SIMA QIAN AND THE HISTORY OF CHINESE HISTORY

HISTORY OF CHINESE HISTORY


Sima Qian

Chinese history, until the twentieth century, was written mostly by members of the ruling scholar-official class and was meant to provide the ruler with precedents to guide or justify his policies. These accounts focused on dynastic politics and colorful court histories and included developments among the commoners only as backdrops. The historians described a Chinese political pattern of dynasties, one following another in a cycle of ascent, achievement, decay, and rebirth under a new family. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Because of its length and complexity, the history of the Middle Kingdom lends itself to varied interpretation. After the communist takeover in 1949, historians in mainland China wrote their own version of the past--a history of China built on a Marxist model of progression from primitive communism to slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and finally socialism. The events of history came to be presented as a function of the class struggle. Historiography became subordinated to proletarian politics fashioned and directed by the Chinese Communist Party. *

A series of thought-reform and antirightist campaigns were directed against intellectuals in the arts, sciences, and academic community. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) further altered the objectivity of historians. In the years after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, however, interest grew within the party, and outside it as well, in restoring the integrity of historical inquiry. This trend was consistent with the party's commitment to "seeking truth from facts." As a result, historians and social scientists raised probing questions concerning the state of historiography in China. Their investigations included not only historical study of traditional China but penetrating inquiries into modern Chinese history and the history of the Chinese Communist Party. In post-Mao China, the discipline of historiography has not been separated from politics, although a much greater range of historical topics has been discussed. Figures from Confucius--who was bitterly excoriated for his "feudal" outlook by Cultural Revolution-era historians--to Mao himself have been evaluated with increasing flexibility. Among the criticisms made by Chinese social scientists is that Maoist-era historiography distorted Marxist and Leninist interpretations. This meant that considerable revision of historical texts was in order in the 1980s, although no substantive change away from the conventional Marxist approach was likely. Historical institutes were restored within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and a growing corps of trained historians, in institutes and academia alike, returned to their work with the blessing of the Chinese Communist Party. This in itself was a potentially significant development. *

China has no tradition of independent historical scholarship. Historians in imperial China were employed by the Emperor to write accounts to justify the Emperor's rule. The same could be said of modern historians in the Communist party. It was a Chinese tradition that senior mandarins make their views known by praise or condemnation of a piece of literature; it was a favorite tactic of Mao's.

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History);

Sima Qian: China's 'Grand Historian'

Sima Qian is regarded as China's 'grand historian'. Born between 145 and 135 B.C. to a family of court astrologers and the son of Sima Tan, the prefect of grand scribes to Emperor Wu of Han, Sima Qian becomes grand historian three years after his father's death in 110 B.C. He created an advanced form of calendar in 104 B.C.. In 99 B.C. he offended the emperor and chose castration as his punishment. "Among defilements, none is so great as castration. Any man who continues to live having suffered such a punishment is accounted as a nothing," Sima wrote. He later became a palace eunuch His “The Records of the Grand Historian” cover a period of 2,500 years [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 7, 2012 /*\]

Much of what we know about China before the first century B.C. is what Sima described. Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “In a nation obsessed by its history, Sima Qian was the first and some say the greatest historian. In today's China, Sima Qian's book, The Records of the Grand Historian, is regarded as the grandest history of them all. What Herodotus is to Europeans, so Sima Qian is to Chinese.” /*\

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “In the study of early China we owe the greatest debt to Sima Qian, the Grand Historian of the court of Wu-di.” It is important “to acknowledge the contribution that Sima Qian has made to all later understanding of ancient China. The scale of his text (which runs over 3000 pages in modern commentary editions) and its pervasive sensitivity, intelligence, and sense of value are unmatched anywhere in the ancient world. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Sima Qian was the son of the Han court historian and inherited the position of his father, Sima Tan. The office of historian was not at that time confined to issues that we now think of as historical. The historian was principally an archivist and an astrologer. In an age when the rhythms of the heavens and of the earth were considered to bear so closely on the conduct of government, the position of court astrologer was an important one, and prior to Sima Tan it is likely that “historians” had paid little attention to organizing the records of the past.” /+/

“Our vision of ancient China has been overwhelmingly shaped by the perspective of this one man. We know that Sima Qian’s failings as a historian, many of which he was the first to admit, have led later historians into many important errors, and surely continue to blind us to certain aspects of ancient China. However, most of us who work in the field of early China believe that Sima Qian’s intellectual honesty and devotion to distinguishing between truth and fantasy as best he could make his history, the “Shiji”, an invaluable gift to us. In some ways, Sima Qian’s own tragic relationship to Wu-di serves as a symbol for the greatness and failure of the Chinese imperial system. For all these reasons, we will close this course with the reign of Wu-di, and later close these readings with an account of Sima Qian himself.” /+/

Sima Qian’s Life


Another rending of Sima Qian long after he was dead

Dr. Eno wrote: “Sima Qian was born about 145 B.C. His father, whose basic ideas and values were reported by his son in an autobiographical afterword to the “Shiji”, was inclined towards the values of the Daoists. But he was an intelligent and eclectic man, and he had his son study widely. Among the teachers to whom he sent Sima Qian was Dong Zhongshu, who would have been at the height of his influence at that time. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“While we tend to associate Dong first with his influence on Wu-di’s personnel policies and second with his yin-yang omenology, in his own time he was chiefly celebrated as a master of the “Spring and Autumn Annals”. One of the features of early Han “Annals” scholarship was the belief that Confucius had chosen to edit the “Annals” and implant his wisdom therein because he felt that “to discuss the Dao through empty theory would not be so effective as to illustrate its workings through action and event.” We may assume that Sima Qian was thoroughly instructed in this notion, and it makes sense to see the “Shiji” as displaying his portrait of the eternal Dao through the coloration he gives to his account of the changing past. /+/

