Records of the Grand Historian

The Records of the Grand Historian, also known by its Chinese name Shiji (Chinese: 史記; pinyin: Shǐjì; literally "Historical Records"), written from 109 to 91 BC, was the magnum opus of Sima Qian, in which he recounted Chinese history from the time of the Yellow Emperor until his own time. (The Yellow Emperor, traditionally dated around 2600 BC, is the first ruler whom Sima Qian considered sufficiently established as historical to appear in the Records. )


12 volumes of Benji (本紀) or "Imperial Biographies", contain the biographies of all prominent rulers from the Yellow Emperor to Qin Shi Huang and the kings of Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. The biographies of four emperors and one empress dowager of the Western Han Dynasty before his time are also included. In addition, though Xiang Yu never actually ruled all the country, his biography was contained in this class.

10 volumes of Biao (表) or "Tables", are timelines of events.

8 volumes of Shu (書) or "Treatises", of economics and other topics of the time.

30 volumes of Shijia (世家) or "Biographies of the Feudal Houses and Eminent Persons", contain biographies of notable rulers, nobility and bureaucrats mostly from the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods.

70 volumes of Liezhuan (列傳) or "Biographies and Collective Biographies", contain biographies of important individual figures including Laozi, Mozi, Sun Tzu, and Jing Ke.


Unlike subsequent official historical texts that adopted Confucian doctrine, proclaimed the divine rights of the emperors, and degraded any failed claimant to the throne, Sima Qian's more liberal and objective prose has been renowned and followed by poets and novelists. Most volumes of Liezhuan are vivid descriptions of events and persons. This has been attributed to the belief that the author critically used stories passed on from antiquity as part of his sources, balancing reliability and accuracy of the records.

For instance, the material on Jing Ke's attempt at assassinating the first emperor of China was allegedly an eye-witness story passed on by the great-grandfather of his father's friend, who served as a low-ranking bureaucrat at court of Qin and happened to be attending the diplomatic ceremony for Jing Ke. It has been observed that the diplomatic Sima Qian has a way of accentuating the positive in his treatment of rulers in the Basic Annals, but slipping negative information into other chapters, and so his work must be read as a whole to obtain full information. There are also discrepancies of fact between various portions of the work, probably reflecting Sima Qian's use of different source texts.

Source materials

Sima's family were hereditary historians to the Han emperor. Sima Qian's father Sima Tan served as Grand Historian, and Sima Qian succeeded to his position. Thus he had access to the early Han dynasty archives, edicts, and records. Sima Qian was a methodical, skeptical historian who had access to ancient books, written on bamboo and wooden slips, from before the time of the Han Dynasty. Many of the sources he used did not survive. He not only used archives and imperial records, but also interviewed people and traveled around China to verify information. For example, he writes he "heard" that Xiang Yu and the ancient ruler Shun both had double pupils in one eye. In his first chapter, "Annals of the Five Emperors," he writes, "I went west as far as Mount Kong and Mount Dong [in Gansu ], north as far as Zhuolu [in Hebei ], east gradually to the sea, south to the Yangzi and the Huai. "

In his 13th chapter, "Genealogical Table of the Three Ages," Sima Qian writes, "I have read all the genealogies of the kings (dieji 谍记) that exist since the time of the Yellow Emperor. " In his 14th chapter, "Yearly Chronicle of the Feudal Lords", he writes, "I have read all the royal annals (chunqiu li pudie 春秋曆譜諜) up until the time of King Li of Zhou. "

The Grand Historian used The Annals of the Five Emperors (五帝系諜) and the Classic of History as source materials to make genealogies from the time of the Yellow Emperor until that of the Gonghe regency (841-2 BC). Sima Qian often cites his sources. For example, in the first chapter, "Annals of the Five Emperors," he writes, "I have read the Spring and Autumn Annals and the Guoyu. " In his 15th chapter, "Yearly Chronicle of the Six States," he writes, "I have read the Annals of Qin (qin ji 秦記), and they say that the Quanrong [a barbarian tribe]defeated King You of Zhou [ca 771 BC]. " In his 18th chapter, Sima Qian writes, "When I read the records of the distinguished followers of Gaozu who were enfeoffed as marquises, and observe the reasons for which their descendants were deprived of the fiefs of their fathers. . . . " and later in the same chapter, "I have set down only what is certain, and in doubtful cases left a blank. "

