Sima Qian

Sima Qian


Shiji

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

Shiji, (Chinese: “Historical Records”) Wade-Giles romanization Shih-chi, early history of China written about 85 bce by Sima Qian. A two-volume English translation, Records of the Grand Historian of China, was published in 1961. A masterpiece that took 18 years to produce, the Shiji deals with major events and personalities of about 2,000 years (down to the author’s time), comprising 130 chapters and totaling more than 520,000 words. The Shiji not only was the first general history of its kind attempted in China, but it also set a pattern in organization for dynastic histories of subsequent ages. An artist as well as a historian, Sima Qian succeeded in making events and personalities of the past into living realities for his readers his biographies subsequently became models for authors of both fiction and history.

Sima Qian organized the events of the past into a new five-part plan. The “Basic Annals” gives a dated chronological outline centred on events at the court considered to have been the paramount power at the time. The succeeding section consists of chronological tables that elucidate the history of the various independent feudal kingdoms and enable the reader to see at a glance what was happening in each of the states at any given time. The detailed accounts of each state are given in chapters titled “The Hereditary Houses.” A number of monographs deal with various crucial aspects of government. The work ends with a collection of “Biographies” of famous individuals selected as exemplars of various types of conduct and also discusses the affairs of the various foreign peoples, whose existence was becoming increasingly important during the reign of the emperor Wudi.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Kathleen Kuiper, Senior Editor.


History: The meeting point of two civilizations in ancient Eurasia. Interview with Professor Siep Stuurman

Although Greece and China represent two different civilizations – the first represents the western one while the second the Asian one – the two countries of ancient Eurasia, have a common denominator for a comparison. History is the meeting point of both Herodotus and Sima Qian, both described as ‘fathers of history’ are the concrete example of this meeting point. While they have a lot of differences, both ‘have understood that you can only understand your own culture in its relationship with the greater frame of “world history” in the words of Siep Stuurman, Professor of the History of ideas, at the Centre for the Humanities, Utrecht University*. In his interview with chinaandgreece Professor Stuurman shares his expertise on Herodotus and Sima Qian, the dynamics of ancient cultures and their co-operation.

How would you describe the two civilizations in ancient Eurasia: China and Greece? Where do the two civilizations meet?

In antiquity, both China and Greece belonged to the Axial civilizations, together with ancient Egypt, Mesoptotamia, Iran and India. All of them developed notions of humanity, of what it meant to be human. Plato and Aristotle are roughly coeval with Confucius and Mencius. In particular, Aristotle’s notion of a virtue as a mean between two extremes (e.g.: courage as a mean between cowardice and recklessness) has some affinity with Confucius’ idea of moderation (Analects 5.20: “Lord Ji Wen always thought thrice before acting. Hearing this, the Master said:’Twice is enough.’”).

The Chinese, being the major civilization-cum-empire in East Asia, were more inclined to see themselves as the natural center of the world. The Greeks, as peripheral newcomers to the civilized world of Egypt and Western Asia were somewhat more experimental in outlook and temperament. In particular, the Greeks had to cope with a greater variety of political regimes, they were compelled to “reinvent the state.”

Why both Herodotus and Sima Qian are called ‘fathers of history’?

Herodotus is the first Greek historian of which we have a more or less complete work. Of his predecessor Haecateus only fragments are left. In the Hellenistic world he was thus seen, often in conjunction with Thucydides, as a “beginning.” But after Roman times he fell in desuetude only to be rediscovered in the 15 th century, when his work was translated into Latin. But in early-modern Europa the Roman historians were held in higher esteem than Herodotus. Recently, however, interest in Herodotus has revived, because he addresses present-day concerns about frontiers and cultural difference.

By contrast, Sima Qian’s status as father of history is less contested. The Shiji really represents the first comprehensive history of China, and later Chinese “grand historians” all refer to Sima Qian and acknowledge his authority. His theory of dynastic cycles has remained important in framing Chinese history until the fall of the last dynasty in 1911.