Sima Qian and His Father’s Mission to Record the History of the World (China)

Sima Qian’s father Sima Tan appears to have been the one who first conceived of the project of writing a history of the world (which is to say, China). In his account of his father’s death, Sima Qian wrote: “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 the 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 your ancestors. [Source: “Shiji” 130.3295 *-*]

“You must not forget what I have desired to express through my writing. Filiality begins with the serving of your parents; next you must serve your sovereign; finally, you must make something of yourself so that your name may go down through the ages to the glory of your father and mother. This is the most important aspect of filiality. *-*

“Now the various feudal states have merged into one and the records of the old chronicles and records have become scattered and lost. 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 prepared to die for what was right. I am fearful that the historical materials will be neglected and lost. You must remember and think of this!” *-*

Sima Qian records his own tearful response, in which he pledged that he would do as his father wished. From the time that Sima Tan died in 110 until his own death about the year 90 B.C., Sima Qian devoted himself whole-heartedly to the recovery of ancient records, their organization and verification, and the writing of the “Shiji”. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Sima Qian’s Castration


Wu Di

Dr. Eno wrote: “In 98, the incident that became the turning point of Sima Qian’s career occurred. A general named Li Ling, who was pursuing Wu-di’s campaigns against the Xiongnu, was ambushed by a far superior force. Facing certain defeat, he chose to surrender, thus, in Wu-di’s eyes, violating the code of conduct of a Han military leader. Li Ling was associated with certain factions at court, and their enemies seized the occasion of his failure to excoriate him in the hope of discrediting others. When Sima Qian, who was apparently connected with neither faction, sent a memo courageously supporting Li Ling, the emperor was led to understand that the historian was acting as the dupe of a party anxious to undermine Wu-di’s authority. Consequently, he ordered that Sima Qian be sentenced to castration. /+/

“This arbitrary and brutal response to what he himself regarded as a courageous memorial loyal to the interests of the throne threw Sima Qian into dismay. There existed two possible alternatives to undergoing the punishment of castration, which was the most shameful of all punishments short of execution. The first was to redeem his sentence through a cash payment (such as was noted in our examination of Qin law). The second was to follow the code of the gentleman and commit suicide. Unfortunately, the redemption price for his sentence was simply beyond his means. And to commit suicide, while honorable before the world, meant that Sima Qian would be forswearing his deathbed promise to his father, and act whose unfiliality was past measure. In the end, Sima Qian chose to suffer disgrace, aware that he would be regarded as a coward not only for having failed to take his life honorably, but also for having behaved in this way as a consequence of defending a man who had likewise chosen dishonor over suicide. /+/

Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: Wind back two millennia. It is 99 B.C.. On China's northern frontier, imperial forces have surrendered to barbarians. At court, the news is greeted with shock. The emperor is raging. But an upstart official defies court etiquette by speaking up for the defeated general. "He is a man with many famous victories to his credit, a man far above the ordinary, while these courtiers - whose sole concern has been preserving themselves and their families - seize on one mistake. I felt sick at heart to see it," writes Sima Qian in a letter to a friend afterwards. The general had committed treason by surrendering. And Sima Qian had committed treason by defending him. "None of my friends came to my aid, none of my colleagues spoke a word on my behalf," he writes. [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 7, 2012 /*\]

“There is an interrogation. Sima Qian tells his friend his body is not made of wood or stone. "I was alone with my inquisitors, shut in the darkness of my cell." At the end he is offered an unenviable choice - death or castration. To his contemporaries, death was the only honourable option but Sima Qian had a bigger audience in mind than the Chinese court of the 1st Century B.C.. He was writing a history of humanity for posterity. Sima Qian's father had been court historian before him and had started the project. On his sickbed, with both of them in tears, the father extracted from the son a promise to complete the epic work. So he chose castration. "If I had followed custom and submitted to execution, how would it have made a difference greater than the loss of a strand of hair from a herd of oxen or the life of a solitary ant?" he wrote. "A man has only one death. That death may be as weighty as Mount Tai or it may be as light as a goose feather. It all depends on the way he uses it." /*\

“But neither in the letter nor in his autobiography can Sima Qian bring himself to describe the horror of castration. He talks instead of going down to the "silkworm chamber". It was already well known that a castrated man could easily die from blood loss or infection so after mutilation the victims were kept like silkworms in a warm, draught-free room. Sima Qian never recovered from the humiliation. "I look at myself now, mutilated in body and living in vile disgrace. Every time I think of this shame I find myself drenched in sweat." But he also wrote that if, as a result of his sacrifice, his work ended up being handed down to men who would appreciate it, reaching villages and great cities, then he would have no regrets even after suffering 1,000 mutilations.” /*\

Sima Qian on the Incident That Led to His Castration


Sima Qian wrote: “Li Ling and I were both officials in the palace, but we had had no opportunity to become friends. Our duties kept us busy in different offices and we had never so much as sipped a cup of wine together or enjoyed the slightest pleasure of friendship. But I observed that he conducted himself with extraordinary self-possession. He was filial towards his parents, trustworthy with his colleagues, scrupulously honest in matters of finance, upright in exchanges with others, deferential in matters of precedence, respectful, modest, and humble. His thoughts were always animated by selfless devotion to the needs of his country – this was his way, and I saw in him the very image of a statesman. A subject who dashes to the public’s aid, risking ten thousand deaths without thought of his life as he rushes to his country’s defense, such a man rises far above the ordinary. And so when, because of a single indiscretion, courtiers whose sole concern had been preserving themselves whole and protecting their wives and children seized on his mistake to brew disfavor against him, I felt pain for him in my innermost heart. [Source: “Han shu”67.2725-36 *-*]

