Sima Qian Essay - Critical Essays

Sima Qian


Sima Qian 135/45? b.c.-c. 87/89? b.c.

(Name also transliterated as Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Ssuma Ch'ien, and Symaa Chian) Chinese historian.

Qian wrote the master work Shih chi (90 b.c.; Records of the Grand Historian), the first comprehensive Chinese history. He is acclaimed not only as China's premier historian but also for his personal courage in completing the Shih chi under difficult circumstances. As the author of what would serve as the model for all subsequent Chinese histories, Qian exercised enormous influence. Although archaeological finds have supported many of his accounts, Qian is considered by some critics to have transcended the role of annalist and to have become instead an interpreter of history along Confucian lines and a seeker of profound moral truth.

Biographical Information

Most of what is known of Qian's life is from the final, long section of Shih chi. He was born in 145 b.c. (or, possibly, 135 b.c.) in Longmen, a rural, mountainous region near what is now Hancheng. Qian's family had for generations been in charge of the historical records of Chou. His father, Sima Tan, held the position of Grand Astrologer, a role that included keeping daily records of activities connected with the emperor and the state in the Han capital of Ch'ang-an. Tan saw to it that his son traveled extensively and was educated in the classics by the finest masters. Qian began his government service at age twenty under Emperor Wu (reigned 140 b.c.-87 b.c.), accompanying him on many trips that he later recounted in his historical writings. In 110 b.c., Tan, on his deathbed, beseeched Qian to carry on the work that he had only begun: the creation of a complete Chinese history, a feat that would make a name for Qian and hence serve to glorify his father and mother through the ages. In 107 b.c., Qian succeeded Tan as the Han court's official historian. His duties also included work on the recalculation of the solar calendar. In 99 b.c. General Li Ling was defeated and captured in battle. Qian defended the general and was promptly charged with defaming the Emperor. Qian was granted the option of choosing suicide or castration. He chose the latter because he had not yet finished writing the Shih chi. After years of psychological and physical agony he finished the work that fulfilled his pledge to his father. The circumstances of Qian's death are unknown and numerous dates for it have been proposed. His tomb, complete with his personal effects, is located near his birthplace.

Major Works

Although Qian is sometimes credited with writing other works, his fame rests on his unparalleled history, Shih chi, which consists of more than a half million characters in 130 chapters divided into five sections. The first section consists of twelve Basic Annals that describe day-to-day accounts of rulers; the second section consists of ten chapters of Chronological Tables detailing the positions held by imperial family members and the dates of various events; the third section, Records, is eight essays or treatises on assorted topics including rites and sacrifices, music, the calendar and astronomy, commerce and economics, the management of canals and drainage, and literature; the fourth, Noble Families, is a history of the feudal families; the fifth, Biographies, is largely devoted to the lives of great men and their principles. The Shih chi covers the entire history of China from its beginnings with the semimythical Yellow Emperor, who is said to have ruled from 2697 b.c. to 2597 b.c., to Qian's own time. Qian had full access to the imperial library and quoted verbatim from many manuscripts and documents that would now otherwise be lost.

Critical Reception

Qian is revered by many Chinese as both a great historian and a hero and scholars credit him with deeply influencing how the Chinese view themselves. He is praised for having attempted to discover the essence of men and events and how they pertain to the natural order. Grant Hardy contends that Qian's innovative use of multiple narrations and multiple interpretations may actually reflect the truth better than traditional historical writing. Burton Watson discusses the ideals of Chinese history as presented by Qian, while Wai-Yee Li examines Qian's views on moral authority and its relation to human personality. Maintaining moral order was of such importance to Qian, according to Alvin P. Cohen, that the historian resorted to using ghosts in some of his accounts in order to demonstrate that justice ultimately prevails. Scholars note that one of Qian's major influences was Confucius; William G. Boltz explores some of Qian's other influences and his method of incorporating disparate sources. William H. Nienhauser Jr. looks at the portion of the Shih chi termed the Biographies of the Reasonable Officials. Stephen W. Durrant focuses on the most popular section of the Shih chi—Qian's autobiographical writings and his reasoned explanation of his decision to accept castration without rancor.

Principal Works

Shih chi [Records of the Grand Historian] (history) 90 b.c.

Records of the Historian: Chapters from the Shih Chi of Ssu-ma Ch'ien (translated by Burton Watson) 1970

Records of the Grand Historian (translated by Burton Watson) 1993

Selection from Records of the Historian (translated by Hsien-yi Yang and Gladys Yang) 2002


Burton Watson (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: Watson, Burton. “The World of Ssu-ma Ch'ien.” In Ssu-ma Ch'ien: Grand Historian of China, pp. 3-39. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

[In the following essay, Watson outlines some general features of Chinese historical writings and explores the areas that were of greatest concern to Qian.]

