Sima Qian Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Chinese historian{$I[g]China;Sima Qian} Sima Qian wrote the first major history of China, 130 chapters covering the major events and people in China from the reign of the legendary Yellow Emperor to the late first century b.c.e.

Early Life

Nearly all information concerning the life of Sima Qian (soo-mah chee-yen) comes from his lifework, the Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960). This comprehensive history of China from antiquity to Sima Qian’s lifetime has been partially translated in a number of editions but is commonly referred to by its original title. In this work, as was customary, Sima Qian traced his genealogy to legendary figures of high station and high repute. In the mid-ninth century b.c.e., the family suffered a loss of position and became known by the name Sima. In about 140 b.c.e., his father, Sima Tan (Ssu-ma T’an), had been appointed the Grand Historian of the court of Emperor Wudi (Wu Ti; r. 141-87 b.c.e.). Since before his son’s birth, Sima Tan had been collecting materials to write a major historical work. On his deathbed, he charged his son with completion of the history.

Little is known of Sima Qian’s specific training for this task. His father served as court astrologer and historian, and his family apparently earned a living farming and keeping livestock in the hills south of the Huang River. Sima Qian’s early education purportedly consisted of village schooling, which was continued after his father had been appointed to serve in the court. By his tenth year, Sima Qian reportedly was reading old texts.

Between his boyhood and his twentieth year, Sima Qian traveled extensively. He reported going south to the Yangtze and the Huai Rivers. He climbed Huiji, where the mythical emperor Yu, a great cultural hero who had saved humankind and Earth from flooding, supposedly had died, and searched for a fabled cave atop the mountain. He saw the famed Nine Peaks, where the legendary emperor Shun, whose reign had brought humankind unmatchable happiness, was interred, and then sailed down the Yuan and Xiang Rivers. Farther north, he crossed the Wen and the Si Rivers. He traveled onward to study in Lu, the home state of the philosopher Confucius, and in Qi (Ch’i), the home state of Confucian philosopher Mencius. He also participated in an archery contest at a famed mountain near Confucius’s home and encountered local toughs in Xue and Pengcheng. After passing through Liang and Chu (Ch’u), he returned home to Longmen probably around 122 b.c.e.

There, his father’s influence, careful training, and good grades brought him into government service as a langzhong, a traveling court attendant. In this capacity, he wrote of having participated in imperial expeditions as well as many other journeys, which made him one of the most widely traveled men of his era.

The event critical to his career occurred in 110 b.c.e., as Emperor Wudi prepared for the sacred Feng sacrifice, symbolic of the divine election of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.). Having already reported to the authorities in Chang-an (now Xi’an) on his recent mission, Sima Qian traveled eastward to join the emperor at Luoyang. On his way, he saw his dying father, who asked him to succeed him as Grand Historian. Sima Qian had a family, although nothing is known of his wife, and only brief mention is made of a daughter.

Life’s Work

What had begun as the private initiative of Sima Tan became in the hands of his son and successor one of the acknowledged masterworks of historical writing. Creation of most of the 130-chapter Shiji absorbed Sima Qian for twenty years, almost until his death. In carrying out the spirit of his father’s injunction, however, he produced a history that was not only monumental but also unique in the implementation of its creative perceptions. Previous “histories” had consisted essentially of genealogical records, bland chronicles of a single regime, mere cautionary tales, essays propagandizing current political morality, or work dedicated to individual or institutional glorification.

Contrary to these precedents, Sima Qian sought to depict, as far as his sources allowed, the entire past of the Chinese people—basically a universal history, but one that fortunately illuminated the presence of many non-Chinese of whom no written record would otherwise have existed. His purpose was to record what had happened with judicious objectivity. Although the assumption of objectivity was not novel in Sima Qian’s day (objectivity had been the goal of previous chroniclers, his father included), the degree of objectivity with which Sima Qian wrote, together with the chronological span and geopolitical range of his study, was unparalleled.

The Shiji is organized into five extensive sections. The “Basic Annals” are composed of a dozen chapters relating the histories of early dynastic families—back to the mythic Yellow Emperor, whose reign is said to have begun in 2697 b.c.e.—and the lives of individual Han emperors. Ten “Chronological Tables,”...

(The entire section is 2124 words.)