“Now, the troops Li Ling led numbered fewer than 5,000. When they marched deep into the territory of the mounted nomads, they might as well have been marching straight into the Xiongnu court itself. It was like dangling bait in a tiger’s mouth. They challenged the barbarian strength on all sides, facing an army of millions. For over ten days they fought the shanyu,6 killing more than their own number. The enemy had no time to bear off their dead or succor their wounded. Their pelt-clad leaders trembled in fear. But then the commanders of their left and right divisions sent out a call for every able archer, and all the tribes joined as one to attack Li Ling together, and they surrounded his troops. Yet Li Ling’s army still fought on in retreat for a thousand li, until all their arrows were gone, their path was blocked, and the armies of relief had failed to arrive. By then the dead and wounded lay in heaps. And still, when Li Ling called out to rouse his army not a soldier failed to leap to the fight, wiping their tears over their bloodied faces. Stifling their sobs they brandished empty bows and braved naked blades, facing north and fighting the enemy to the death, *-*

“Before Li Ling had been beset a messenger had brought news of his progress to the court and all the ministers and lords had raised their cups and toasted him with cries of “Long life!” When a few days later Li Ling’s report of his defeat arrived, the emperor lost all taste for food and interest in court; his high advisors were beset by fears, with no idea of what to do. Seeing my ruler so depressed and filled with regret, I lost sight of my own humble rank and my heart yearned to convey my frank thoughts to him. I felt that Li Ling had always been a man who led by giving up his own comforts and sharing what he had with those under his command, so that his men would fight for him to the death. Not even the famous generals of antiquity could surpass him. Although he had now fallen in defeat, his intent had clearly been to do the right thing and fulfill his duty to the Imperial House. There was nothing now that he could do, but the destruction that his troops had already wrought upon the enemy was plainly visible for the world to see. *-*

“I longed to set forth these ideas, but had no way to do so until it happened that I was summoned to give an opinion, and in just this way I spoke of Li Ling’s merits. My hope was to broaden my ruler’s perspective and block the words of jealous-eyed courtiers. But I was myself insufficiently clear and the emperor could not perceive my sense. He saw in my words a critique of General Li Guangli, who had led the relief brigade, and believing that I was speaking as a partisan of Li Ling he had me sent down for prosecution. Not all my earnest loyalty could justify myself to my inquisitors. I was convicted of attempting to delude my ruler and the sentence received imperial approval.” *-*

“Although the biography of Sima Qian that appears in the “History of the Former Han”indicates that Wu-di later regretted his harshness towards Sima Qian and honored him at court with many signs of personal favor, it is clear from a letter written by the historian shortly before his death that the pain of his disgrace remained keen to the end of his life. Nevertheless, he did persist in fulfilling his promise to his father, and when he died, the “Shiji” was substantially complete. /+/

Sima Qian on His Castration and Why He Submitted To It

Sima Qian wrote: “My family being poor, I was unable to raise funds to redeem my punishment. None of my friends came to my aid, none of my close colleagues spoke a word on my behalf. My body is not made of wood or stone. I was alone with my inquisitors, shut in the darkness of my cell. Whom could I appeal to? You have experienced this yourself, Shaoqing. How was it any different with me? In surrendering alive Li Ling destroyed the reputation of his family. When I followed by submitting to the “silkworm chamber” I became a second laughingstock. Oh, such shame! This is not something I could ever bring myself to recount to an ordinary person.” The “silkworm chamber” refers to the room where castration was inflicted, warmed like silkworm breeding chambers because of the chilling shock to the body that the punishment prompted. [Source: “Han shu”67.2725-36 *-*]

“My father never attained the tallies of court nobility that could protect his family, and my office of annalist and astrologer was not far in rank from those of the diviners and liturgists, mere amusements for the emperor, retained like singing girls and jesters, counting for nothing in the eyes of the world. If I had followed custom and submitted instead to execution, how would it have made a difference greater than the loss of a strand of hair from a herd of oxen or the life of a solitary ant? For no one would have ranked me with those who die out of loyalty to a code of principle; they would instead have believed that having exhausted my store of wisdom, branded a criminal offender, unable to find any way out of my predicament, I had simply let myself be led to slaughter. And why? Because of the station I had settled on in life. A man dies only once. His death may be a matter weighty as Mount Tai or light as a feather. It all depends on the reason for which he dies. The best of men die to avoid disgrace to their forbears; the next best to avoid disgrace to their persons; the next to avoid disgrace to their dignity; the next to avoid disgrace to their word. And then there are those who suffer the disgrace of being put in fetters; worse yet those disgraced by the prisoner’s suit; worse yet those in shackles; worse yet those who are flogged; worse yet those who with shaven heads and iron chains around their necks; worse yet those who suffer amputations and mutilations. But the very worst disgrace of all is castration. *-*

“The texts say, “Corporal punishment does not extend to those holding the rank of grandee.” This tells us that an officer cannot but be resolute in his integrity. When a fierce tiger roams deep in the mountains, all animals tremble in fear, but once he has fallen into captivity, through the gradual curtailment of his dignity he will come to wave his tail and beg for his food. Hence if you draw the outline of a jail on the ground, you cannot induce a man of resolve to step within it, and if you carve wood to the image of an inquisitor he will not address it, so set is his intent to have no such encounters. But cross his hands and feet to receive the shackles, bare his back to receive the whip, plunge him in the dark of the dungeon – now he sees his inquisitor and bows his face to the ground, sees the jail guards and gasps in terror. And why? It is the result of the gradual curtailment of his dignity. To have reached such a state and say there is in this no disgrace would be nothing but shamelessness, wholly unworthy of respect. *-*