What are the similarities and differences between Herodotus and Sima Qian?

Both conceived of history as a critical inquiry into the past in order to enlighten people in uncertain and dangerous times, but they did so from quite different vantage points. Sima Qian, invoking the authority of Confucius’ Spring and Autumn Annals, asserted that it was the task of the historian to criticize state functionaries, and even emperors, but such criticisms are always put in the mouth of protagonists of the story. By contrast, Herodotus’ critique of rulers is voiced in direct speech by himself. He had no political position and could speak more freely, while Sima Qian suffered disgrace when he spoke too openly. Even so, his histories are replete with criticism of his patron, the energetic and severe emperor Wu.

Another important similarity is that both Herodotus and Sima Qian are keenly interested in frontiers and cultural difference. Their Greco-centrism and Sino-centrism is tempered by an open-minded approach to the “barbarians” living beyond the frontier. Both are able to imagine how the “barbarians” look back at China or Greece. As I have tried to show in my article in JWH, Herodotus book IV on the Scythians and Sima Qian’s chapter 110 on the Xiongnu seek to understand the way of life of the steppe nomads as a functional whole well adapted to the ecology and the geopolitics of the steppe peoples and their relationships to the Empires confronting them. That is no mean feat. Where they differ is in their stances vis-à-vis the grand Empire of their day. Herodotus’ ethnography of the Scythians is leading up to the history of the Persian wars. The failed attempt of the Persians to subdue the Scythians is thus framed by the fact that the Persians are the antagonists of the Greeks. Sima Qian, however, is residing in the entrails of an Empire that also fails.to subdue the Steppe Nomads. His open-minded appreciation of the culture of the Xiongnu is wedded to his critique of an imperial policy of aggression he considers misguided.

What they share—and that is in my opinion the crucial and most valuable point—is that both had understood that you can only understand you own culture in its relationship with the greater frame of “world history.” In that sense, both Herodotus and Sima Qian use history to overcome ethnocentric closure. And they do so, moreover, because they understand the risks of not doing so. That is what we can learn from them.

How important is to investigate the dynamics of your own culture in its evolving relationships to other cultures?

Extremely important and absolutely vital. Since antiquity, world history is the history of empires, their allies, their adversaries, and their victims (see Jane Burbank & Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History, Princeton 2010). World history is not a mountain of facts but it is a way of thinking. It should enable us to spot those “facts” that are relevant to the problematic we want to explore, whether such facts are close to home or in remote lands. Doing world history might enable us to develop a sober and well-informed perspective on “globalization.” Taking a longer historical view is often a useful antidote to “presentist” myopia. We should attempt to understand our present, not to bury ourselves in it.

At the present time, history teaching in many European countries is dominated by s neo-nationalist agenda. Young people, we are told, need to know their own history, which mostly means: the history of their own nation. All right, but how shall we frame that history? Shall we only look at Istanbul from Amsterdam, or shall we also look at Amsterdam from Istanbul? In my opinion, high school history teaching should pay attention to the national, the regional (e.g. Europe, or China, or Africa) and the global. What is decisive, is how we frame our history. Only a world-historical framing can really do the job (and besides, it is much more fun!).. So there’s work to do for all of us.

*Professor Stuurman’s article: ‘Herodotus and Sima Qian: History and the Anthropological Turn in Ancient Greece and Han China’ is available here.

Theano-Damiana Agaloglou

Share the post "History: The meeting point of two civilizations in ancient Eurasia. Interview with Professor Siep Stuurman"


Ancient World History

The prestige of history as a field worthy of study and historical writing as an honored pursuit were strongly rooted in Chinese intellectual life from earliest antiquity. The Han dynasty had the distinction of producing the earliest and most important major historical work.

It is titled the Shiji (Shih-chi), or Records of the Historian. It was the work of two men, Sima Dan (Ssu-ma T’an), who died in 110 b.c.e., and his more famous son, Sima Qian (145󈟃 b.c.e.). The monumental work totaled 130 chapters and more than half a million words.