Before proceeding to any detailed discussion of the life and thought of Ssu-ma Ch'ien, it is well to relate something of the age in which he lived and wrote and, since he was an historian, of the past of China as he conceived it. Therefore, I shall try to describe briefly the scope of his history of China, the Shih chi, or Records of the Historian,1 and some of the main ideas which dominate it. This is no place to attempt a condensation of the vast and complicated picture of the first two thousand years of Chinese history presented in the Shih chi; any such forced epitome would almost certainly be distorted and meaningless. I shall concentrate rather upon the ideals and tempers which in the eyes of the Chinese themselves characterized the various eras of their early history. My source for this description is mainly the Shih chi itself, for it is Ssu-ma Ch'ien's own view of the Chinese past which will be most pertinent to the discussions that follow. This view will be supplemented by a consideration of Ssu-ma Ch'ien's own age and that of his famous successor, the historian Pan Ku.

I have referred to the Shih chi as a history of China, which for practical purposes it is. Yet the fact is that Ssu-ma Ch'ien wrote a history of the world. Most of his space he devoted to the history of the area known to us as China, for the reason that this was, to him, the center of the world, the highest point of human advancement and culture, and the area about which he knew most. But he extended his examination in all directions, including in his book accounts of the area now known as Korea, the lands of south-east Asia, and those to the west and north of China. In other words, he seems to have taken care to describe, in as much detail as possible, all the lands outside the borders of China of which he had any reliable knowledge. The fact that he says nothing, for instance, of Japan in the east or Europe in the west, is almost certainly due not to a lack of interest but to a lack of information. In his discussions of the philosopher Tsou Yen (SC [Shih chi] 74/7) he cites that thinker's theory that China is only one of ten great continents which exist in the world, surrounded by a vast sea that marks the limit of heaven and earth, but he neither agrees with this theory nor refutes it. It is typical of Ssu-ma Ch'ien's caution and rationalism that he himself ventures no speculations upon the size and configuration of the world. He recorded and described all of it that he could; we can only guess what he may have believed lay beyond the lands of which he knew.

A second point to be noted is that Ssu-ma Ch'ien wrote a history of the entire knowable past. In discussing both the people of China and those of other lands, he began with the earliest accounts that he considered reliable and continued his narrative down to his own day. Concerning the ultimate origins of peoples, Chinese or foreign, he had nothing to say. It was his belief that mankind had existed long before the point at which he began his story, but of these earliest men he could say nothing, for the sources he considered trustworthy told him nothing. These ancient times are too far away, he continually explains to the reader, to be known. Their history is forever lost. The men of his time had a vague metaphysical explanation of the creation of the world out of nothingness expressed in the predominantly Taoist work written when Ssu-ma Ch'ien was a young man, the Huai-nan Tzu (3/1). But as Ssu-ma Ch'ien is silent upon the question of the size and shape of the world, so is he silent upon its origin and the origin of mankind.

Unlike Hebrew, Christian, or Japanese historians, Ssu-ma Ch'ien and his countrymen recognize no datable beginning to human history. Their conception of time is astronomical; time is a series of cycles based upon the movements of the planets and stars, the “Heavenly Governors,” as the Chinese call them, and such cycles may presumably be conceived as extending indefinitely into the past or the future for as long as the stars themselves exist. The dates of human history are recorded in terms of the years of rulers, who are the mortal counterparts of the “Heavenly Governors.” One may calculate the temporal relationships of any series of events in Chinese history by counting the years of the reigning monarchs. But in Chinese history, unlike that of so many other cultures, there is no single point in time such as the creation of the world, the birth of Christ, or the hegira, to which all other events are temporally related.

Ssu-ma Ch'ien begins his history with an account of five ancient rulers, the “Five Emperors,” who are the paragons of Chinese political wisdom and virtue. He then proceeds to a narrative of the history of the first dynasty of Chinese history, the Hsia, and the second, the Yin or Shang. In his chapters on these dynasties we note the appearance of a pattern which is of the greatest importance in Chinese historical writing. Each dynasty begins with a sage king of superlative wisdom and virtue, Yü of the Hsia and Ch'eng T'ang of the Yin, resembling closely the earlier “Five Emperors,” and each dynasty closes with an unspeakably evil and degenerate monarch, Chieh of the Hsia and Chou of the Yin. Between these two extreme moral types we find little more than a list of names of rulers. In the case of the Yin dynasty, however, we note that although the dynasty gradually declined in power and virtue, it was twice restored for a while to its original excellence by the virtuous rulers T'ai-wu and Wu-ting.

Here we see in crude form one of the most persistent patterns of Chinese historical writing: the rule of a new house set up by a man of extraordinary virtue and wisdom, and the gradual decline of the dynasty until its termination under a monarch completely incapable or evil. The cycle begins again when a new hero-sage overthrows the worthless tyrant of the old house and sets up a new rule. This pattern of rise and decay is generally varied in the middle, as in the case of the Yin dynasty, by the appearance of worthy rulers who restore for a time the original virtue of the dynasty in an act called “revival” or “restoration.”2

This pattern in history is regarded by the Chinese as no more than an inevitable and natural reflection of a larger, more fundamental pattern of all life. As Ssu-ma Ch'ien states: “When things flourish they shall then decay” (SC 30/45). Since human history is a part of life, it is obvious that it must follow this law of growth and decay, of waxing and waning, which characterizes the life of all heaven and earth. This concept of the cycles of history is by no means original with Ssu-ma Ch'ien, but runs through all early Chinese literature. It is already implicit, for example, in the arrangement of the poems in the various sections of the Book of Odes, most of which begin with songs in praise of the illustrious ancestors and the peaceful, glorious days of the early Chou and end with bitter laments and criticisms of the later days of decay and disorder. Ssu-ma Ch'ien's task, as he saw it, was simply to arrange the accounts of the early dynasties and feudal states in such a way that this pattern of growth and decay could be most readily perceived.

