of Han dynasty general
Han Xin Han Xin (; died 196 BC) was a Chinese military general and politician who served Liu Bang Emperor Gaozu of Han (256 – 1 June 195 BC), born Liu Bang () with courtesy name Ji (季), was the founder and first emperor of the Han dynasty ...
, then continued north to
Qufu Qufu ( ; ) is a city in southwestern Shandong Shandong (; alternately romanized as Shantung) is a coastal province A province is almost always an administrative division Administrative division, administrative unitArticle 3(1). , ...
, the hometown of
Confucius } Confucius ( ; zh, s=, p=Kǒng Fūzǐ, "Master Kǒng"; or commonly zh, s=, p=Kǒngzǐ, labels=no; ) was a Chinese philosopher Chinese philosophy originates in the Spring and Autumn period () and Warring States period (), ...

Confucius
, where he studied ritual and other traditional subjects.


As Han court official

After his travels, Sima was chosen to be a Palace Attendant in the government, whose duties were to inspect different parts of the country with Emperor Wu in 122 BC. Sima married young and had one daughter. In 110 BC, at the age of thirty-five, Sima Qian was sent westward on a military expedition against some "barbarian" tribes. That year, his father fell ill due to the distress of not being invited to attend the Imperial Feng Sacrifice. Suspecting his time was running out, he summoned his son back home to take over the historical work he had begun. Sima Tan wanted to follow the '' Annals of Spring and Autumn''—the first chronicle in the history of
Chinese literature The history of Chinese literature extends thousands of years, from the earliest recorded dynastic court archive An archive is an accumulation of historical records – in any media – or the physical facility in which they are located. A ...
. It appears that Sima Tan was only able to put together an outline of the work before he died. In the postface of the completed ''Shiji'', there is a short essay on the six philosophical schools that is explicitly attributed to Sima Tan. Otherwise, there are only fragments of the ''Shiji'' that are speculated to be authored by Sima Tan or based on his notes. Fueled by his father's inspiration, Sima Qian spent much of the subsequent decade authoring and compiling the ''
Records of the Grand Historian The ''Records of the Grand Historian'', also known by its Chinese name ''Shiji'', is a monumental history of ancient China and the world finished around 94 BC by the Western Han Dynasty official Sima Qian after having been started by his father ...

Records of the Grand Historian
'', completing it before 91 BC, probably around 94 BC. Three years after the death of his father, Sima Qian assumed his father's previous position as ''taishi''. In 105 BC, Sima was among the scholars chosen to reform the calendar. As a senior imperial official, Sima was also in the position to offer counsel to the emperor on general affairs of state.


The Li Ling affair

In 99 BC, Sima became embroiled in the Li Ling affair, where
Li Ling Li Ling (, died 74 BC), courtesy name A courtesy name (), also known as a style name, is a name bestowed upon one at adulthood in addition to one's given name. This practice is a tradition in the Sinosphere, including China, Japan, Korea, and ...
and
Li Guangli Li Guangli (died 88 BC) was a Chinese general of the Han dynasty The Han dynasty () was the second Dynasties in Chinese history, imperial dynasty of China (202 BC – 220 AD), established by the rebel leader Liu Bang and ruled by the House ...
, two military officers who led a campaign against the
Xiongnu The Xiongnu (, ) were a tribal confederation A confederation (also known as a confederacy or league) is a union of sovereign groups or states united for purposes of common action. Usually created by a treaty A treaty is a formal ...

Xiongnu
in the north, were defeated and taken captive. Emperor Wu attributed the defeat to Li Ling, with all government officials subsequently condemning him for it. Sima was the only person to defend Li Ling, who had never been his friend but whom he respected. Emperor Wu interpreted Sima's defence of Li as an attack on his brother-in-law, Li Guangli, who had also fought against the Xiongnu without much success, and sentenced Sima to death. At that time, execution could be commuted either by money or
castration Castration (also known as orchiectomy or orchidectomy) is any action, surgical Surgery ''cheirourgikē'' (composed of χείρ, "hand", and ἔργον, "work"), via la, chirurgiae, meaning "hand work". is a medical or dental specialty t ...

castration
. Since Sima did not have enough money to atone his "crime", he chose the latter and was then thrown into prison, where he endured three years. He described his pain thus: "When you see the jailer you abjectly touch the ground with your forehead. At the mere sight of his underlings you are seized with terror ... Such ignominy can never be wiped away." Sima called his castration "the worst of all punishments". In 96 BC, on his release from prison, Sima chose to live on as a palace
eunuch A eunuch ( ) is a man A man is an adult male Male (♂) is the sex of an organism that produces the gamete known as sperm. A male gamete can fuse with a larger female gamete, or ovum, in the process of fertilization. A male cannot ...