Sima Qian on Other Great Men That Suffered


Sima Qian wrote: “King Wen of Zhou was an earl of the Shang state when he was imprisoned in Youli.1 Li Si was a prime minister and yet he was subjected to all five corporal punishments.2 Han Xin held the title of King of Huaiyin under the Han emperor, yet he was put in the stocks in Chen, and Peng Yue and Zhang Ao too faced south and held court as kings, yet the one was bound in prison and the other put to death. 3 Lord Jiang had all the Lü clan executed – his power surpassed the Five Hegemons of old – but later he was mewed up in the prosecutor’s jail.4 The Lord of Weiqi was a great general, yet he had to don the convict’s scarlet gown and wear the wooden shackles. Ji Bu spent a term as the slave of the Zhu family, and Guan Fu was disgraced in prison.5

“This being understood, the conduct of these men is nothing to wonder at. Once having failed to do away with themselves before falling into the clutches of the law, and having then been worn down by degrees between the whip and the bastinado, committing suicide on principle had moved far beyond their reach. This is surely why the ancients viewed corporal punishment for men of grandee rank as excessive. “By nature, no man will fail to cling to life and avoid death, be concerned for the welfare of his parents, and look after and protect his wife and children. When a man who is passionate about righteousness acts contrary to it, it is due to the force of such inescapable dispositions. Now, I had the misfortune to lose my father and mother early. I have no brothers and so stand alone, without such family – and you can see, can’t you, Shaoqing, how little I had attended to the good of my wife and children in speaking out. *-*

“But if a brave man will not always die for a code of principle, so too a coward may find great resolve if what is right is dear to him. Though I may be a coward who could cling to life by self-serving conduct, surely I know the difference between flagrant right and wrong. How could I have plunged myself into the ignominy of bring tied and bound? Even a captive slave-girl is capable of putting an end to herself, and surely I could have done so as well, had it been the inescapably correct path. The reason why I bore the intolerable and clung to my life, refusing to release myself from the filth into which I had been cast, was the remorse I felt at the prospect of leaving the achievement dearest my heart incomplete, quitting the world like a vulgar nonentity with the written emblem of my lifework unrevealed to posterity. /+/

“The names of past men of wealth and rank forgotten today are beyond calculation; only the most outstanding and exceptional are still spoken today. It was likely as a prisoner that King Wen composed his expansion of the”Yijing”, and Confucius edited the “Spring and Autumn Annals” when he was in desperate straits. Only when Qu Yuan was banished did he compose “Encountering Sorrow”; it was after Zuo Qiu lost his sight that he compiled The Discourses of the States, and Sunzi wrote “The Art of War” after suffering the amputation of his King Wen’s imprisonment in Youli is referred to above, and tradition associated his reputed work on the “Yijing” to this time. During his years of travel in exile from Lu, Confucius is said to have encountered times of danger and impoverishment; however, these accounts, including the “Shiji” narrative of Confucius’s life, do not associate these incidents with his editing of the “Annals”. 5 Lü Buwei was removed to Shu and so the generations pass on his Almanac; Han Feizi was imprisoned in Qin and so we have his “Difficulties of Persuasion” and “Solitary Frustration” – and surely too most of the three hundred odes of the “Book of Songs” were composed by sagely men giving voice to their frustrations.These men all found their aspirations stifled, the paths they sought to travel blocked, and they spoke to future generations by telling the tales of the past. Or in the cases of Zuo Qiu losing his eyes and Sunzi his legs, they had no roles left to play and so they retreated to the world of books to give vent to their frustrations, hoping to hoist themselves into the world’s view through their unsponsored writings.day after day. At home I feel dazed, as though seeking something lost, and abroad I lose track of where I am going. Every time I think of this shame, sweat never fails to spring from my body and drench the clothes on my back. I am fit only to be a lackey guarding the harem, or better yet to hide myself deep within a cliffside cave. And yet for now I follow along with the daily flow as best I can, bending and bowing as circumstances demand, making my way through a world of erratic confusion. /+/

1An instance of the Shang king Zhòu’s many crimes against worthy ministers, leading to the Zhou rebellion Shiji 4). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

2Li Si’s fall from power at the close of the Qin is said to have led to the sentence of “death to the third degree of clan” Shiji 87), a gruesome sentence, entailing the gamut of Qin punishments: tattooing, amputations, flaying, and dismemberment. /+/

3These men were all kings of early Han feudatories, provoked to rebellion by the policies of Liu Bang, whom they or their families had helped to bring to the imperial throne. Han Xin’s biography appears in “Shiji” 92; Peng Yue’s is found in “Shiji” 90; Zhang Ao’s tale appears in the biography of his father, Zhang Er, in “Shiji” 89. /+/

4 Lord Jiang (Zhou Bo) led the high ministers who foiled the Lü family coup attempt in 180 B.C. Shiji 57). /+/

5 The Lord of Weiqi (Dou Ying) was a relative of Empress Dou. He and his close friend, General Guan Fu, were both executed on orders of Wu-di after their enmity towards the emperor’s cousin, the prime minister, became an issue. Shiji 107) Ji Bu was a warrior in the service of Xiang Yu; Liu Bang put a price on his head when the Han was founded and Ji lived in disguise as a slave of the Zhu clan before ultimately receiving a pardon. Shiji 100) 11 These men had all risen to the ranks of kings and lords, generals and prime ministers, and their fame spread from state to state. But once they fell into the nets of the law they lacked the resolution to put an end to themselves – it has always been so, then and now: in such cases, how can disgrace be avoided? From this we can see that valor and cowardice are matters of circumstance, strength and weakness depend on conditions. /+/