This stereotyped pattern of the virtuous founder and the evil or at least ineffectual terminator of the line is typical of almost every dynasty and state described in the Shih chi. At first glance the Ch'in Empire, set up by a cruel tyrant, seems to be an exception. But Ssu-ma Ch'ien takes special pains to point out that one must consider not merely the history of the Ch'in from the time it became master of all China, but look back to the many centuries of its history as a smaller feudal state. Thus one will see that the state of Ch'in also had its wise and virtuous rulers, while the notorious First Emperor of the Ch'in represents not the founder of the line but the final cruel and degenerate terminator.

An integral part of this accepted pattern of the virtuous founder and the evil terminator of a ruling family is the very old concept of te or merit. Te in this case has more than its later meaning of “virtue,” implying rather a kind of mystical store of power set up by the sage ancestor of the family. This power, or achievement, kung, or blessing, tse, flows from the ancestor down through his heirs, bestowing upon them in turn power and good fortune in their rule. But, like all other things of creation, this ancient deposit of merit is subject to the law of decay. As the years pass, the power wears thin and the succeeding rulers sink lower and lower into evil and incompetence. As the Chinese historian describes it, the power or the “way” of the ruling family declines. At this point it is still possible for a ruler, by applying himself to the practice of wise and virtuous government, to restore the waning power of the family. The Chinese describe this act as hsiu-te, literally “to repair the power.” But if no ruler appears who will undertake thus to replenish the original store of power and merit, the reservoir will eventually run dry and the family will be destroyed by other families who are ascending in the cycle of power. Thus the ancient Chinese historian explains the change of dynasties.

This, one may object, is too mystical and religious an interpretation to give to conventional terms which are intended merely to describe the efficiency or inefficiency of a ruler and his government. In later ages of Chinese history, they may have been used to mean no more than this. But the basically religious nature of these concepts in Ssu-ma Ch'ien's time is attested by their close association with the all-important question of the continuity of the sacrifices to the soil and the grain and to the ancestors of the ruling house. The existence of the ruling family is synonymous with the continuity of these sacrifices; the end of the sacrifices means the end of the power and blessing flowing down from the ancestors. Chüeh-ssu, the cutting off of the sacrifices, signifies in the Shih chi the destruction of the ruling house and hence of the state.

It was clearly Ssu-ma Ch'ien's conviction, as it was that of his predecessors and contemporaries, that this mystical virtue and power of the great and good ancestor was an important force in the unfolding of history. At the end of his account of the state of Yen (SC 34/25) he remarks upon the fact that, located far on the northern border and pressed by more powerful neighbors, this little state was time and again on the verge of extinction. And yet, he says, it managed to carry on its sacrifices for some eight or nine hundred years and was one of the last states to succumb to the Ch'in. This fact he attributes quite simply to the illustrious merit of the ancient founder of the state, Duke Shao. Again, in his discussion of the state of Eastern Yüeh (SC 114/11) he marvels at the great length of the life of the state and attributes it to the virtue of its early rulers and the fact that they were descendants of the sage emperor Yü, whose merit extended to his distant heirs.

Like other ancient peoples, the Chinese of this early period conceived of history as a series of great deeds by great men. These heroes of the past, in the eyes of the ancients, had an influence far-reaching and mystical, affecting by their goodness the course of countless generations that followed. Ssu-ma Ch'ien himself clearly accepted, though perhaps in a less purely religious sense, this traditional interpretation of the power of the ancestors, and it would be as great a mistake to overlook this fact as it would be to ignore the importance of divination and other similar religious beliefs in the histories of the ancient West. No matter how “modern” Ssu-ma Ch'ien or his Western counterparts may at times appear, we must not attempt to force them out of the mould in which their age cast them. Ch'ien was quick to note factors of geography, economic conditions, climate, and local custom which affect human history. And yet his discussions of history always return to the individual and the influence of the individual in history. In this he was following and giving a new expression to the ancient Chinese concept of the persistent and far-reaching power of the hero in history.

One other feature of Ssu-ma Ch'ien's picture of ancient China deserves to be noticed. From the earliest written sources on Chinese history, such as the Book of Documents and the Book of Odes, down to Han works written in the time of Ssu-ma Ch'ien himself we hear of a great many different tribes of barbarians which surrounded China, the Middle Kingdom, on almost all sides. Ssu-ma Ch'ien not only mentions these foreign tribes as they affect the course of Chinese history, but even devotes special chapters to the histories of the more important tribes.

Much of the time in these references we hear only of wars between the Chinese and the barbarians, but at other times the Chinese seem not only to have lived at peace with their neighbors but indeed to have mingled with them in complete freedom. The ancestors of the Chou dynasty lived for generations among the western barbarians (SC 4/4), while as late as the end of the Spring and Autumn period (481 b.c.) we read of Duke Chuang of the state of Wei who could look down from his castle tower upon a barbarian settlement in the midst of his territory (SC 37/26). We are often reminded that the people of the state of Ch'in were half barbarian in their ways (SC 15/2), while the state of Ch'u frankly admitted that its ancestors were barbarians (SC 40/7).