The father-and-son team successively held the title Lord Grand Astrologer in the Han government. The title suggests that in antiquity the role of historian was closely associated with astronomical affairs and divination. With their deep knowledge historians were also accepted from antiquity as mentors and teachers of rulers.

Such ideals were endorsed and encouraged by Confucius and Confucians who held a deep sense of history and honored memories of the past. Confucians believed that to understand humanity, one had to study history. Two of the five Confucian Classics, the Book of History (Shujing) and the Annals of Spring and Autumn (Qungiu), are works of history.


Sima Dan began a project to write a complete history of the world, as the Chinese knew it, from the beginning down to his own time. Although the feudal states during the preimperial period had kept their historical records, the unification of China by the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty and the following Han dynasty required a national history. Sima Dan’s position gave him access to government archives, but he died long before he could complete the task.

According to Sima Qian, his father: "Grasped my hand [when on his death bed] and said weeping: ‘Our ancestors were Grand Historians for the house of Chou . Will this tradition end with me? If you in turn become Grand Historian, you must continue the work of our ancestors . 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 . 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 materials will be neglected and lost. You must remember and think of this!’"

Sima Qian received an excellent education. He traveled widely throughout China and knew of local traditions and men who had participated in the great events of the day. He carried on his father’s legacy, completing his monumental work, especially considering the tragic circumstances in his later life.

He had taken the unpopular stand of defending a general who had surrendered to the nomads called Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) for which he was sentenced to death in absentia. This infuriated Emperor Wu (Han Wudi), who condemned him to be castrated.

Although a fine would have been accepted as substitution, Sima Qian did not have the required sum and refused to accept help from his friends. Thus, he suffered the humiliating punishment but lived to complete his work.

  1. Basic Annals (12 chapters): the account of principal events from the legendary Yellow Emperor down to the reign of Emperor Wu.
  2. Chronological Tables (10 chapters): tables of dates for important events, holders of government positions from the establishment of the Han to that date, and genealogical information of ruling families down to his time.
  3. Treatises or Monographs (eight chapters): essays devoted to history and important subjects, for example, music, economics, the calendar, astronomy, rites, and the Yellow River and canals.
  4. Hereditary Houses (30 chapters): detailed accounts and collective biographies of earlier feudal families.
  5. Biographies (70 chapters): lives of famous or interesting people, including good and evil officials, historians, philosophers, politicians, rogues, rebels,

Sima Qian’s format became the standard and was copied by authors of subsequent dynastic histories that chronicled imperial China. They are unsurpassed in the world for their detail and order. This work is also notable for its elegance of style, emulated but never equaled by later historians.


Records of the Grand Historian

"Probing into events, connecting their narrative flow, finding patterns governing victory and defeat, prosperity and decay, I have composed 10 historical tables, 12 royal annals, eight monographs, 30 genealogies of noble houses, 70 biographical accounts - 130 chapters in all.

"I have sought, through examination of the interface of heaven and man, and comprehension of change from past through present, to found a new tradition of philosophy."

Just look, she says, at the fate of historians in 20th Century China.

"Somebody who actually became deputy mayor of Peking, Wu Han, was a very important historian who had written about the first Ming emperor.

"The first Ming emperor… in 1368, he's often been compared with Mao Tse-Tung, because he was a charismatic bandit leader who, in his last years, went pretty crazy and paranoid. So you have Wu Han writing that history in the 1950s, which was a very dangerous thing to do, because Mao was already beginning to totter into paranoia."

For criticising the present by writing about the past, Wu Han was arrested. He died in prison in 1969.

Last year China re-opened its national museum, lauded as the world's biggest museum under one roof. It is hugely popular, but it illustrates just how much history is a pick-and-mix for China's rulers. They leave out the bits that do not do them credit and - masters of selective memory - they big up the moments they are proud of.

