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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Ban Gu’s (BAHN-gew) father, historian Ban Biao, wrote a supplement to historian Sima Qian’s Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960, rev. ed. 1993) and began work on a history of the Western Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-23 c.e.). When he was sixteen, Ban Gu went to the capital city of Luoyang to study at the Imperial College. At age twenty-three, after his father died, he returned to his hometown and became a historian, collecting the materials on which his father had been working.

Five years later, Ban Gu was falsely accused of having distorted the nation’s history and went to prison. His brother Ban Chao wrote to the emperor. After the emperor read the draft of Ban Gu’s work, he appreciated its value. Ban Gu was freed and encouraged to continue his work. After working on it for more than twenty years, Ban Gu nearly completed Han Shu (also known as Qian Han Shu, completed first century c.e.; The History of the Former Han Dynasty, 1938-1955). He was arrested on suspicion of being involved in a rebellion attempt in 92 c.e. and died in prison the same year. After his death, his younger sister Ban Zhao resumed writing the history.


Ban Gu’s influence is mainly through The History of the Former Han Dynasty, the first Chinese historical record of a single dynasty. Compared with Records of the Grand Historian of China, which was a more general work, it preserved more comprehensive and exact historical materials, detailing the society, culture, natural life, and geography of the Western Han Dynasty. The style and format were followed by later historians in China’s feudal dynasties.

Further Reading:

Hughes, E. R. Two Chinese Poets: Vignettes of Han Life and Thought. 1960. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977. The author examines two sets of rhapsodies on the two Han capitals, by Ban Gu and Zhang Heng (Chang Heng), respectively. While the book is informative with regard to the nature of Han rhapsodies and the descriptions of the two capitals, the main purpose of the author is to highlight, through exploring the minds of the two poets, the contrasting style and ethos of the two Han dynasties. Indispensable for understanding Ban Gu’s ideology and worldview.

Hulsewé, A. F. P. China in Central Asia: An Annotated Translation of Chapters Sixty-one and Ninety-six of “The History of the Former Han Dynasty.” New York: E. J. Brill, 1979. Particularly useful is the seventy-page introductory chapter by M. A. N. Loewe. Loewe comments on the materials on which the original copy of The History of the Former Han Dynasty was written (wood or bamboo slips) and discusses the relationship between the Records of the Grand Historian of China and The History of the Former Han Dynasty. He argues, contrary to previous assumptions, that at least in one case the Records of the Grand Historian of China text is not the source for The History of the Former Han Dynasty but indeed derivative from it.

Hulsewé, A. F. P. “Notes on the Historiography of the Han Period.” In Historians of China and Japan, edited by W. G. Beasley and E. G. Pulleyblank. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961. A general but authoritative survey on the authors of the Records of the Grand Historian of China and The History of the Former Han Dynasty and other works of historiography of the Han period.

(The entire section is 849 words.)