eunuch
to complete his histories, rather than commit suicide as was expected of a gentleman-scholar who had been disgraced by being castrated. As Sima Qian himself explained in his ''Letter to Ren An'':


Later years and death

Upon his release from prison in 97/96 BC, Sima Qian continued to serve in the Han court as ''zhongshuling'' ( 中書令), a court archivist position reserved for eunuchs with considerable status and with higher pay than his previous position of historian. The ''Letter to Ren An'' was written by Sima Qian in reply to Ren An in response to the latter's involvement in Crown Prince
Liu Ju Liu Ju (; 128–91 BC), formally known as Crown Prince Wei (衛太子) and posthumously as Crown Prince Li (戾太子, literally "the Unrepentant Crown Prince", where Li is an unflattering name) was a Western Han Dynasty#REDIRECT Han dynasty ...
's rebellion in 91 BC. This is the last record of Sima Qian in contemporary documents. The letter is a reply to a lost letter by Ren An to Sima Qian, perhaps asking Sima Qian to intercede on his behalf as Ren An was facing execution for accusations of being an opportunist and displaying equivocal loyalty to the emperor during the rebellion. In his reply, Sima Qian stated that he is a mutilated man with no influence at court. Some later historians claimed that Sima Qian himself became implicated in the rebellion as a result of his friendship with Ren An and was executed as part of the purge of the crown prince's supporters in court; however, the earliest attested record of this account dates from the 4th century. Moreover, it has also been pointed out that Sima Qian would have been reluctant to render substantive aid to Ren An, given the severe consequences that he suffered for supporting General Li Ling, as well as Ren An's failure to act on his behalf during the Li Ling affair. Although there are many theories regarding the exact dating as well as the true nature and purpose of the ''Letter to Ren An'', one common interpretation suggests that the letter, in part, tacitly expressed a refusal to play an active role in securing a reduced punishment for Ren An. The early 20th century scholar
Wang Guowei Wang Guowei (; 2 December 18772 June 1927) or Wang Kuo-wei, courtesy name A courtesy name (), also known as a style name, is a name bestowed upon one at adulthood in addition to one's given name. This practice is a tradition in the East Asi ...
stated that there are no reliable records establishing when Sima Qian died. He and most modern historians believe that Sima Qian spent his last days as a scholar in reclusion () after leaving the Han court, perhaps dying around the same time as Emperor Wu in 87/86 BC.


''Records of the Grand Historian''


Format

Although the style and form of Chinese historical writings varied through the ages, the ''
Records of the Grand Historian The ''Records of the Grand Historian'', also known by its Chinese name ''Shiji'', is a monumental history of ancient China and the world finished around 94 BC by the Western Han Dynasty official Sima Qian after having been started by his father ...

Records of the Grand Historian
'' (''Shiji'') has defined the quality and style from then onwards. Before Sima, histories were written as certain events or certain periods of history of states; his idea of a general history affected later historiographers like Zheng Qiao (鄭樵) in writing '' Tongzhi'' and
Sima Guang Sima Guang (17 November 1019 – 11 October 1086), courtesy name A courtesy name (), also known as a style name, is a name bestowed upon one at adulthood in addition to one's given name. This practice is a tradition in the East Asian cultur ...

Sima Guang
in writing ''
Zizhi Tongjian ''Zizhi Tongjian'' () is a pioneering reference work in Chinese historiography, published in 1084 AD during the Song dynasty in the form of a chronicle recording Chinese history from 403 BC to 959 AD, covering 16 dynasties and spanning almost 1 ...
''. The Chinese historical form of dynasty history, or ''jizhuanti'' history of dynasties, was codified in the second dynastic history by
Ban Gu Ban Gu (AD32–92) was a Chinese historian, politician, and poet best known for his part in compiling the ''Book of Han The ''Book of Han'' or ''History of the Former Han'' is a history of China The earliest known written r ...

