Sima Qian

Sima Qian (ca. 145 or 135 BC – 86 BC) (pinyin: Sīmǎ Qiān; Wade–Giles: Ssu-ma Ch'ien) was a Prefect of the Grand Scribes (太史公 taishigong) of the han dynasty. He is regarded as the father of Chinese historiography for his highly praised work, Records of the Grand Historian, a "Jizhuanti"-style general history of China, covering more than two thousand years from the Yellow Emperor to Emperor Wu of Han. His definitive work laid the foundation for later Chinese historiography.

Early life and education

Sima Qian was born and grew up in Longmen, near present-day Hancheng to a family of astrologers. His father, Sima Tan, served as the Prefect of the Grand Scribes of Emperor Wu of Han (Emperor "Han Wudi"). His main responsibilities were managing the imperial library and maintaining or reforming the calendar. Due to intensive training by his father, by the age of ten, Sima Qian was already well versed in old writings. He was a student of the famous Confucians Kong Anguo (孔安國) and Dong Zhongshu. At the age of twenty, with the support of his father, Sima Qian started a journey throughout the country, collecting useful first-hand historical records for his main work, Shiji. The purpose of his journey was to verify the ancient rumors and legends and to visit ancient monuments, including the renowned graves of the ancient sage kings Yu and Shun. Places he visited include Shandong , Yunnan , Hebei , Zhejiang , Jiangsu , Jiangxi , and Hunan .

After his travels, Sima was chosen to be a Palace Attendant in the government, whose duties were to inspect different parts of the country with Emperor Han Wudi. In 110 BC, at the age of thirty-five, Sima Qian was sent westward on a military expedition against some "barbarian" tribes. That year, his father fell ill and could not attend the Imperial Feng Sacrifice. Suspecting his time was running out, he summoned his son back home to complete the historical work he had begun. Sima Tan wanted to follow the Annals of Spring and Autumn - the first chronicle in the history of Chinese literature. Fueled by his father's inspiration, Sima Qian started to compile Shiji in 109 BC. In 105 BC, Sima was among the scholars chosen to reform the calendar. As a senior imperial official, Sima was also in the position to offer counsel to the emperor on general affairs of state.

99 BC, Sima Qian became embroiled in the Li Ling affair, where Li Ling and Li Guangli (李廣利), two military officers who led a campaign against the Xiongnu in the north, were defeated and taken captive. Emperor Han Wudi attributed the defeat to Li Ling, with all government officials subsequently condemning him for it. Sima was the only person to defend Li Ling, who had never been his friend but whom he respected. Emperor Han Wudi interpreted Sima's defence of Li Ling as an attack on his brother-in-law, who had also fought against the Xiongnu without much success, and sentenced Sima to death. At that time, execution could be commuted either by money or castration. Since Sima did not have enough money to atone his "crime", he chose the latter and was then thrown into prison, where he endured three years. He described his pain thus: "When you see the jailer you abjectly touch the ground with your forehead. At the mere sight of his underlings you are seized with terror... Such ignominy can never be wiped away."

In 96 BC, on his release from prison, Sima chose to live on as a palace eunuch to complete his histories, rather than commit suicide as was expected of a gentleman-scholar. As Sima Qian himself explained in his Letter to Ren'an:

The losses he [Li Ling] had formerly inflicted on the enemy were such that his renown filled the Empire! After his disgrace, I was ordered to give my opinion. I extolled his merits, hoping the Emperor would take a wider view, but the end it was decided I was guilty of trying to mislead the Emperor...

I had not the funds to pay a fine in lieu of my punishment, and my colleagues and associates spoke not a word in my behalf. Had I chosen suicide, no one would have credited me with dying for a principle. Rather, they would have thought the severity of my offense allowed no other way out. It was my obligation to my father to finish his historical work that made me submit to the knife...If I had done otherwise , how could I have ever had the face to visit the graves of my parents?

...There is no defilement so great as castration. One who has undergone this punishment is nowhere counted as a man. This is not just a modern attitude; it has always been so. Even an ordinary fellow is offended when he has to do business with a eunuch -- how much more so, then, a gentleman! Would it not be an insult to the court and my former colleagues if now I, a menial who sweeps floors, a mutilated wretch, should raise my head and stretch my eyebrows to argue right and wrong?

I am fit now for only guarding the palace women's apartments. I can hope for justification only after my death, when my histories become known to the world.


Although the style and form of Chinese historical writings varied through the ages, Shiji has defined the quality and style from then onwards. Before Sima, histories were written as certain events or certain periods of history of states; his idea of a general history affected later historiographers like Zheng Qiao (鄭樵) in writing Tongshi (通史) and Sima Guang (司馬光) in writing Zizhi Tongjian (資治通鑑). The Chinese historical form of dynasty history, or Jizhuanti history of dynasties, was codified in the second dynastic history by Ban Gu's (班固) History of Han (漢書), but historians regard Sima's work as their model, which stands as the "official format" of the history of China.

In writing Shiji, Sima initiated a new writing style by presenting history in a series of biographies. His work extends over 130 chapters — not in historical sequence, but divided into particular subjects, including annals, chronicles, and treatises — on music, ceremonies, calendars, religion, economics, and extended biographies. Sima's influence on the writing style of other histories outside, such as the Goryeo (Korean) history the Samguk sagi (三國史記).

Sima adopted a new method in sorting out the historical data and a new approach to writing historical records. He analyzed the records and sorted out those that could serve the purpose of Shiji. He intended to discover the patterns and principles of the development of human history. Sima also emphasised, for the first time in Chinese history, the role of individual men in affecting the historical development of China. In addition, he also proposed his historical perception that a country cannot escape from the fate of the boom and bust cycle.

Unlike Hanshu, which was written under the supervision of the Imperial Dynasty, Shiji was a privately written history. Although Sima was the Prefect of the Grand Scribes in the Han government, he refused to write Shiji as an official history covering only those of high rank. The work also covers people of the lower classes and is therefore considered a "veritable record" of the darker side of the dynasty.

Literary figure

Sima's Shiji is respected as a model of biographical literature with high literary value and still stands as a "textbook" for the study of classical Chinese. Sima's works were influential to Chinese writing, serving as ideal models for various types of prose within the neo-classical ("renaissance" 復古) movement of the Tang-Song (唐宋) period. The great use of characterisation and plotting also influenced fiction writing, including the classical short stories of the middle and late medieval period (Tang-Ming) as well as the vernacular novel of the late imperial period.

His influence was derived primarily from the following elements of his writing: his skillful depiction of historical characters using details of their speech, conversations, and actions; his innovative use of informal, humorous, and varied language (even Lu Xun (魯迅) regarded Shiji as "the historians' most perfect song, a "Li Sao" without the rhyme" (史家之絕唱,無韻之離騷) in his Hanwenxueshi Gangyao (《漢文學史綱要》); and the simplicity and conciseness of his style.

Other literary works

Sima's famous letter to his friend Ren An about his sufferings during the Li Ling Affair and his perseverance in writing Shiji is today regarded as a highly admired example of literary prose style, studied widely in China even today.

Sima Qian wrote eight rhapsodies (Fu 賦), which are listed in the bibliographic treatise Hanshu. All but one, the "Rhapsody in Lament for Gentleman who do not Meet their Time" (士不遇賦) have been lost, and even the surviving example is probably not complete.

Last update 02-06-2012

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