So instead of the tens of millions who died in Mao's Great Leap forward and the Cultural Revolution, you get China's first nuclear test in 1964, or a celebration of the reform era after Mao's death.


Works Cited

Chin, Tamara T. “Defamiliarizing the Foreigner. Sima Qian’s Ethnography and Han Xiongnu Marriage Diplomacy.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 70.2 (2010): 311–354. Print.

Kleeman, Terry and Tracy Barrett. The Ancient Chinese World. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2005. Print.

Durrant, Stephen. The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conflict in the Writings of Sima Qian. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Print.

Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty. New York, NY: A Renditions – Columbia University Press Book.

Sima, Qian. Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty. New York, NY: A Renditions – Columbia University Press Book.

Wang, Edward. Mirroring the Past: The Writing and Use of History in Imperial China. Honolulu, HI: Honolulu, 2005. Print.


Becoming an Independent Historian

Upon returning to the capital, Sima Qian was appointed to a position as a palace attendant and accompanied Emperor Wu to inspect various regions across the country. Wherever he went, Sima collected and compiled local historical records.

Around 110 B.C., Sima Tan fell ill. He had earlier begun an ambitious project of producing the first full history of China, which was to cover the more than 2,000 years between the reign of the Yellow Emperor and that of Emperor Wu.

Knowing he was dying, Sima Tan earnestly bade his son continue this important task. Sima Qian vowed to finish his father’s work.

Sima Qian later inherited his father’s position as imperial historian.

Sima Qian believed that historians should be impartial and independent, rather than serving as an echo of the emperor.

In order to record historical figures and events objectively and fairly, Sima Qian devoted a large amount of time and effort to collecting and verifying historic details, faithfully doing his best to ensure that the records were comprehensive and unbiased.

One challenge Sima Qian faced was how to record the deeds of the current and past emperors. He decided to record everything, both good deeds and bad, which did not sit well with Emperor Wu.


Reading Sima Qian from Han to Song

1 A Record of Doubts and Difficulties
Overview
Sources and Attribution
Who is the Honorable Senior Historian?
Autobiography and Authenticity
Chu Shaosun: A Third Author?
Extreme Textual Damage and Loss
A Conclusion Leading Onward
2 Sima Qian’s Place in the Textual World
Aspects of Self-Description
Early Views of the Shiji
The New Historical Tradition
Sima Qian in the Realm of Literary Prose


Sima Qian - History bibliographies - in Harvard style

Your Bibliography: BBC News. 2018. Sima Qian: China's 'grand historian'. [online] Available at: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19835484> [Accessed 14 March 2018].

Birrell, A. M.

Studies on Chinese Myth Since 1970: An Appraisal, Part 2

1994 - History of Religions

In-text: (Birrell, 1994)

Your Bibliography: Birrell, A., 1994. Studies on Chinese Myth Since 1970: An Appraisal, Part 2. History of Religions, 34(1), pp.70-94.

Bai Shouyi on Sima Qian and Ban Gu

In-text: (Bai Shouyi on Sima Qian and Ban Gu, 2018)

Your Bibliography: Edizionicafoscari.unive.it. 2018. Bai Shouyi on Sima Qian and Ban Gu. [online] Available at: <http://edizionicafoscari.unive.it/media/pdf/books/978-88-6969-098-3/978-88-6969-098-3-ch-02.pdf> [Accessed 15 March 2018].

Sima Qian

In-text: (Sima Qian, 2018)

Your Bibliography: En.wikipedia.org. 2018. Sima Qian. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sima_Qian> [Accessed 15 March 2018].

Sima Qian | Chinese historian and scientist

In-text: (Sima Qian | Chinese historian and scientist, 2018)

Your Bibliography: Encyclopedia Britannica. 2018. Sima Qian | Chinese historian and scientist. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sima-Qian> [Accessed 19 March 2018].

In-text: (2018)

Your Bibliography: Indiana.edu. 2018. [online] Available at: <http://www.indiana.edu/

g380/4.12-Sima-2010.pdf> [Accessed 14 March 2018].