What, we may ask, distinguished the ancient Chinese from these other tribes living all about them? The answer to this we will probably never know. Herodotus may carry his descriptions of the physical characteristics of barbarian peoples to quaint extremes or compare their languages to the screeching of bats, but we will search in vain for any such information in the pages of the Shih chi. In the eyes of Ssu-ma Ch'ien and his countrymen there seems to have been no question of physical differences. There may, in fact, have been significant physical characteristics which distinguished the Chinese from these other peoples of ancient times. But, either through ignorance or choice, Ssu-ma Ch'ien is completely silent on the point. We are forced to conclude either that there were no significant differences or that the differences were so obvious that he felt it unnecessary to mention them.

What then of linguistic differences? Here again Ssu-ma Ch'ien is silent. We read constantly of Chinese and barbarians who speak with one another, of barbarians who settle in China, of Chinese who go to live among the barbarians, but seldom is there any suggestion of a language barrier separating the two.3 We might even expect to find, in an area the breadth of China, divided into a number of small feudal states, evidence of considerable local variation in language. Yet we read of educated men who travel freely from one state to another, serving often in a number of different feudal courts in succession, and find no hint that they encountered even the difficulties of local dialect one would find traveling in the same area of China today. Ssu-ma Ch'ien points out that the people of Ch'u use the word huo to mean “numerous” instead of the usual word to (SC 48/19), and again mentions that, when cities were being assigned to the newly enfeoffed king of Ch'i at the beginning of the Han they were selected from cities which spoke the “language of Ch'i” (SC 52/2). But these remarks, viewed in their context, seem to indicate no more than the existence of local accents and dialect words.

It seems unlikely that any such linguistic and racial homogeneity as Ssu-ma Ch'ien's silence implies actually existed in the area of China in ancient times. The process by which the Chinese people and language as we know them spread from their small beginnings over the area which later became China must have been a long and gradual one. The point to be noted here, however, is that differences of language and physical type, if they did exist, did not seem to Ssu-ma Ch'ien to be worth noting. The Chinese apparently did not consider such differences to be of any great significance.

The Kung-yang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, under Duke Ch'eng, fifteenth year, in a cryptic passage distinguishes three divisions of mankind: the smallest unit which is the feudal state (in the case of the Annals, the state of Lu); the larger group known as the “people of Hsia,” i.e., the Chinese states that together made up the Middle Kingdom; and beyond these the third category of barbarian tribes. The Commentary also implies that it is the ultimate objective of a true king to bring all of these groups under a single rule. The ancient Chinese—quite rightly, it would appear—considered themselves to be the most culturally advanced people in the world as they knew it. And at least in the Confucian tradition there was always a belief that, if a true sage-king should rule in China, the wisdom, virtue, and righteousness of his ways would be so compellingly superior and attractive that all other people of the world would come to him, “translating and retranslating their languages,” as the conventional phrase has it, and beg to accept Chinese ways and become part of the Chinese hegemony. For the ancient Chinese it was not primarily race or language, but culture, which distinguished them from the barbarian tribes. Their own Chinese-ness lay in the elaborate and stately rituals and ceremonies by which they ordered their lives and the superior moral qualities which these rites engendered and of which they were in turn the outward expression. As the Latter Han Confucianist Ho Hsiu writes in his sub-commentary to the Kung-yang, Duke Ch'ao, twenty-third year: “What distinguishes the people of the Middle Kingdom from the barbarian tribes is that they are capable of honoring that which should be honored.”

The Chinese of the time of Ssu-ma Ch'ien still fought bitter wars with the barbarian tribes who stubbornly refused to give up their inferior ways and submit to Chinese rule. But in spite of these harsh realities, the Chinese of the Han, like the Greeks of the Hellenic age or the Romans of the Empire, had attained a degree of advancement and self confidence where they could look forward to a great day when their culture would flow beyond the borders of the old narrow kingdom to embrace in one great family all mankind. It is perhaps due to this calm self-confidence that Ssu-ma Ch'ien did not hesitate to undertake the writing of a history of all time and all people. In his history he is careful to note the degree to which various peripheral and non-Chinese peoples conform to pure Chinese ways, for this was the criterion by which their place in the hierarchy of mankind could be judged. But he took little or no notice of questions of physical appearance or language, for these were for him beside the point.

Herodotus, confronted in the temple of Thebes by the statues of some three hundred generations of high priests representing, by his calculation, 11,340 years of human history in Egypt, was shocked into a realization of the relative newness of his own people. From this experience, and others like it, he drew both humility and pride: humility as an historian before the vastly older and in many ways superior cultures of Africa and Asia, and pride as a Greek in the remarkable achievements of his own people in their more recent emergence from the darkness of prehistory. But Ssu-ma Ch'ien and his contemporaries were blessed with no such experience. Surrounded by primitive and unlettered tribes, they lacked any rival worthy of either admiration or envy. In such a situation overt national pride was unnecessary and humility out of the question. And until such a rival should appear, the Chinese had no yardstick other than their own by which they might measure the length and greatness of their culture.