Ban Gu
's ''
Book of Han The ''Book of Han'' or ''History of the Former Han'' is a history of China The earliest known written records of the history of China date from as early as 1250 BC, from the Shang dynasty The Shang dynasty (), also historically ...
'', but historians regard Sima's work as their model, which stands as the "official format" of the
history of China The earliest known written records of the history of China date from as early as 1250 BC, from the Shang dynasty The Shang dynasty (), also historically known as the Yin dynasty (), was a Chinese dynasty Dynasties in Chinese h ...

history of China
. The ''Shiji'' comprises 130 chapters consisting of half a million characters. The ''jizhuanti'' format refers to the organization of the work into ''benji'' (本紀) or 'basic annals' chapters containing the biographies of the sovereigns ('sons of heaven') organized by dynasty and ''liezhuan'' (列傳) or 'ordered biographies' chapters containing the biographies of influential non-nobles, sometimes for one prominent individual, but often for two or more people who, in Sima Qian's judgment, played similarly important roles in history. In addition to these namesake categories, there are chapters falling under the categories of ''biao'' (表) or 'tables', containing graphical chronologies of royalty and nobility, and ''shu'' (書) or 'treatises', consisting of essays giving a historical perspective on various topics like music, ritual, or economics. Most importantly, the ''shijia'' (世家) chapters, or 'house chronicles', document important events in the histories of the rulers of each of the quasi-independent states of the Zhou dynasty (originally serving as vassals to the Zhou kings), as well as the histories of contemporary aristocratic houses established during the Han dynasty. In all, the ''Records'' consist of 12 Basic Annals, 10 Tables, 8 Treatises, 30 House Chronicles, and 70 Ordered Biographies. The last of the Ordered Biographies is the postface. This final chapter details the background of how the ''Shiji'' was composed and compiled, and gives brief justifications for the inclusion of the major topics, events, and individuals in the work. As part of the background, the postface provides a short sketch of the history of the Sima clan, from legendary times to his father Sima Tan. It also details the dying words of Sima Tan, tearfully exhorting the author to compose the present work, and contains a biographical sketch of the author himself. The postface concludes with a self-referential description of the postface as the 70th and last of the Ordered Biographies chapters.


Influences and works influenced

Sima was greatly influenced by Confucius's ''Spring and Autumn Annals'', which on the surface is a succinct chronology from the events of the reigns of the twelve dukes of Lu from 722 to 484 BC. Many Chinese scholars have and still do view how Confucius ordered his chronology as the ideal example of how history should be written, especially with regards to what he chose to include and to exclude; and his choice of words as indicating moral judgements Seen in this light, the ''Spring and Autumn Annals'' are a moral guide to the proper way of living. Sima took this view himself as he explained: Sima saw the ''Shiji'' as being in the same tradition as he explained in his introduction to chapter 61 of the ''Shiji'' where he wrote: To resolve this theodical problem, Sima argued that while the wicked may succeed and the good may suffer in their own life-times, it is the historian who ensures that in the end good triumphs. For Sima, the writing of history was no mere antiquarian pursuit, but was rather a vital moral task as the historian would "preserve memory", and thereby ensure the ultimate victory of good over evil. Along these lines, Sima wrote: Such a moralizing approach to history with the historian high-guiding the good and evil to provide lessons for the present could be dangerous for the historian as it could bring down the wrath of the state onto the historian as happened to Sima himself. As such, the historian had to tread carefully and often expressed his judgements in a circuitous way designed to fool the censor. Sima himself in the conclusion to chapter 110 of the ''Shiji'' declared that he was writing in this tradition where he stated: Bearing this in mind, not everything that Sima wrote should be understood as conveying didactical moral lessons. But several historians have suggested that parts of the ''Shiji'', such as where Sima placed his section on Confucius's use of indirect criticism in the part of the book dealing with the Xiongnu "barbarians" might indicate his disapproval of the foreign policy of the Emperor Wu. In writing ''Shiji'', Sima initiated a new writing style by presenting history in a series of biographies. His work extends over 130 chapters—not in historical sequence, but divided into particular subjects, including
annals Annals ( la, annāles, from , "year") are a concise historical History (from Ancient Greek, Greek , ''historia'', meaning "inquiry; knowledge acquired by investigation") is the study and the documentation of the past. Events before the History ...
,
chronicle A chronicle ( la, chronica, from Greek#REDIRECT Greek Greek may refer to: Greece Anything of, from, or related to Greece Greece ( el, Ελλάδα, , ), officially the Hellenic Republic, is a country located in Southeast Europe. Its pop ...

