Sima Qian
The Grand Historian

Records of the Grand Historian

Earlier Chinese books sometimes bore the name of the person whose teachings were collected in them, like the Mencius, or the person under whose patronage they were compiled, like the Spring and Autumn of Mr. Lü. But Sima Qian’s great Shi ji (Records of the Grand Historian) is the earliest surviving Chinese book in which the author acknowledges authorship and speaks directly to the reader in the text. ... It was a massive compilation; a complete translation into a Western language would fill two to three thousand pages. [MOF, 62-3]

The Historian’s Sacred Duty
Sima Tan’s Dying Words to Sima Qian
Sima Qian’s father, Sima Tan, held the office of tai shi, usually translated as “grand historian,” at the court of Emperor Wu. Since early Zhou times officials bearing this and related titles also had kept records of heavenly phenomena and advised on their interpretation; in view of the importance of these matters in Han elite culture, a more appropriate translation of the title might be “grand astrologer.” ... Sima Tan had been working on a great compilation of documents relating to the duties of his office, but had not finished it. As he lay dying, he said to his son. ... [MOF, 61-2]
“Our ancestors were Grand Historians for the House of Zhou. From the most ancient times they were eminent and renowned when in the days of Yu and Xia they were in charge of astronomical affairs. In later ages our family declined. Will this tradition end with me? If you in turn become Grand Historian, you must continue the work of our ancestors. ... When you become Grand Historian, you must not forget what I have desired to expound and write. Now, filial piety begins with the serving of your parents; next, you must serve your sovereign; and, finally, you must make something of yourself, that your name may go down through the ages to the glory of your father and mother. This is the most important part of filial piety. ...
The various feudal states have merged together, and the old records and chronicles have become scattered and lost. Now the House of Han has arisen and all the world is united under one rule. I have been Grand Historian, and yet I have failed to make a record of all the enlightened rulers and wise lords, the faithful ministers and gentlemen who were ready to die for duty. I am fearful that the historical material will be neglected and lost. You must remember and think of this!
I bowed my head and wept, saying, “I, your son, am ignorant and unworthy, but I shall endeavor to set forth in full the reports of antiquity that have come down from our ancestors. I dare not be remiss!” [SCT, 370]
  • What does Sima Tan’s dying statement tell us about the importance of filial piety ... and the role of the historian?
  • How does this understanding of “history” relate to contemporary Western perspectives?
Sima Qian’s Castration
Weighing One Shame Against Another