Sima Qian, the Historian

Dr. Eno wrote: “The task that Sima Qian undertook in writing a universal history was prodigious. No one had attempted anything like it before. He had to plan the organization of the text and read widely to become fully informed about the outline of the past. But more than that, he had to search out evidence. There existed no catalogue of texts, no libraries, no bibliographies or footnotes. He must have unearthed some of his evidence in the imperial archives. For example, he draws heavily from the Zuozhuan, which was at this time unknown in China. Sima Qian probably unearthed the base texts of the Zuozhuan by searching through the palace archives in Chang’an, where bolts of silk texts and strings of inscribed bamboo strips had long been piled. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“But in addition to reading what was available at the capital, Sima Qian traveled all over China searching for texts, inquiring about local traditions, and journeying to the places where events had occurred so that he could better understand exactly what had transpired. As he collected evidence, Sima Qian carefully sifted it for reliability. In cases where evidence was abundant, he formed judgments concerning the actual course of events and eliminated evidence that appeared to him to be fabricated. In cases where evidence was very scarce, such as in the biography of Laozi, he simply brought together all available traditions, alerted readers as to his own uncertainty, and left the judgment to the future. Sima Qian viewed this sort of judicious skepticism as part of the Confucian tradition, for Confucius himself had, in the “Analects” , praised historians who were willing to put aside what was of doubtful veracity and leave blanks in their accounts rather than perpetuate gossip. /+/

Sima Qin’s Effort to Ascertain “The Truth”


Dr. Eno wrote: “Here we can also ask to what degree Sima Qian may have followed the practices of Confucius in editing the “Spring and Autumn Annals”, as they were understood during the early Han. Confucius, the tradition claimed, had viewed history writing as a means of conveying the Dao rather than as a means of preserving facts. He had actually tampered with the completed annals of the court of Lu, altering the words of the scribes in order to enable the reader to see through the facts to the “Truth.” When the case of the “Monograph on the fengshan Sacrifices” was discussed earlier, we noted that it was possible that its grossly unflattering portrait of Wu-di could have been a product of Sima Qian’s personal resentment. Alternatively, the material could be true, or the chapter could be a later forgery, inserted in the “Shiji” to support latter day court factions opposed to the example of Wu-di. While we cannot determine the answer with certainty, we can note one additional factor which makes it less likely that the “Monograph” was part of an attempt by Sima Qian to model his work on the “Spring and Autumn Annals”. /+/

“One of the features of the “Annals”, once again, as it was understood in the Han, was the surpassing subtlety of its alterations of literal history. The change of a preposition here, the choice of a different form of appellation there – these were the methods that Confucius had supposedly used to embed moral meaning in history. That was why “Annals” studies had generated exegetical schools that fought tooth and nail over the significance of every exclamatory particle in the text. Confucius was writing in times of trouble, when speech was dangerous. He wrote between the lines for the “sages” of the future, a message to utopia from hell. /+/

“The portrait of Wu-di that emerges from the “Monograph” hardly conforms to those criteria, and if Sima Qian were indeed writing history as a form of protest against autocratic tyranny – with which he had profound experience – he would surely have been more careful. And he was careful. Close examination of other chapters in the text does indeed reveal places where Sima Qian, by an apt but unstressed phrase, conveys very pointed judgment of the people and events about which he writes. One example would be the closing remark in his discussion of Wen-di, where he praises as ren Wen-di’s restraint in declining to stage the fengshan sacrifices. What more pointed rebuke of Wu-di’s attitude towards his religious role need there be? The historian’s judgment is plain enough, and the subtlety of the remark resonates with the training that Sima Qian would have received from Dong Zhongshu. /+/

“An example of the ways in which such notions of historiography may have influenced the actual narratives themselves may perhaps be seen in the biographical accounts of Xiang Yu and Liu Bang. Both portraits include many contradictions. Some readers claim that we can read from these Sima Qian’s preference for one or the other of these men, and that would be bias indeed. But perhaps what we see is more subtle again. It is more consistent with the narratives to see Sima Qian as attempting to select evidence that illustrates all aspects of the personalities of these two adversaries without selecting between them, instead marking clearly what is praiseworthy in each and what may be deplored. /+/

“In Sima Qian’s portrait of Liu Bang, for example, we read both about his personal obnoxiousness and also about his modesty and willingness to give credit to others. We see his bravery in denouncing Xiang Yu’s misbehaviors, point by point, to his face, but we also see his matchless cowardice in thrice kicking his own children out of his chariot as he fled from his pursuers after the battle of Pengcheng. What emerges from this is an image of the Han founder that, while perhaps including as much legend as fact, may actually capture the complexity of the man as he was, while allowing the reader to view him through the ethically appraising eye of the historian.

Sima Qian’s Historical Writings


Passage from the Shiji

Sima Qian wrote: "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."

According to Carrie Gracie of the BBC News: “What is special about Sima Qian's history is that, even when he wrote about the court, it was not just flattery. Here is his verdict on an emperor from the Shang dynasty 1,000 years earlier: "Emperor Zhou's disposition was sharp, his discernment was keen, and his physical strength excelled that of other people. He fought ferocious animals with his bare hands. He considered everyone beneath him. He was fond of wine, licentious in pleasure and doted on women… He then ordered his Music Master to compose new licentious music and depraved songs. By a pool filled with wine, through meat hanging like a forest, he made naked men and women chase one another and engage in drinking long into the night." The emperor had critics turned into mincemeat, and nobles who were not up for the party roasted alive. [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 7, 2012 /*\]

“Zhou was a good illustration of a theory Sima Qian had about dynastic change, as Frances Wood, curator of the Chinese collection at the British Library, explains. "He introduced the idea… that dynasties begin with the very virtuous and noble founder, and then they continue through a series of rulers until they come to a bad last ruler, and he is so morally depraved that he is overthrown." No suprises - Zhou was the last of the Shang dynasty. Sima Qian thought the purpose of history was to teach rulers how to govern well.