The Chinese Han Dynasty Government System & Laws

In-text: (The Chinese Han Dynasty Government System & Laws, 2018)

Your Bibliography: Totally History. 2018. The Chinese Han Dynasty Government System & Laws. [online] Available at: <http://totallyhistory.com/han-dynasty-government/> [Accessed 16 March 2018].

The Chinese Han Dynasty Society: Social Class & Structure

In-text: (The Chinese Han Dynasty Society: Social Class & Structure, 2018)


Chocolatelover19's Blog

The Sima Qian was a Chinese historian who tried to write the history of the universe. Obviously, he would have faced a lot of problems like figuring out what came first in history and if they had any relevance. He would have a hard time organizing his information in a correct manner. To solve his problem, he created a new method of organization. He collected all the historical data and divided them into basic records and sequential tables, he wrote essays and he wrote various biographies on various people in history. This way, he would have a detailed record of every aspect of history. The tables would help keep track of the dates while the essays and the biographies will divulge information on what happened during that time. He even adapted older techniques of history and used them in his writing. He used the forms of writing used in the Class of Documents and Spring and Autumn annals to create a new form of writing, comprehensive writing. To summarize what he did, he created rules as he wrote the Shiji based on experimentation and intellectual and spiritual epiphanies. He wrote stories in a way that different people can obtain a different message from it, each person would have a different perspective on the story.

At the end of the book it is stated the Sima Qian wrote two autobiographies which gave descriptions on how he was as a person. Since it is written that he starts his biography by talking about the deeds of his ancestors and talking about the greatness of his father, it is apparent that he is a great believer in the common beliefs of filial piety. Ban Gu criticized his Confucianism as being very conservative or orthodox. Although there is still debate between whether Sima Qian was Confucian or Daoist as his values seem like they are a crossover between the two. Even though some of his works were ‘pro-Daoist’, it can be a more precise assumption that he is more on the Confucian side, especially after seeing his writing style which can be said to be very Confucian. Proof that he is Confucian can be seen when he writes about his father’s final instructions to him which states that he must finish what he had started. Sima Qian had to finish the history he started to write in order to honor their ancestors. He partakes in the Mount Tai, which was the most significant ritual during his time. This shows filial piety which can be compared to the Duke of Zhou and also Confucius himself. Thus, it can be assumed that he was more Confucian than Daoist. Also, Sima Tan wanted his son to be the second Confucius which shows that they have high regard for Confucius proving that they were more Confucian than Doaist.

Unfortunately, over time, Sima Qian was forced to be disgraced as he was charged with ‘defaming the king’ by the king for trying to help the king with a battle technique which didn’t work. The king thought that Sima Qian did it on purpose. Sima Qian, who was now disgraced, couldn’t pay his way out of the situation or even commit suicide since he had to keep his promise he made to his father. So, he went for the most shameful punishment, cutting of his ‘three precious’. It is claimed that he said that there was no punishment that could be more disgraceful than that. But, he continued to live to finish his book and attempt to fulfill his father’s dream. He was one dedicated son!

The Sima Qian was a Chinese historian who tried to write the history of the universe. Obviously, he would have faced a lot of problems like figuring out what came first in history and if they had any relevance. He would have a hard time organizing his information in a correct manner. To solve his problem, he created a new method of organization. He collected all the historical data and divided them into basic records and sequential tables, he wrote essays and he wrote various biographies on various people in history. This way, he would have a detailed record of every aspect of history. The tables would help keep track of the dates while the essays and the biographies will divulge information on what happened during that time. He even adapted older techniques of history and used them in his writing. He used the forms of writing used in the Class of Documents and Spring and Autumn annals to create a new form of writing, comprehensive writing. To summarize what he did, he created rules as he wrote the Shiji based on experimentation and intellectual and spiritual epiphanies. He wrote stories in a way that different people can obtain a different message from it, each person would have a different perspective on the story.