chronicle
s, and
treatise A treatise is a formal Formal, formality, informal or informality imply the complying with, or not complying with, some set theory, set of requirements (substantial form, forms, in Ancient Greek). They may refer to: Dress code and events * For ...
s—on music, ceremonies, calendars, religion, economics, and extended biographies. Sima's work influenced the writing style of other histories outside of China as well, such as the
Goryeo Goryeo (; ) was a Korea Korea is a region in East Asia. Since 1945, it has been divided between two countries at or near the 38th parallel north, 38th parallel, North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) and South Korea (th ...
(Korean) history the '' Samguk sagi''. Sima adopted a new method in sorting out the historical data and a new approach to writing historical records. At the beginning of the ''Shiji'', Sima declared himself a follower of Confucius's approach in the ''Analects'' to "hear much but leave to one side that which is doubtful, and speak with due caution concerning the remainder". Reflecting these rigorous analytic methods, Sima declared that he would not write about periods of history where there was insufficient documentation. As such, Sima wrote "the ages before the Ch'in dynasty are too far away and the material on them too scanty to permit a detailed account of them here". In the same way, Sima discounted accounts in the traditional records that were "ridiculous" such as the pretense that Prince Tan could via the use of magic make the clouds rain grain and horses grow horns. Sima constantly compared accounts found in the manuscripts with what he considered reliable sources like Confucian classics like the '' Book of Odes'', ''
Book of History The ''Book of Documents'' (''Shūjīng'', earlier ''Shu King'') or ''Classic of History'', also known as the ''Shangshu'' ("Esteemed Documents"), is one of the Five Classics of ancient Chinese literature The history of Chinese literature ext ...
'', ''
Book of Rites The ''Book of Rites'', also known as the ''Liji'', is a collection of texts describing the social forms, administration, and ceremonial rites of the Zhou dynasty as they were understood in the Warring States period, Warring States and the early Ha ...
'', '' Book of Music'', ''
Book of Changes The ''I Ching'' or ''Yi Jing'' (, ), usually translated as ''Book of Changes'' or ''Classic of Changes'', is an ancient Chinese divination text and among the oldest of the Chinese classics. Originally a divination manual in the Western Zhou ...
'' and ''Spring and Autumn Annals''. When Sima encountered a story that could not be cross-checked with the Confucian classics, he systemically compared the information with other documents. Sima mentioned at least 75 books he used for cross-checking. Furthermore, Sima often questioned people about historical events they had experienced. Sima mentioned after one of his trips across China that: "When I had occasion to pass through Feng and Beiyi I questioned the elderly people who were about the place, visited the old home of
Xiao He Xiao He (257 BC–193 BC) was a Chinese politician of the early Western Han dynasty#REDIRECT Han dynasty The Han dynasty () was the second Dynasties in Chinese history, imperial dynasty of China (202 BC – 220 AD), established by the rebe ...
,
Cao Can Cao Shen or Cao Can (died 190 BC), courtesy name A courtesy name (), also known as a style name, is a name bestowed upon one at adulthood in addition to one's given name. This practice is a tradition in the Sinosphere, including China, Japan, ...

Cao Can
,
Fan Kuai Fan Kuai (242–189 BC) was a military general of the early Western Han dynasty#REDIRECT Han dynasty The Han dynasty () was the second Dynasties in Chinese history, imperial dynasty of China (202 BC – 220 AD), established by the rebel le ...

Fan Kuai
and
Xiahou Ying Xiahou Ying (died 172 BC), posthumously known as Marquis Wen of Ruyin, was a Chinese official who served as Minister Coachman () during the early Han dynasty#REDIRECT Han dynasty The Han dynasty () was the second Dynasties in Chinese his ...
, and learned much about the early days. How different it was from the stories one hears!" Reflecting the traditional Chinese reverence for age, Sima stated that he preferred to interview the elderly as he believed that they were the most likely to supply him with correct and truthful information about what had happened in the past. During one of this trips, Sima mentioned that he was overcome with emotion when he saw the carriage of Confucius together with his clothes and various other personal items that had belonged to Confucius.


Innovations and unique features

Despite his very large debts to Confucian tradition, Sima was an innovator in four ways. To begin with, Sima's work was concerned with the history of the known world. Previous Chinese historians had focused on only one dynasty and/or region. Sima's history of 130 chapters began with the legendary Yellow Emperor and extended to his own time, and covered not only China, but also neighboring nations like
Korea Korea is a region In geography, regions are areas that are broadly divided by physical characteristics (physical geography), human impact characteristics (human geography), and the interaction of humanity and the environment (environmental ...

Korea
and
Vietnam Vietnam ( vi, Việt Nam, ), officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,, group="n" is a country in Southeast Asia Southeast Asia, also spelled South East Asia and South-East Asia, and also known as Southeastern Asia or SEA, is the ...