The Records of the Grand Historian almost didn’t see the light of day and only did after powerful people it might have hurt had passed on. After Sima’s death, his daughter risked her own safety to hide his secret history. And two emperors later, his grandson took another risk in revealing the book's existence. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sima Qian’s Accomplishments as a Historian

Sima Qian wrote: “It has been over twenty years since I assumed the yoke of service to carry forward my father’s merit at court. My own view is this: First, I have not been able to accomplish great things through loyal devotion or great acts of faithfulness, not to earn a reputation for exceptional advice or talent in service to my enlightened lord. Second, I have not been able to make good the court’s lapses or supply its wants, nor to attract worthy men or advance the able, nor to bring to light men of wisdom who have withdrawn to the cliffs and caves. And in foreign service too, I have been unable to win merit by serving in the ranks, attacking cities, or fighting in the field, beheading enemy commanders or capturing their banners. And even in the least of things I have no accomplishments, never rising to high office or salary through years of labor, bringing no glory or favor to family and friends. I have nothing to show in any of these four respects. You can see therefore how I have contributed nothing of value, merely bending to the general will and attempting to give no offense. [Source: “Han shu”67.2725-36 *-*]

“Formerly, when I held the rank of a lower grandee, I would sometimes participate in the minor deliberations of the outer court. But I did not then stand on principle or speak what was on my mind. So if now, as a mutilated slave sweeping the floors, a weed defiling the court, I should with earnest brow raise my head to set forth my views of truth and error, would this not be an insult to the court and to the gentlemen of this age? Oh, alas! What could there be for a man like me to say – what could there be? *-*

“How this all came to be is not easy to explain. As a youth I relied on my untutored abilities and upon coming of age I had earned no recognition from the people of my district. However, on account of my father’s service I was so lucky as to have the emperor call upon me to contribute my shallow talents, allowing me to come and go within the palace precincts. I believed the old saying that one can’t see the sky carrying a platter on one’s head, so I broke off relations with friends and neglected family affairs, day and night devoting the weak force of my talents to my official duties, hoping to gain the confidence and approval of the emperor. But events did not unfold as I had planned. I committed an egregious error. “ *-*

Sima Qian’s Letter to Ren An


Dr. Eno wrote: “Shortly before he died, a personal friend of Sima Qian named Ren An (his polite name was Ren Shaoqing) addressed to him a plea for help. Ren An had been caught up in the early stages of the witchcraft scandal of 91 B.C. and was under indictment for a capital offense. He hoped that Sima Qian would use his influence at court to help him evade the penalty to which he had been sentenced. In reply, Sima Qian wrote Ren An a long letter, explaining why he did not believe he would be able to help, and detailing the history of his own sad encounter with Wu-di’s vengeance. Together with the concluding chapter of the “Shiji”, which Sima Qian devoted to the story of his own life, the letter to Ren An is the earliest piece of sustained autobiographical writing that we possess from China The letter includes a number of extended passages that appear nearly verbatim in Sima Qian’s “Shiji” autobiography, and so it would seem, if our record of it is indeed accurate, that although it was a personal letter to a friend, it was also represents Sima Qian’s reflective effort to portray and justify himself to the world. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Ren An did not manage to evade the consequences of the scandal, and he was executed soon after Sima Qian’s letter was written. Sima Qian himself probably died within the year. The letter that he wrote somehow was conveyed years later to the hands of Ban Gu, the author of the History of the Former Han. Ban Gu, who was himself engaged in emulating Sima Qian’s example of writing a great history, included the entire letter in his biography of Sima Qian. /+/

Sima Qian wrote: The Grand Historian, your servant Sima Qian, bows repeatedly to you, my eminent friend Shaoqing. “Some time ago you deigned to send a letter advising me to take care in my affairs and to devote myself bringing able men to the attention of others and recommending them for office. You conveyed your thoughts with great vigor, as though anticipating that I would not look upon you as a suitable teacher and would instead adopt the advice of some common companions. I would never dare act in such a way. Although merely a worn out workhorse now, yet once I listened by the side of my elders and I bear the legacy of their standards. [Source: “Han shu”67.2725-36 *-*]

“However, I look at myself now, mutilated in body and living in vile disgrace, criticized for my every action, harming whatever I hope aid – I am wracked with melancholy, but with whom can I share my thoughts? And so, I must reply to you with the old saying: “On whose behalf could I stir when my words would never be heard?” After Zhong Ziqi died Boya never again played his zither. Why not? “A man acts in light of a friend who knows his heart, for a woman at her mirror a lover inspires her art.” As for me, I am merely a man of damaged substance. Though my mettle were like the pearl of Sui and the jade of Bian He 1 or my conduct like Xu You or Bo Yi,2 there can be no glory for me, I would only be laughed at and covered in shame. *-*

“What you wrote in your letter deserved a reply, but it arrived just as I was returning east to the capital in the retinue of the emperor. I became preoccupied with trivial affairs and, as I seldom ran into you, in the press of events there never seemed to be a moment when I could unburden myself of what I truly wished to say to you. And now you, Shaoqing, have fallen under an unthinkable sentence. The weeks and month have passed, winter is upon us, and I must soon leave to accompany the emperor to Yong. I fear that the unspeakable will soon come to pass and I shall never have the chance to express my anguish and explain myself to you, my friend.4 If that came to pass, then when its time came my departed soul would forever bear a solitary anguish. I beg your leave to lay out my worthless thoughts, and pray that you will be kind enough to forgive me for my long failure to answer you. *-*