Sima Qian himself was among the victims of the vicious politics of the later years of Emperor Wu’s reign. ... Li Ling was the grandson of one of the greatest of Emperor Wu’s generals and already had many successful battles behind him when in 99 B.C.E. he was sent out against the Xiongnu with a force of only five thousand infantry. ... Most of the Han soldiers died fighting, and only about four hundred of the original five thousand got away and reached the border. Li Ling surrendered to the Xiongnu. The emperor took no action, regretting his failure to send the necessary reinforcements. But in 98 someone informed him that Li Ling was training the Xiongnu in the Chinese arts of war. The emperor condemned Li to death and exterminated his family. Li Ling later insisted that the person who had been training the Xiongnu was not he but one Li Xu. He could have returned after a general pardon but refused to do so, dying among the Xiongnu.
There was no particularly close tie of friendship or loyalty between Sima Qian and Li Ling, but still in 98 the grand historian took the extraordinary step of defending Li against the accusation of treason, insisting that he must have surrendered in order to “try to seek some future opportunity to repay his debt to the Han.” The enraged emperor turned Sima Qian over to the legal authorities for trial for the capital crime of defamation of the imperial court. A conviction was a foregone conclusion. In his case, the death sentence was reduced to the most severe of the mutilating punishments, castration. One does not have to be an orthodox Freudian to suspect that fear of and revulsion at castration is deeply built into the male psyche. In Chinese tradition this revulsion was reinforced by the dictates of filial piety, in which one of the child’s first duties is to preserve intact the body received from the parents. Anyone, and especially anyone of honorable standing in society, would be expected to commit suicide, keeping the body whole to death, rather than submit to castration. Sima Qian shared these beliefs and feelings, but also was deeply committed to another side of filial piety. He had promised his father that he would complete his great work, preserving the names and deeds of the great men of antiquity and assuring the fame of the Sima family. And filial piety required not the effacement of self but its fulfillment: “Establish yourself and follow the Way, exalting your name to later generations, in order to shed glory on your father and mother.” [MOF, 68-9]
  • Why did Sima Qian defend Li Ling against the accusation of treason? How might this be connected to his conception of the role of an historian?
Sima Qian’s Self-Defense
Before Li Ling fell into the hands of the enemy, a messenger came with the report [of his attack] and the lords and ministers of the Han all raised their cups in joyous toast to the emperor. But after a few days came word of his defeat, and because of it the emperor could find no flavor in his food and no delight in the deliberations of the court. The great officials were in anxiety and fear and did not know what to do. Observing His Majesty’s grief and distress, I dared to forget my mean and lowly position, sincerely desiring to do what I could in my fervent ignorance. I considered that Li Ling had always shared with his officers and men their hardships and want, and could command the loyalty of his troops in the face of death. In this he was unsurpassed even by the famous generals of old. And although he had fallen into captivity, I perceived that his intention was to try to seek some future opportunity to repay his debt to the Han. Though in the end he found himself in an impossible situation, yet the merit he had achieved in defeating and destroying so many of the enemy was still worthy to be proclaimed throughout the world. This is what I had in mind to say, but I could find no opportunity to express it. Then it happened that I was summoned into council, and I used the chance to speak of Li Ling’s merits in this way, hoping to broaden His Majesty’s view and put a stop to the angry words of the other officials. But I could not make myself fully understood. [Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty, 231-2; cf. Sima Qian’s Self-Defense]

Justification for a Difficult Choice
My father had no great deeds. ... He dealt with affairs of astronomy and the calendar, which are close to divination and worship of the spirits. He was kept for the sport and amusement of the emperor, treated the same as the musicians and jesters, and made light of by the vulgar men of his day. If I fell before the law and were executed, it would make no more difference to most people than one hair off nine oxen, for I was nothing more than a mere ant to them. The world would not rank me among those men who were able to die for their ideals, but would believe simply that my wisdom was exhausted and my crime great, that I had been unable to escape penalty and in the end had gone to my death. Why? Because all my past actions had brought this on me, they would say. ...

I too have ventured not to be modest but have entrusted myself to my useless writings. I have gathered up and brought together the old traditions of the world which were scattered and lost. I have examined the deeds and events of the past and investigated the principles behind their success and failure, their rise and decay, in 130 chapters. I wished to examine into all that concerns heaven and man, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, bringing to completion the great task of one family. But before I had finished my rough manuscript, I met with this calamity. It is because I regretted that it had not been completed that I submitted to the extreme penalty without rancor.
When I have completed this work, I shall deposit it in the Mountain of Fame, so that it can be handed down to men who will understand it, and penetrate to the villages and great cities. Then although I should suffer death from ten thousand cuts, what regret should I have? ...
I have brought upon myself the scorn and mockery even of my native village and I have soiled and shamed my father’s grave. With what face can I again ascend and stand before the grave mound of my father and mother? ... Only after the day of death shall right and wrong at last be determined. [MOF, 70-1]
  • What does this testimony tell us about Sima Qian’s principles and values?

The Text’s Structure
Sima Qian divided his material into five sections: “Basic Annals,” “Chronological Tables,” “Treatises,” “Hereditary Houses,” and “Memoirs.” This arrangement, with various modifications, has been followed by almost all later official historians. In later histories the section called “Basic Annals” might better be referred to as “Imperial Annals,” since it deals only with acts of the officially reigning emperors. ... The “Chronological Tables” needs little explanation, being tables of dates for important events. The “Treatises,” one of the most valuable parts of the work, comprises essays devoted to the history and description of important institutional matters and topical subjects. Below are listed the eight Treatises of the Shiji together with those of the Han-shu that are based upon Shiji material.