Vietnam
. In this regard, Sima was significant as the first Chinese historian to treat the peoples living to the north of the Great Wall like the Xiongnu as human beings who were implicitly the equals of the Middle Kingdom, instead of the traditional approach which had portrayed the Xiongnu as savages who had the appearance of humans, but the minds of animals. In his comments about the Xiongnu, Sima refrained from evoking claims about the innate moral superiority of the Han over the "northern barbarians" that were the standard rhetorical tropes of Chinese historians in this period. Likewise, Sima in his chapter about the Xiongnu condemns those advisors who pursue the "expediency of the moment", that is advise the Emperor to carry policies such as conquests of other nations that bring a brief moment of glory, but burden the state with the enormous financial and often human costs of holding on to the conquered land. Sima was engaging in an indirect criticism of the advisors of the Emperor Wu who were urging him to pursue a policy of aggression towards the Xiongnu and conquer all their land, a policy that Sima was apparently opposed to. Sima also broke new ground by using more sources like interviewing witnesses, visiting places where historical occurrences had happened, and examining documents from different regions and/or times. Before Chinese historians had tended to use only reign histories as their sources. The ''Shiji'' was further very novel in Chinese historiography by examining historical events outside of the courts, providing a broader history than the traditional court-based histories had done. Lastly, Sima broke with the traditional chronological structure of Chinese history. Sima instead had divided the ''Shiji'' into five divisions: the basic annals which comprised the first 12 chapters, the chronological tables which comprised the next 10 chapters, treatises on particular subjects which make up 8 chapters, accounts of the ruling families which take up 30 chapters, and biographies of various eminent people which are the last 70 chapters. The annals follow the traditional Chinese pattern of court-based histories of the lives of various emperors and their families. The chronological tables are graphs recounting the political history of China. The treatises are essays on topics such as
astronomy Astronomy (from el, ἀστρονομία, literally meaning the science that studies the laws of the stars) is a natural science that studies astronomical object, celestial objects and celestial event, phenomena. It uses mathematics, phys ...
, music, religion, hydraulic engineering and economics. The last section dealing with biographies covers individuals judged by Sima to have made a major impact on the course of history, regardless of whether they were of noble or humble birth and whether they were born in the central states, the periphery, or barbarian lands. Unlike traditional Chinese historians, Sima went beyond the androcentric, nobility-focused histories by dealing with the lives of women and men such as poets, bureaucrats, merchants, comedians/jesters, assassins, and philosophers. The treatises section, the biographies sections and the annals section relating to the
Qin dynasty The Qin dynasty, or Ch'in dynasty in Wade–Giles Wade–Giles () is a romanization Romanization or romanisation, in linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of ever ...

Qin dynasty
(as a former dynasty, there was more freedom to write about the Qin than there was about the reigning Han dynasty) that make up 40% of the ''Shiji'' have aroused the most interest from historians and are the only parts of the ''Shiji'' that have been translated into English. When Sima placed his subjects was often his way of expressing obliquely moral judgements.
Empress Lü Empress (Dowager) Lü Zhi (241–18 August 180 BC), commonly known as Empress Lü () and formally Empress Gao of Han (), was the empress consort of Emperor Gaozu of Han, Gaozu, the founding emperor of the Han dynasty. They had two known children ...
and
Xiang Yu Xiang Yu (, –202 BC), born Xiang Ji (), was the Hegemon-King (Chinese: 霸王, ''Bà Wáng'') of Western Chu Chu (, Hanyu Pinyin: Chǔ, Old Chinese: ''*s-r̥aʔ'') was a Zhou dynasty ancient Chinese states, vassal state. Their fir ...