“I have heard it said that self-cultivation is the mark of wisdom, a love of sharing the font of humanity (ren), an exemplary pattern of taking and giving the measure of righteousness, a response of shame to any disgrace the index of bravery, and the goal of establishing an enduring reputation the ultimate model of conduct. Only if a gentleman possesses all five will he earn the trust of his generation and be ranked among the junzi of the world. But nothing is so disastrous to a man as a lust for profit, no sadness is so painful as a wounded heart, no conduct is so shameful as disgracing one’s forebears, and among defilements, none is so great as castration. Any man who continues to live having suffered such a punishment is accounted as nothing. It is not just this age that has held this to be so, this has been the view since the distant past. Formerly Duke Ling of Wei rode in the same carriage as the eunuch Yongqu, Confucius departed Wei and moved to Chen. Shang Yang sought an audience in Qin by relying on the eunuch Jing and Zhao Liang’s heart turned cold towards him. When Tongzi sat beside Emperor Wu in his carriage, Yuan Si blushed.Since ancient times eunuchs have occasioned shame. Even a man of middling abilities is invariably ill at ease when his affairs bring him into contact with a eunuch. How much more this is true of gentlemen of noble spirit! Though the court today may lack talented men, how could you ask a remnant from the knife’s blade to stand as sponsor for men of outstanding valor? *-*

“Now, Shaoqing, you urge me to recommend worthy men for advancement. How far this lies from what I feel in my heart. Even if I tried to embellish my figure with erudite phrasing and pleasing words it would be useless in the face of my discredit in the eyes of society, an invitation to further disgrace. The fact is that I can only hope to be justly viewed after I am dead. In this letter I have not been able fully to convey what is in my mind, but I have tried to lay forth a crude outline, ill expressed as it has been. “With deep respect, I bow to you. *-*

1 Two Warring States era legends. The Marquis of Sui rescued a wounded snake that turned out to be a spirit and rewarded him with a jade; Bian He’s jade in the rough was rejected by two rulers of Chu who ordered Bian He’s feet amputated as punishment for his presumption; a third ruler, moved by his pleas, discovered the jade’s beauty. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

2 The “Zhuangzi”tells of the sage Xu You, who declined Yao’s offer of the throne; Bo Yi and his brother Shu Qi starved rather than serve as subjects of the Zhou, whose conquest of the Shang they saw as immoral Shiji 61). /+/

Interpretations of History in China


The West has traditionally look upon history in terms of material progress---from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, for example---while the Chinese have traditionally emphasized history's continuity, especially in terms of the Chinese remaining Chinese through all of history's changes and upheavals. Confucianism, the Imperial system, the Chinese written language are all credited with helping China maintain its Chineseness.

History promulgated today by the Communist Party is molded to fit the four main stages of the Marxist concept of social development: 1) primitive society; 2) slave society; 3) feudal society; and 4) semi-feudal/ semi-colonial society.

Many towns and even villages have local, amateur historians. Often they are quite knowledgeable and have researched their topics of expertise quite thoroughly even though their education never advanced beyond the sixth grade.

The Chinese are great practitioners of revisionist history, especially today. Historians and textbooks make a point of highlighting the atrocities and injustices committed against the Chinese by the West but brush over atrocities and injustices committed by Chinese against others, such as their invasions of India and Tibet, and have made nationalistic claims such as that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, founded in northern Korea, was Chinese not Korean.

Chinese and Marxist View of Chinese History

According to The Economist: China’s leaders are immensely proud of their country’s ancient origins. President Xi Jinping peppers his speeches with references to China’s “5,000 years of history”. The problem is that archaeological evidence of a political entity in China going back that far is scant. There is some, including engravings on animal bones, that shows the second dynasty, the Shang, really did control an area in the Yellow river basin about 3,500 years ago. But no such confirmation exists for the legendary first ruling house, the Xia. Even inside China, some historians have long suspected that the country’s founding story—in which Emperor Yu tames flooding on the Yellow river (with the help of a magic black-shelled turtle, pictured), earns for himself the “mandate of heaven” and establishes the first dynasty—was either a Noah’s-Ark flood-myth or perhaps propaganda invented later to justify centralised state power. [Source: The Economist, Aug 20th 2016]

Marxist historians both in China and outside it have shaped our current understanding of not only the Communist-Mao era but the entire expanse of Chinese history. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Marxist historians (of whom there have been not a few in the People’s Republic of China) view all phenomena of human culture as indirect reflections of the underlying economic structures governing production. For Karl Marx, who lived during the time of the Industrial Revolution’s greatest impact, the nature of production methods and the way in which the means of production (land, tools, liquid capital) were distributed in a given society determined all other phenomena: laws, literature, imagination. Marx’s theories have not only influenced the way ancient history has been studied in China, but also studies of ancient China in Japan. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Even if we do not follow Marx’s ideas, we benefit greatly from the types of economic history that Marxist-oriented East Asian scholars have pursued (and not just East Asians – the late Joseph Needham... was likewise influenced by Marxism in his choice of specialization). In many respects, it is they who have uncovered the truly revolutionary nature of social change in ancient China. We may not agree that the means of production and their ownership are the ultimate determinants of all social phenomena, but it is unquestionably true that they are critically important, and that no historical account can afford to ignore them.” /+/

Recording History in China

The Chinese method of chronicling history was established in the second century B.C. and was practiced until the end of the imperial period in 1911. Early Chinese histories such as The Era of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms were essentially lists. Records of what happened more than 2,000 years ago were often written a considerable length of time after the events they describe and were based as much on legends as facts.

The traditional recorded history of China before the establishment of the Chou dynasty in 1122 B.C. is almost entirely legendary. Empirical evidence is based on archeological information from the Shang dynasty and other periods.

Each dynasty complied the history of the previous dynasty and established special imperial offices in charge of storing and compiling historical documents. These offices included the Grand Council Archives, the Palace Archives, the Grand Secretariat Archives and the Historiography Office Archives.