This is not to say that Ssu-ma Ch'ien and his countrymen were utterly blind to the merits of all cultures other than that of China. In his description of the Hsiung-nu tribes (SC 110), Ssu-ma Ch'ien, like Tacitus in his descriptions of the Germans, appears to take an ironic delight in pointing out the simplicity of their government and the dispatch with which their legal proceedings are conducted. But whatever he thought of certain aspects of Hsiung-nu life, it is certain that he no more considered them the cultural equals of the Chinese than Tacitus considered the German tribes the equals of Rome. In the first century B. C. it is probable that only an intimate confrontation of the Chinese and Greco-Roman worlds would have been sufficient to jar the complacent conviction of superiority of either, and the vast expanse of Central Asia would not permit such a confrontation.

In a short essay at the end of Shih chi 8, Ssu-ma Ch'ien briefly characterizes the governments (or, in broader terms, the cultures) of the first three Chinese dynasties, the Hsia, Yin, and Chou. The Hsia, he says, was characterized by good faith, which later decayed into rusticity. Actually, we have no reliable evidence today that this so-called Hsia dynasty ever existed. Ssu-ma Ch'ien's account of it is extremely sketchy, consisting almost entirely of portraits of the virtuous founder and the degenerate tyrant who ended the line. This makes it particularly suspect, for the neatness of the pattern and the conventionalized tone of the descriptions suggest that this is nothing more than a projection backward in time of the similar pattern which marked the history of the succeeding Yin dynasty. Ssu-ma Ch'ien was himself aware of the danger involved in trying to say much about such ancient times. He relates what his sources, the Confucian Classics, told him about the period, but cautions the reader frequently that his information is fragmentary and often contradictory. His characterization of the Hsia as distinguished by good faith and later rusticity seems to be no more than a tactful way of saying that the Hsia was primitive.

Of the Yin or Shang dynasty he says that it was marked by piety, which degenerated into a concern with the spirits, i.e., superstition.4 Fortunately, in this case we have today archeological evidence with which to check the accuracy of Ssu-ma Ch'ien's description. Excavations at the site of the capital of the Shang have brought to light a number of artifacts, bits of sculpture, and, most important, inscribed bones and tortoise shells used in divination which tell us something of the life and history of the period. Two points significant for our discussion here emerge from the results of these excavations. The inscriptions show that Ssu-ma Ch'ien's list of the Shang kings checks quite closely with Shang period lists recovered from the site of the capital; they also bear out the fact that the Shang people were deeply religious and devoted the utmost attention to matters of divination and sacrifice. Although Ssu-ma Ch'ien never mentions any basic differences of race or language which distinguished the succeeding dynasties of the Chinese past, he is careful to point out that each dynasty had its own customs and rituals, that each was marked by a different general outlook on life. In spite of the paucity of his knowledge of the Shang period he was still able, some one thousand years after its decease, to perceive that the outstanding mark of Shang culture had been at its best religious piety and at its worst superstition.

His characterization of the third of the ancient “Three Dynasties,” the Chou, is equally revealing. The outstanding feature of the Chou, he says, was its refinement, wen, which deteriorated into hollow show. The word wen is one of the most troublesome in Chinese thought to define and translate. Originally it seems to have meant patterns or markings, such as the spots of a leopard. From this it came to mean that which is decorated or adorned, as opposed to that which is rough and plain; hence it acquired the sense of elegance, refinement, or culture. Again, from its meaning of patterns it came to signify writing and all the advancements associated with writing and literature. Ssu-ma Ch'ien, I think, intended to imply all these meanings, so that in the translation above the reader must understand “refinements” to signify all kinds of order, elegance, ceremony, and culture. In particular Ssu-ma Ch'ien was referring no doubt to the li and yüeh, the rites and music which the Duke of Chou is supposed to have created and set up for the new dynasty and which are the concern of so much of Confucian literature. It is obvious, then, that this elegance and ceremony could in time degenerate into empty show.

We need not turn to archeological excavations for verification of Ssu-ma Ch'ien's description of the Chou. One of the implications of wen, as I have said, is literature, and we may check the Shih chi's generalizations with the literature of the Chou. We will notice first of all that in the literature of the Chou, the Confucian Classics and the works of the philosophers, we find many evidences of both the piety and the superstition which Ssu-ma Ch'ien has designated as the characteristics of the Shang. Dynasties may change and we may mark off periods in history, but we must remember that customs and ways of thought observe no such precise boundaries. Worship of the spirits of nature and the ancestors and the old arts of divination continued to play a very important part in the life of the Chou people. Indeed, as has been pointed out, the continuity of the sacrifices was synonymous with the very life of the state and the family. We hear much, even in a work as late as the Tso chuan, of diviners and witches, prophetic dreams, blaeful spirits, human sacrifices—all the superstitions which we may suppose marked the Shang at its worst. And yet, opposed to this, we find the persistent efforts of at least a group of the educated class to turn the attention of men away from supernatural things to the affairs of human society, and in particular to questions of politics and the ordering of the state. Gilbert Murray has described how the Greek philosophers of the Athenian period labored to purge from the primitive religious practices, myths, and beliefs of Greece the elements which appeared too superstitious and gross for their sensibilities.5 Much the same thing, I believe, must have happened during the Chou period in China. Faced with the primitive fear of death and the dead, the concern for the fertility of the earth and the family that characterize all primitive peoples, the Chinese philosophers and statesmen sought, by careful and minute codes of courtesy and ritual, by high-sounding metaphysical phrases and allegories, to disguise and refine away the cruder elements of the old Shang religion. The elaborate and carefully circumscribed funeral rites of the Confucianists, for example, should be understood as a thoughtful attempt to substitute a quiet grief and reverence for the abject terror with which ancient man viewed death, and thus curb the extravagant sacrifices of possessions, animals, and even human lives that accompanied the funerals of the Shang rulers. “The subjects on which the Master [Confucius] did not talk were: extraordinary things, feats of strength, disorder, and spiritual beings” (Analects VII, 20). “The Master said: ‘While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve the spirits?’” (Ibid., XI, 11). “The people are the masters of the spirits. Therefore the sage kings first took care of the people and only after turned their efforts towards the spirits” (Tso chuan, Duke Huan, sixth year). “Weird occurrences arise from men. If men have no offense, then weird things will not occur of their own. It is when men abandon their constant ways that weird things occur” (Ibid., Duke Chuang, fourteenth year). When we read such statements in Chou literature, we can see the best minds of the age laboring to free men from their old superstitious fear of the dead and the ghostly and turn their efforts to a constructive consideration of human society.