Shiji Treatises
The Pitch Pipes
The Calendar
Sacrifices of Feng and Shan
The Yellow River & Canals
Balance of Commerce
The Calendar
Rites and Music
Punishments and Laws
Food and Money (Economics)
State Sacrifices
Five Phases (Portents)
Land Drainage
“Hereditary Houses,” being largely accounts of feudal families, was not usually included after the abolition of the enfeoffment system. The “Memoirs” section was generally devoted to the lives of famous persons — military leaders, politicians, philosophers, and so on. Some chapters deal with particular groups such as famous assassins, upright officials, tyrannical officials, wandering knights, imperial favorites, and merchants. Others treat non-Chinese lands and people, including those of Korea, southeast China, and Ferghana. The concluding chapter is the biography of the historians themselves. [SCT, 369-70]
  • How is this arrangement of material similar to and/or different from a typical Western approach to political history?

[The complex way in which the Shiji is organized] requires a good deal of time and effort to get the maximum benefit from it. No one part of the book gives all the most important points about a major development. For example, for the story of the collapse of Qin and the victory of Han, the reader must read the overlapping basic annals of Qin, Xiang Yu, and Emperor Gao, the hereditary house chapters on the first rebel and several of the allies of Emperor Gao who later were made kings; and several memoirs on other important ministers of the Han founder. Thus this immensely important transition is seen not just from the perspective of the winner but also from those of the loser and of the great men whose advice and assistance were essential to Emperor Gao’s victory. This is not history for someone who wants to read a book once and get a single story, a neat answer as to what it was all about, but is for living with, coming back to over and over, continuing to think about and learn from, as every educated Chinese was supposed to do down to our own century. This way of writing history is an important source of the awareness of multiple perspectives and the fondness for complexity that have characterized the Chinese understanding of politics and human action ever since. [MOF, 63-4]
Lessons to be Learned?
Sima Qian’s Approach to History
“The Classic of Documents broadens one’s information and is the practice of wisdom; the Spring and Autumn Annals passes moral judgments on events and is the symbol of trustworthiness.”
The function of history, as seen in this statement, is twofold: to impart tradition and to provide edifying moral examples as embodied in the classics. These two traditions, one recording the words and deeds of history, the other illustrating moral principles through historical incidents, run through all Chinese historiography. In practice, the former tradition has dominated. The common method of the Chinese historian has been to transmit verbatim as nearly as possible what his sources tell him, adding only such background and connecting narrative as may be necessary. For example, the historian does not tell us that the emperor issued an edict to such and such an effect but reproduces the edict whole or in part so that we may read what he said for ourselves. Since the Chinese historian was often working in an official capacity, he had access to government files or memorials, edicts, court decisions, and other papers that made such a procedure possible. His own job, then, became one of selecting the most pertinent documents and arranging them in a way best calculated to demonstrate the cause and effect of events. If in addition he wished to inject his own personal opinion, he usually marked it clearly by some conventional literary device so that the reader could readily distinguish it. [SCT, 367-8]
So bleak was Sima Qian’s view of the government of his own times that his collective biography of the reasonable officials, those who governed wisely and treated the common people kindly, draws examples only from the centuries before the Qin. The corresponding collective biography of the harsh officials is entirely devoted to men who served the Han. One who served Emperor Wen was harsh but loyal and incorruptible, very useful in curbing the power of local wealthy families. The stories of harsh officials who served Emperor Wu get more and more bitter as the chronological list continues. As the officials grew harsher in enforcing the law, the people grew more clever in evading it. [MOF, 68]
In the great work he was struggling to complete for the sake of family and self, the most distinctive personal notes were condemnation of the harsh and cynical government of his own time and nostalgia for a time when good, brave, and clever men were not hemmed in on every side by an all-encompassing state. [MOF, 69]