At the end of the book it is stated the Sima Qian wrote two autobiographies which gave descriptions on how he was as a person. Since it is written that he starts his biography by talking about the deeds of his ancestors and talking about the greatness of his father, it is apparent that he is a great believer in the common beliefs of filial piety. Ban Gu criticized his Confucianism as being very conservative or orthodox. Although there is still debate between whether Sima Qian was Confucian or Daoist as his values seem like they are a crossover between the two. Even though some of his works were ‘pro-Daoist’, it can be a more precise assumption that he is more on the Confucian side, especially after seeing his writing style which can be said to be very Confucian. Proof that he is Confucian can be seen when he writes about his father’s final instructions to him which states that he must finish what he had started. Sima Qian had to finish the history he started to write in order to honor their ancestors. He partakes in the Mount Tai, which was the most significant ritual during his time. This shows filial piety which can be compared to the Duke of Zhou and also Confucius himself. Thus, it can be assumed that he was more Confucian than Daoist. Also, Sima Tan wanted his son to be the second Confucius which shows that they have high regard for Confucius proving that they were more Confucian than Doaist.

Unfortunately, over time, Sima Qian was forced to be disgraced as he was charged with ‘defaming the king’ by the king for trying to help the king with a battle technique which didn’t work. The king thought that Sima Qian did it on purpose. Sima Qian, who was now disgraced, couldn’t pay his way out of the situation or even commit suicide since he had to keep his promise he made to his father. So, he went for the most shameful punishment, cutting of his ‘three precious’. It is claimed that he said that there was no punishment that could be more disgraceful than that. But, he continued to live to finish his book and attempt to fulfill his father’s dream. He was one dedicated son!


Sima Qian - History

The Records of the Grand Historian was the masterpiece of Sima Qian, written from 109 BC to 91 BC. Also known in English by its Chinese name Shiji, Sima Qian recounted all the rich Chinese history that dated all the way back from the Yellow Emperor from around 2600 BC up to his present time. The Yellow Emperor is the first ever ruler of the land with whom Sima Qian had sufficiently established in a historical perspective in his records. Because the records were the first systematized historical text of its type, they had heavily influenced the landscape of Chinese Historiography and prose.

The Records contains a total of 130 volumes or scrolls (we refer to this these days as chapters) where various information was classified into several categories. Twelve volumes of the Benji (Imperial Biographies) contain all the accounts of the prominent rulers starting from the Yellow Emperor all the way to Qin Shi Huang, including the past kings of the Shang, Xia, and the Zhou Dynasties.

Another ten volumes called the Biao talked about the different timelines of the events that took place. Eight volumes of the Shu are for the treatises for economics and other important topics of the time. Then there’s the thirty volumes from the Shijia that contains the biographies of different Feudal Houses and other eminent persons, the biographies of bureaucrats, nobility, and of notable rulers from the Spring and Autumn, and the Warring States periods. Finally, there are seventy full volumes of the Liezhuan, also known as the collective biographies of other important figures in Chinese history, like Laozi, Sun Tzu, Mozi, Jing Ke, and many more.

Unlike the official historical texts that followed adopting the Confucian doctrine notably proclaiming the divine rights of the ruling emperors and degrading any failed claimants of the throne, the works of Sima Qian is more liberal with a more objective approach that had been renowned all throughout history and religiously followed by all interested. Most of the volumes that made up the Liezchuan are just vivid descriptions that depicted different events and persons involved in those events. The main reason for this is that the author firmly believed on stories passed on from antiquity, therefore the need to balance the record’s reliability and accuracy.

The family of Sima Qian was highly regarded as historians working for the Han Emperor. This gave him the needed access to the archives of the early Han dynasties. The sources that gave life to The Records of the Great Historian was carefully considered by its methodical and very skeptical author who had clear access to various ancient books written using bamboo and wooden slips.


Watch the video: Sima Qian, Chinas Grand Historian