This process of gradually reducing the position of supernatural affairs to a place of importance secondary to human affairs continued throughout the Chou, reaching its logical conclusion in the writings of the Confucian philosopher of the third century b.c., Hsün Tzu, who interpreted all the ancient sacrificial rites of the Chinese as mere aesthetic exercises intended not for the benefit of the spirits but for the edification of the living. This tendency toward rationalism and humanism, then, was one of the points which distinguished the culturally advanced, politically minded people of the Chou from their more primitive, superstitious predecessors of the Shang, and it is for this reason no doubt that Ssu-ma Ch'ien employed the word wen—culture, refinement, the patterned order of society—to epitomize the Chou.

These currents of rationalism and humanism which began to develop during the Chou have had a profound influence upon all later Chinese thought. This is no place to trace their history through all the centuries of Chinese philosophy, but a few pertinent illustrations may be mentioned. Hsün Tzu, for example, one of the most eloquent exponents of rationalism, attacked both the belief in divine portents and the efficacy of the old art of physiognomy. The Han Confucianist Tung Chung-shu (179-104 b.c.), who backslid from Hsün Tzu's position to subscribe to some ideas that hardly strike us as rational today, is yet careful at times to give his views what we might call a pseudoscientific explanation. He insists, for example, that the elaborate ceremonies which he recommended for the purpose of causing rain to fall and to cease are based upon rational laws of nature. “Thus it is not the gods that cause the rain. The reason some people mistakenly impute it to the gods is because the principle is very subtle.”6 This same desire to eradicate what they recognized as superstitions led Ssu-ma Ch'ien to refute the popular legend that at the command of Prince Tan the heavens rained grain and horses grew horns (SC 86/39), and Ch'u Shao-sun to reinterpret the ancient accounts of miraculous births in the Book of Odes as poetic metaphors (SC 13/29). It was this same spirit of rationalism, the scientific spirit of the Han, which inspired Wang Ch'ung of the Latter Han to write a book, the Lun heng, intended specifically for the refutation of superstitions.

This rationalistic spirit will help to explain much of what appears in the opening pages of the Shih chi as ancient history. Ssu-ma Ch'ien begins his story of the Chinese past with the account of five rulers of supreme virtue, the “Five Emperors.” It is generally agreed by scholars today that these figures were originally local deities of the people of ancient China. But by the time of the compilation of the Confucian Classics two of these popular gods, Yao and Shun, had been converted into historical personages, and at some later date the other three received similar recognition by at least one branch of the Confucian school. And this is the way Ssu-ma Ch'ien has treated them in his history, carefully sifting out of the voluminous lore which surrounded their names all the elements of the supernatural and fantastic which seemed to contradict their existence as actual human monarchs. He has been criticized for this practice of trying to make what was originally myth and folktale into sober history. As the Sung scholar Li T'u remarks: “The Grand Historian (Ssu-ma Ch'ien) in his writing makes good use of facts, but he takes this factual approach and makes facts out of all the empty tales of the world.”7 The complaint is justified, but in Ch'ien's defense we must add that this practice of making rational history out of what is actually no more than myth begins a great deal earlier in Chinese historiography. It is a natural result of the desire of the educated men of the Chou, particularly those of the school of Confucius, to rationalize and humanize the accounts of their own past. We must be constantly wary of this tendency in Chinese thought, for it has led to the transformation of any number of legendary figures and events into what appears to be sober historical truth.