Xiang Yu
were the effective rulers of China during reigns Hui of the Han and Yi of Chu, respectively, so Sima placed both their lives in the basic annals. Likewise, Confucius is included in the fourth section rather the fifth where he properly belonged as a way of showing his eminent virtue. The structure of the ''Shiji'' allowed Sima to tell the same stories in different ways, which allowed him to pass his moral judgements. For example, in the basic annals section, the is portrayed as a good leader whereas in the section dealing with his rival Xiang Yu, the Emperor is portrayed unflatteringly. Likewise, the chapter on Xiang presents him in a favorable light whereas the chapter on Gaozu portrays him in more darker colors. At the end of most of the chapters, Sima usually wrote a commentary in which he judged how the individual lived up to traditional Chinese values like filial piety, humility, self-discipline, hard work and concern for the less fortunate. Sima analyzed the records and sorted out those that could serve the purpose of ''Shiji''. He intended to discover the patterns and principles of the development of human history. Sima also emphasized, for the first time in Chinese history, the role of individual men in affecting the historical development of China and his historical perception that a country cannot escape from the fate of growth and decay. Unlike the ''Book of Han'', which was written under the supervision of the imperial dynasty, ''Shiji'' was a privately written history since he refused to write ''Shiji'' as an official history covering only those of high rank. The work also covers people of the lower classes and is therefore considered a "veritable record" of the darker side of the dynasty. In Sima's time, literature and history were not seen as separate disciplines as they are now, and Sima wrote his ''magnum opus'' in a very literary style, making extensive use of irony, sarcasm, juxtaposition of events, characterization, direct speech and invented speeches, which led the American historian Jennifer Jay to describe parts of the ''Shiji'' as reading more like a historical novel than a work of history. For an example, Sima tells the story of a Chinese eunuch named
Zhonghang YueZhonghang Yue () was a eunuch from the Han dynasty who surrendered to Xiongnu (or Hun) nationality. He was selected as a retinue from Han to Hun and later served the Xiongnu emperor Laoshang Chanyu, Shanyu. Zhonghang Yue raised a series of theories f ...
who became an advisor to the Xiongnu kings. Sima provides a long dialogue between Zhonghang and an envoy sent by the Emperor Wen of China during which the latter disparages the Xiongnu as "savages" whose customs are barbaric while Zhonghang defends the Xiongnu customs as either justified and/or as morally equal to Chinese customs, at times even morally superior as Zhonghang draws a contrast between the bloody succession struggles in China where family members would murder one another to be Emperor vs. the more orderly succession of the Xiongnu kings. The American historian Tamara Chin wrote that though Zhonghang did exist, the dialogue is merely a "literacy device" for Sima to make points that he could not otherwise make. The favorable picture of the traitor Zhonghang who went over to the Xiongnu who bests the Emperor's loyal envoy in an ethnographic argument about what is the morally superior nation appears to be Sima's way of attacking the entire Chinese court system where the Emperor preferred the lies told by his sycophantic advisors over the truth told by his honest advisors as inherently corrupt and depraved. The point is reinforced by the fact that Sima has Zhonghang speak the language of an idealized Confucian official whereas the Emperor's envoy's language is dismissed as "mere twittering and chatter". Elsewhere in the ''Shiji'' Sima portrayed the Xiongnu less favorably, so the debate was almost certainly more Sima's way of criticizing the Chinese court system and less genuine praise for the Xiongnu. Sima has often been criticized for "historizing" myths and legends as he assigned dates to mythical and legendary figures from ancient Chinese history together with what appears to be suspiciously precise genealogies of leading families over the course of several millennia (including his own where he traces the descent of the Sima family from legendary emperors in the distant past). However, archaeological discoveries in recent decades have confirmed aspects of the ''Shiji'', and suggested that even if the sections of the ''Shiji'' dealing with the ancient past are not totally true, at least Sima wrote down what he believed to be true. In particular, archaeological finds have confirmed the basic accuracy of the ''Shiji'' including the reigns and locations of tombs of ancient rulers.


Literary figure

Sima's ''Shiji'' is respected as a model of biographical literature with high literary value and still stands as a textbook for the study of classical Chinese. Sima's works were influential to Chinese writing, serving as ideal models for various types of prose within the neo-classical ("renaissance" 复古) movement of the Tang-
Song A song is a musical composition Musical composition can refer to an piece or work of , either or , the of a musical piece or to the process of creating or writing a new piece of music. People who create new compositions are called s ...
period. The great use of characterisation and plotting also influenced fiction writing, including the classical short stories of the middle and late medieval period (Tang-
Ming The Ming dynasty (), officially the Great Ming, was the ruling dynasty of China from 1368 to 1644 following the collapse of the Mongol The Mongols ( mn, Монголчууд, , ''Mongolchuud'', ; russian: Монголы, ) are an eth ...

Ming
) as well as the vernacular novel of the late imperial period. Sima had immense influence on historiography not only in China, but also in Japan and Korea. For centuries afterwards, the ''Shiji'' was regarded as the greatest history book written in Asia. Sima is little known in the English-speaking world as a full translation of the ''Shiji'' in English has not yet been completed. His influence was derived primarily from the following elements of his writing: his skillful depiction of historical characters using details of their speech, conversations, and actions; his innovative use of informal, humorous, and varied language; and the simplicity and conciseness of his style. Even the 20th-century literary critic
Lu Xun Zhou Shuren (25 September 1881 – 19 October 1936), better known by his pen name Lu Xun (or Lu Sun, Wade–Giles: Lu Hsün), was a Chinese writer, essayist, poet, and literary critic. He was a leading figure of modern Chinese literature. Writ ...
regarded ''Shiji'' as "the historians' most perfect song, a "
Li Sao "The Lament" (; translation: "Encountering Sorrow") is a Chinese poem from the anthology ''Chuci The ''Chu Ci'', variously translated as ''Verses of Chu'' or ''Songs of Chu'', is an anthology of Chinese poetry Chinese poetry is poetry ...
" without the rhyme" (史家之絶唱,無韻之離騷) in his ''Outline of Chinese Literary History'' (漢文學史綱要).