In the 19th chapter, he writes, "I have occasion to read over the records of enfeoffment and come to the case of Wu Qian, the marquis of Bian. . . . " (The father of Marquis Bian, Wu Rui, was named king (wang) of Changsha in Hunan for his loyalty to Gaozu. See article on Zhao Tuo). In his chapter on the patriotic minister and poet Qu Yuan, Sima Qian writes, "I have read [Qu Yuan's works]Li Sao, Tianwen ("Heaven Asking"), Zhaohun (summoning the soul), and Ai Ying (Lament for Ying)".

In the 62nd chapter, "Biography of Guan and of Yan", he writes, "I have read Guan's Mu Min (牧民 - "Government of the People", a chapter in the Guanzi), Shan Gao ("The Mountains Are High"), Chengma (chariot and horses; a long section on war and economics), Qingzhong (Light and Heavy; i. e. "what is important"), and Jiufu (Nine Houses), as well as the Spring and Autumn Annals of Yanzi. " In his 64th chapter, "Biography of Sima Rangju", the Grand Historian writes, "I have read Sima's Art of War. " In the 121st chapter, "Biographies of Scholars", he writes, "I read the Imperial Decrees that encouraged education officials. "


Joseph Needham wrote in 1954 that there were many scholars who doubted that Sima's Records of the Grand Historian contained accurate information about such distant history as the thirty kings of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–c. 1050 BC). While some scholars argued that Sima could not possibly have had access to written materials which detailed history a millennium before his age, Needham has another conclusion. The discovery of oracle bones at an excavation of the Shang Dynasty capital at Anyang (Yinxu) matched twenty-three of the thirty Shang kings that Sima listed. [vague]Needham writes that this remarkable archaeological find proves that Sima Qian "did have fairly reliable materials at his disposal—a fact which underlines once more the deep historical-mindedness of the Chinese. "



Benji (本紀, annals), 12 volumes. Royal biographies in strict annalistic form that offer an overview of the most important events, especially from the time of the Zhou dynasty to that of the emperor of the Han dynasty.

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Biao (表, tables), 10 tables: overview of the reigns of the successive lords of the feudal states from the time of the Zhou dynasty till that of the early Han. At the same time the most important events of their reigns are mentioned.

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Shu (書, treatises), 8 volumes. Each treatise describes an area of state interest.

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Shijia (世家, genealogies), 30 volumes. Descriptions in chronicle form of the events of the states from the time of the Zhou Dynasty until the early Han Dynasty and of eminent people.

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Liezhuan (列傳, exemplary lives, often called biographies), 70 volumes. Biographies of important people. The biographies are limited to the description of the events that show the exemplary character of the subject, but in the Shiji is often supplemented with legends. One biography can treat two or more people if they are considered to belong to the same type. The last biographies describe the relations between the Chinese and the neighboring peoples.

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The last important section features an afterword that includes an autobiography by Sima Qian. He explains in it why and under what circumstances he wrote the Shiji.

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The earliest extant copy of Records of the Grand Historian, handwritten, was made during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (420 – 589 AD). The earliest printed edition, called Shiji jijie (史記集解, literally Records of the Grand Historian, Collected Annotations), was published during the Northern Song Dynasty. Huang Shanfu's edition, printed under the Southern Song dynasty, is the earliest collection of the Sanjiazhu commentaries on Records of the Grand Historian (三家注, literally: The Combined Annotations of the Three Experts).

In modern times, the Zhonghua Book Company (simp. 中华书局 trad. 中華書局) in Beijing has published the book in both simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese editions. The 1959 (2nd ed. , 1982) Sanjiazhu edition (based upon the Jinling Publishing House edition, vide infra) contains commentaries interspersed among the main text and is considered to be an authoritative modern edition.

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Last update 18-06-2012

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