Nearly all the sources on ancient Chinese history which Ssu-ma Ch'ien used seem to date, at least in compilation, from the closing centuries of the Chou dynasty. Parts of this literature, such as the songs of the Odes, sections of the Documents, and the Spring and Autumn Annals, undoubtedly represent earlier writings. But it was probably not until the time of Confucius and his disciples that the Classics began to assume anything like their present form. Professor Naitô Torajirô has suggested that it is when a culture and a way of life is declining and seems in danger of extinction, when confusion and doubt have arisen over the old ways, that men are moved to compile canons of history and ritual and law.8 Although as a general thesis this statement is open to some question, it would seem to apply in this case. The age of Confucius was certainly such a period of decline and chaos. From what we can see in the Book of Documents and the Odes, the early Chou was a time of considerable social and political stability. The central court was powerful and respected, the feudal lords kept peace and order in their respective domains, and the people lived a simple rustic life bound to the soil. This picture may be idealized in its air of sweetness and harmony, but there is no reason to believe that it is not true in its general contours. By the time of Confucius around the beginning of the fifth century, however, as both pre-Ch'in and Han literature never tire of pointing out, “the way of the Chou had declined.” The central house of Chou, partly because of the persistent attacks of barbarian tribes, partly, no doubt, because of the natural moral decay that seems eventually to beset all courts of all ages, had declined sadly in power and prestige. The stronger and more prosperous of the feudal domains swallowed up their neighbors and grew steadily in size and might. The old hierarchical order of society and the carefully guarded rites and ceremonies that were the physical expression of that order—the wen of the early Chou—fell into decay. Feudal rulers assumed noble titles to which they theoretically had no right, and with them they usurped the rites appropriate to the titles. Nobles sent orders to the king, ministers assassinated their liege lords, and social disorder threatened to pervade all classes of society and undermine all traditional concepts of law and morality. It was at this crucial point that Confucius and his disciples appeared and set about to codify the old rites and ceremonies that were being abused and forgotten, to preserve the old songs and documents and legends of the bright past, and to use them to teach the rulers and men of the day where and how they had gone wrong. We must remember in reading the Shih chi, which is based to so large extent upon these works of the Confucian canon and considers them as the final authority on questions of historical truth, that the Classics were compiled by men living in a time of trouble and disorder, who were looking back to what they saw as an ideal age, or a series of ideal ages, in the past. We must also remember that these works were intended not primarily as objective records of the past but as guides to moral and political conduct. Like almost every major work of Chinese literature down to and possibly including the Shih chi, they were books of li—rites, or, in the broadest sense, moral principles. If so many of them are devoted to historical anecdote rather than to general moralistic pronouncements, it is because the Chinese of this age, and to a large extent of the ages that followed, believed that moral law was most faithfully embodied not in abstract codes of behavior but in the actual records of how the great, the truly moral men of the past had behaved.

But the Confucians and their canon could not stem the tide of social change. The central court and its satellites, the old feudal families, continued to grow weaker, while families that had been ministers and retainers to the feudal lords grew so powerful that they overthrew their former masters. Changes in methods of warfare, advancements in agricultural techniques, and the growth of trade all vitally affected the old feudal society. Lacking any strong central authority to which they could appeal, the various states began to form alliances to protect themselves from attack, and there began a long struggle to achieve some balance of power that would insure peace from the incessant feudal wars. These rapid social changes only hastened that decay of traditional moral values which Confucius had feared. As Ssu-ma Ch'ien writes of these diplomatic alliances: “False titles flew about and oaths and agreements could not be trusted. Although men exchanged hostages and broke tallies, they still could not enforce promises” (SC 15/3). “The world honored deceit and power and disdained benevolence and virtue. It put wealth and possessions first and modesty and humility last” (SC 30/47). In such an atmosphere it was inevitable that the old religious beliefs should also decay. Feudal lords performed sacrifices to which they were not entitled, or abolished the sacrifices of conquered states, and yet no enraged manes visited supernatural wrath upon them. Rulers repeatedly broke the oaths they had sworn before the gods and yet no angry Heaven punished them. One feudal lord, in insane defiance of the old religious ideas, went so far as to set up a leather bag filled with blood and use it as a target for his archery, declaring that he was “shooting at Heaven.”9

One of the most important results of this breakdown of the old feudal hierarchy and its ideals was an increase in social mobility. As the old aristocracy became increasingly weak and...

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Alvin P. Cohen (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Cohen, Alvin P. “Avenging Ghosts and Moral Judgement in Ancient Chinese Historiography: Three Examples from Shih-chi.” In Legend, Lore, and Religion in China: Essays in Honor of Wolfram Eberhard on His Seventieth Birthday, edited by Sarah Allan and Alvin P. Cohen, pp. 97-108. San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center, 1979.

[In the following essay, Cohen analyzes three instances of the avenging ghost motif in the Shih chi, positing that these episodes show the historian's desire for justice.]

The compilation of the Spring and Autumn Annals in the fifth century b.c.e. changed the motivations for writing history in ancient China through the...

(The entire section is 4524 words.)

Stephen W. Durrant (essay date January-March 1986)

SOURCE: Durrant, Stephen W. “Self as the Intersection of Traditions: The Autobiographical Writings of Ssu-ma Ch'ien.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 106, no. 1 (January-March 1986): 33-40.

[In the following essay, Durrant discusses the importance of tradition in early Chinese self-reflexive texts and explains how Qian avoided presumptuousness and irreverence.]

Since Georg Misch's monumental study of Western autobiographical writing began appearing in 1907, autobiography has been increasingly drawn into the circle of literary study.1 Unfortunately, little of this recent research has considered non-Western autobiographical writing, and one...

(The entire section is 5598 words.)