Chinese history is often lacking in analysis and criticism and offers few insights other than what is recorded. "Chinese civilization," wrote Boorstin, "suffered from its antiquity, its precocity and its continuity. The greatness of ancient models, the unbroken series of records, and the early effectiveness of central government all reinforced reverence for ancestors and stifled efforts to look at unauthorized vistas of the past or to speculate on what might have been." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Sima Qian (145 B.C.-?) is regarded as China's greatest historian. His Records of the Historian contains 520,000 characters and is regarded as the greatest historical work in China. Qian professed an "undying loyalty to the crown" even though he was castrated for "defaming the Emperor" after he wrote a letter in defense of a general who was criticized for losing a battle. Spared from execution because his skills were considered too valuable, Ch'ien wrote a chronological history divided up into five sections: 1) Basic Annals on Important Rulers; 2) Chronological Tables; 3) Treatises on Political Economic, Social and Cultural Themes; 4) Hereditary Houses; and 5) Biographies of Important Men Who Were Not Rulers.

Asked for his views on the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai famously replied that it was too early to say.

Great Western Sinologists

Joseph Needham, a British biologist-turned-sinologist who spent forty years compiling an encyclopedic account of Chinese science. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “One of the most significant scholarly enterprises in the field of Chinese studies has been the series, Science and Civilization in China, which was begun in the early 1950s by the British biologist and sinologist Joseph Needham. The series was written or supervised by Needham until his death in 1995, and volumes continue to be published as of this writing. Aiming at completeness rather than brevity and often very technical, the works in this series are the most authoritative sources for issues of Chinese science and technology in all traditional periods.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Henri Maspero is author of China in Antiquity (1927; published in English translation by Frank Kierman, 1978). Maspero, who died in 1945 at the Buchenwald concentration camp towards the end of World War II, was among the greatest scholars of ancient China in the early twentieth century, trained in the academies of French Indo-China. His approach represents the viewpoint of the great French school of sinologists (scholars of China), which dominated Western understanding of China until the period after World War II (and which continues to produce excellent scholarship of many different styles today). /+/

Geremie R. Barmé is a professor of Chinese history and founding director of the Australian Center on China in the World at the Australian National University. Among his books are “China Story Yearbook 2014: Shared Destiny,” a collection of essays on China under President Xi Jinping. Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Barmé began his career in 1972 studying Chinese at the Australian National University. In 1974, at the age of 20, he went to China to continue his studies, moving from Beijing to Shenyang and Shanghai. As the Cultural Revolution wound down, he did a stint picking apples in northeastern China and observed the collapse of Maoism. From 1978 to 1991, he wrote for Chinese-language newspapers in Hong Kong. He has been based at Australian National University since 1989, with diversions into making films, writing books and even offering suggestions for speeches on China by Australian prime ministers.” [Source: Jane Perlez, Sinosphere, New York Times,, November 8, 2015 *^*]

Loss of Historic Sites in China

A government survey released in 2009 found that 23,600 registered relics had disappeared in recent years because of theft or illicit sales, while tens of thousands of culturally significant sites had been plowed under for development. Important Han, Tang, Song and Yuan-era sites include Cao Wei - Northern Qi city at Yecheng, the Tang - Song city at Yangzhou, and the Southern Song city of Linan. There has been excavations of several imperial mausoleums and cemeteries and a number of porcelain kilns. The survey and excavation of the Han and Tang capital cities, Changan and Luoyang, and the Yuan Dynasty capital, Dadu , which have allowed archaeologists to study the evolving principles of urban design across successive dynasties.

"Aggressive development in China has swallowed up tens of thousands of historic sites in the last three decades. Officials from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) told the Guardian the damage caused over the last 20 years was worse than during the Cultural Revolution. Swaths of Beijing's historic courtyard homes have fallen to the wrecking ball in just the last decade. The old town in Dinghai, Zhejiang, has been almost completely destroyed. The Shanghai family home of the famed architect IM Pei, supposedly protected by the city, has gone. In some cases such as Qianmen, a centuries-old shopping street in the capital historic buildings have been replaced with ersatz versions. In others, sites have vanished entirely. Last month there were reports that illegal mining in Inner Mongolia had destroyed a section of the Great Wall. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, December 14, 2009]

'shan Jixiang, director of SACH, said it had examined more than 775,000 sites. Some 30,995 of the items on a 1982 list have vanished. "As our country's economy developed, major irrigation and high-speed electricity projects started construction. Urbanization sped up and newvillage [building] projects were carried out. Though the cultural heritagedepartments at all levels [of government] have tried hard to protect sites, they still could not avoid the disappearance of some," the administration said in a statement. "Major natural disasters like earthquakes and floods have also resulted in the disappearance of many cultural heritage sites, while illegal activitiesand crimes like tomb-robbing destroyed some as well." [Ibid]

"Liu Xiaohe, deputy director of the survey, told the state newspaper China Daily that officials were doing all they could to preserve as much as possible. He pointed out that in one case China spent 300m yuan (£26.5m) to relocate Sichuan's 1,700-year-old Zhangfei temple when the Three Gorges dam was built, rather than see it destroyed.But he added: "We have about 800,000 historical sites in China, but only 80,000 people are working for relics protection. Places like the Palace Museum [better known to foreigners as The Forbidden City] take up more than 2,000 of them, which means some places have no one to take care of them. What we can do now is try our best to protect the significant sites, likethe Summer Palace, while for those less important sites I am afraid they should give way to economic development." [Ibid]

"The last 20 years have been the worst time for cultural heritage site protection with the rapid development," he said. "It is even worse than in the Cultural Revolution then, most damage was to movable items, but not to ancient tombs or buildings or old towns. For example, many ancient tombs have been robbed and in the [redevelopment] of old towns many old buildings have been demolished. Beijing used to have 25 protection areas and I believe only half of them are still well protected now." [Ibid]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.