Other literary works

Sima's famous letter to his friend Ren An about his sufferings during the Li Ling Affair and his perseverance in writing ''Shiji'' is today regarded as a highly admired example of literary prose style, studied widely in China even today. The ''Letter to Ren An'' contains the quote, "Men have always had but one death. For some it is as weighty as
Mount Tai Mount Tai () is a mountain of historical and cultural significance located north of the city of Tai'an Tai'an () is a prefecture-level city Image:Yangxin-renmin-huanyin-ni-0022.jpg, A road sign shows distance to the "Huangshi urban area" () r ...

Mount Tai
; for others it is as insignificant as a goose down. The difference is what they use it for." (人固有一死,或重于泰山,或輕于鴻毛,用之所趨異也。) This quote has become one of the most well known in all of Chinese literature. In modern times, Chairman
Mao Mao Zedong pronounced ; also romanised Romanization or romanisation, in linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for st ...

Mao
paraphrased this quote in a
speech Speech is human vocal communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language A classical language is a language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin ''c ...
in which he paid tribute to a fallen
PLA PLA may refer to: Organizations Politics and military * People's Liberation Army The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is the regular army, regular armed forces of the China, People's Republic of China (PRC) and the armed wing of the PRC's foun ...
soldier. Sima Qian wrote eight rhapsodies ('' fu''), which are listed in the bibliographic treatise of the ''Book of Han''. All but one, the "Rhapsody in Lament for Gentlemen who do not Meet their Time" (士不遇賦) have been lost, and even the surviving example is probably not complete.


Astronomer/astrologer

Sima and his father both served as the ''taishi'' (太史) of the
Former Han Dynasty The Han dynasty () was the second Dynasties in Chinese history, imperial dynasty of China (202 BC – 220 AD), established by the rebel leader Liu Bang and ruled by the House of Liu. Preceded by the short-lived Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) and ...

Former Han Dynasty
, a position which includes aspects of being a historian, a court scribe, calendarist, and court astronomer/astrologer. At that time, the astrologer had an important role, responsible for interpreting and predicting the course of government according to the influence of the Sun, Moon, and stars, as well as other astronomical and geological phenomena such as
solar eclipse A solar eclipse occurs when a portion of the Earth Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the only astronomical object known to harbour and support life. 29.2% of Earth's surface is land consisting of continents and islands. The r ...

solar eclipse
s and
earthquake An earthquake (also known as a quake, tremor or temblor) is the shaking of the surface of the Earth resulting from a sudden release of energy in the Earth Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the only astronomical object known ...

earthquake
s, which depended on revising and upholding an accurate calendar. Before compiling ''Shiji'', Sima Qian was involved in the creation of the 104 BC '' Taichu'' Calendar 太初暦 (太初 became the new
era name A regnal year is a year of the reign of a sovereign Sovereign is a title which can be applied to the highest leader in various categories. The word is borrowed from Old French ''souverain'', which is ultimately derived from the Latin word ''super ...
for Emperor Wu and means "supreme beginning"), a modification of the
QinQin may refer to: Dynasties and states * Qin (state) (秦), a major state during the Zhou Dynasty of ancient China * Qin dynasty (秦), founded by the Qin state in 221 BC and ended in 206 BC * Daqin (大秦), ancient Chinese name for the Roman Empi ...

Qin
calendar. This is the first Chinese calendar whose full method of calculation (暦法) has been preserved. The minor planet "12620 Simaqian" is named in his honour.