William H. Nienhauser, Jr. (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Nienhauser, William H, Jr. “A Reexamination of ‘The Biographies of the Reasonable Officials’ in the Records of the Grand Historian.Early China 16 (1991): 209-33.

[In the following essay, Nienhauser examines problems with The Biographies of the Reasonable Officials section of the Shih chi and contends they can be resolved without concluding that the work is a forgery.]


That a very short piece written over two millennia ago would serve as the subject for an extended academic discourse may puzzle some.1 That the same work could be considered at best mediocre by any contemporary literary or...

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Burton Watson (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Watson, Burton. Introduction to Records of the Grand Historian, by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson, pp. ix-xvii. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1993.

[In the following essay, Watson explains that Qian's main purpose in writing history was didactic, so he did not hesitate to describe the oldest of events even when some of his sources were dubious.]

In my two earlier volumes of translations from the Shi ji or Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (145?-89? bc), which are being reprinted as companions to the present volume, I presented material dealing with the founding and early years of the Han dynasty (206 bc-ad 220),...

(The entire section is 3929 words.)

Grant Hardy (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Hardy, Grant. “Can an Ancient Chinese Historian Contribute to Modern Western Theory? The Multiple Narratives of Ssu-ma Ch'ien.1History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History 33, no. 1 (1994): 20-38.

[In the following essay, Hardy analyzes the rhetorical strategy Qian employed in his historical writings, including the use of multiple narrations and interpretations.]

How history differs from fiction is a question which continues to vex philosophers, historians, and literary critics. Although the issue seems to hinge on rather commonsensical notions, and though historical research continues apace in accordance with professional...

(The entire section is 9727 words.)

Joseph Roe Allen III (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Allen, Joseph Roe, III. “Records of the Historian.” In Masterworks of Asian Literature in Comparative Perspective: A Guide for Teaching, edited by Barbara Stoler Miller, pp. 259-71. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1994.

[In the following essay, Allen credits Qian with shaping how the Chinese view both their history and themselves.]

The Records of the Historian (Shi ji [Shih chi]) is the most important historiographic work in the Chinese tradition, which has always placed a great deal of value on such writing. But the influence of this text is not merely historiographic: it is profoundly literary and broadly cultural as well. The...

(The entire section is 5430 words.)

Raymond Dawson (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Dawson, Raymond. Introduction to Sima Qian: Historical Records, translated by Raymond Dawson, pp. vii-xxii. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[In the following introduction to his translation of Shih chi, Dawson presents an overview of Qian's historical, political, and philosophical context.]

Historical Records (Shiji) is the most famous Chinese historical work, which not only established a pattern for later Chinese historical writing, but was also much admired for its literary qualities, not only in China, but also in Japan, where it became available as early as the eighth century ad.

What makes it...

(The entire section is 5603 words.)

Stephen W. Durrant (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Durrant, Stephen W. “(Wo)men with(out) Names.” In The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conflict in the Writings of Sima Qian, pp. 99-122. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt from his full-length study of Qian's work, Durrant analyzes how Qian shaped the historical sources he used as the basis of his Shih chi.]

The Master said, “The True Gentleman hates that he might perish from the earth and his name not be praised.”

Analects 15:4b (15.19)

The Master said, “I do not worry about whether others know and appreciate...

(The entire section is 12614 words.)

William G. Boltz (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Boltz, William G. “Myth and the Structure of the Shyy Jih.” In Asiatische Studien Etudes Asiatiques LVI.3.2002, edited by Kai Vogelsang and Robert Gassmann, pp. 573-85. Bern, Germany: Peter Lang, 2002.

[In the following essay, Boltz contends that shifts in content in the Shih chi also indicate shifts in sources used.]

The new and unprecedented establishment of the Chinese imperial state, founded as it was on the Hann consolidation of a far more traditional polity represented by the Chyn unification two generations earlier, roused dramatically new needs of political authority and legitimation in the Chinese court and among the Chinese...

(The entire section is 5019 words.)

William H. Nienhauser, Jr. (essay date December 2003)

SOURCE: Nienhauser, Jr., William H. “Tales of the Chancellor(s): The Grand Scribe's Unfinished Business.” Chinese Literature 25 (December 2003): 99-117.

[In the following essay, Nienhauser examines some structural problems in chapter 96 of the Shih chi.]


Be kind to your reader.1 This was one of the basic rules on writing we learned in school. Since the primary reader for this offering is my former coeditor, Robert Earl Hegel, I should have been kinder had I chosen a more purely literary topic. I can envision Bob's reaction when he sees this piece: “the Shih chi again?” Bob (and perhaps other readers...

(The entire section is 9242 words.)

Further Reading


Cartier, Michel. “Historical Myths or Mythical History?” Comparative Civilizations Review, no. 20 (spring 1989): 59-69.

Contrasts the evolution of historical writing as seen in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean chronicles.

Dawson, Raymond. Introduction to Historical Records, by Sima Qian. Translated by Raymond Dawson, pp. i-xxv. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Outlines Qian's accomplishments and notes that he was not an historian in the modern sense of the term but rather “a preserver of tradition about great men.”

Durrant, Stephen. “Ssu-ma Ch'ien's Conception of Tso...

(The entire section is 524 words.)