Family

Sima Qian is the son of court astrologer (太史令)
Sima Tan Sima Tan (; 165–110  BCE) was a Chinese astrologer and historian during the Western Han dynasty. Education & career Sima Tan studied astronomy with Tang Du, the ''I Ching The ''I Ching'' or ''Yi Jing'' (, ), usually translated as ...
, who is a descendant of
QinQin may refer to: Dynasties and states * Qin (state) (秦), a major state during the Zhou Dynasty of ancient China * Qin dynasty (秦), founded by the Qin state in 221 BC and ended in 206 BC * Daqin (大秦), ancient Chinese name for the Roman Empi ...
general Sima Cuo (司馬錯), the commander of Qin army in the state's conquest of Ba and
Shu Shu may refer to: China * Sichuan, China, officially abbreviated as Shu (蜀) * Shu (state) (conquered by Qin in 316 BC), an ancient state in modern Sichuan * Shu Han (221–263) during the Three Kingdoms Period * Western Shu (405–413), also k ...
. Before his castration, Sima Qian was recorded to have two sons and a daughter. While little is recorded of his sons, his daughter later married Yang Chang (楊敞), and had sons Yang Zhong (楊忠) and Yang Yun (楊惲). It was Yang Yun who hid his grandfather's great work, and decided to release it during the reign of Emperor Xuan.


Unsubstantiated descendants

According to local legend, Sima Qian had two sons, the older named Sima Lin (司馬臨) and younger named Sima Guan (司馬觀), who fled the capital to Xu Village (徐村) in what is now Shanxi province during the Li Ling affair, for fear of falling victim to familial extermination. They changed their surnames to Tong (同 = 丨+ 司) and Feng (馮 = 仌 + 馬), respectively, to hide their origins while continuing to secretly offer sacrifices to the Sima ancestors. To this day, people living in the village with surnames Feng and Tong are forbidden from intermarrying on the grounds that the relationship would be incestuous. According to the ''Book of Han'',
Wang Mang Wang Mang () (c. 45 – 6 October 23 AD), courtesy name A courtesy name (), also known as a style name, is a name bestowed upon one at adulthood in addition to one's given name. This practice is a tradition in the East Asian cultura ...

Wang Mang
sent an expedition to search for and ennoble a male-line descent of Sima Qian as 史通子 ("Viscount of Historical Mastery"), although it was not recorded who received this title of nobility. A Qing dynasty stele 重修太史廟記 (''Records of the Renovation of the Temple of the Grand Historian'') erected in the nearby county seat Han City (韓城) claims that the title was given to the grandson of Sima Lin.


Notes


References


Citations


Sources

* * * * *


Further reading

*Markley, J. ''Peace and Peril. Sima Qian's portrayal of Han - Xiongnu relations'' (''Silk Road Studies'' XIII), Turnhout, 2016, *Allen, J.R "An Introductory Study of Narrative Structure in the ''Shi ji''" pages 31–61 from ''Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews'', Volume 3, Issue 1, 1981. *Allen, J.R. "Records of the Historian" pages 259–271 from ''Masterworks of Asian Literature in Comparative Perspective: A Guide for Teaching'', Armonk: Sharpe, 1994. *Beasley, W. G & Pulleyblank, E. G ''Historians of China and Japan'', Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961. *Dubs, H.H. "History and Historians under the Han" pages 213-218 from ''Journal of Asian Studies'', Volume 20, Issue # 2, 1961. *Durrant S.W "Self as the Intersection of Tradition: The Autobiographical Writings of Ssu-Ch'ien" pages 33–40 from ''Journal of the American Oriental Society'', Volume 106, Issue # 1, 1986. *Cardner, C. S ''Traditional Historiography'', Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970. *Hardy, G.R "Can an Ancient Chinese historian Contribute to Modern Western Theory?" pages 20–38 from ''History and Theory'', Volume 33, Issue # 1, 1994. *Kroll, J.L "Ssu-ma Ch'ien Literary Theory and Literary Practice" pages 313-325 from ''Altorientalische Forshungen'', Volume 4, 1976. *Li, W.Y "The Idea of Authority in the ''Shi chi''" pages 345-405 from ''Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies'', Volume 54, Issue # 2, 1994. *Moloughney, B. "From Biographical History to Historical Biography: A Transformation in Chinese Historical Writings" pages 1–30 from ''East Asian History'', Volume 4, Issue 1, 1992.


External links

* * *
Significance of ''Shiji'' on literature

Sima Qian: China's 'grand historian'
article by Carrie Gracie in BBC News Magazine, 7 October 2012 {{DEFAULTSORT:Sima, Qian 86 BC deaths 2nd-century BC births 2nd-century BC Chinese historians 1st-century BC Chinese historians 1st-century BC Chinese poets Ancient astrologers Chinese astrologers Chinese prisoners sentenced to death Han dynasty eunuchs Han dynasty historians Han dynasty poets Han dynasty politicians from Shaanxi Historians from Shaanxi Poets from Shaanxi Prisoners sentenced to death by China Legendary Chinese people Wu Shuang Pu