Sima Guang Biography

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(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Sima Guang was a scholar, statesman, and poet who compiled the Tzu-chih t’ung-chien, one of the outstanding works in Chinese historiography. He was also a significant political figure in the Northern Sung Dynasty.

Early Life

Sima Guang (also known as Ssu-ma Kuang) is one of the prominent individuals in early Chinese history. Born in Hunan Province in 1019, he was intensively educated in the Confucian classics and influenced by the historical writings of Gao Qun and the commentaries of the Zuozhuan (Zuo tradition). Early in his life, he developed a passion for historical studies which motivated him to read widely. He completed his education in 1038, passed the civil service examinations, and moved rapidly into public office.

From 1038 to 1060, Sima Guang established a distinguished and productive record in a variety of high positions. An excellent writer and speaker, he built a reputation as a fiscal conservative, opposing high taxes and extravagance in public office. He was firmly committed to the Confucian emphasis on the correct understanding of the past as a guide to proper life and preparation for service to the state, and, as a consequence, he served to promote the growth of schools and academies in Song China. Sima Guang is frequently represented as a hero in Chinese children’s books. This reputation stems from his having saved a young friend from drowning by breaking the water tank into which the child had fallen.

Life’s Work

It is as one of China’s greatest historians that Sima Guang is most remembered. In 1064, he presented to Emperor Yangzong a chronological table of Chinese history from its origins to the beginnings of the Song Dynasty. His purpose was to organize the scattered records and existing information into a convenient and manageable form. Two years later, he presented the emperor with a chronicle of the history of the Warring States (403-221 b.c.e.), which he titled the T’ung-chih (comprehensive record). The emperor was so impressed with this work that he gave Sima Guang a mandate to compile the records of all the emperors, rulers, and ministers prior to the Song Dynasty. Two distinguished scholars were appointed to assist in the work.

In 1067 Sima Guang was directed to read his work in the emperor’s presence. The emperor titled it Tzu-chih t’ung-chien (1084; comprehensive mirror for aid in government) and wrote a preface that would later be included with the completed work.

At approximately the time Sima Guang began his historical project, the celebrated reformer Wang Anshi rose to power as literary councillor, vice grand councillor, and in 1070, grand councillor. The two acquaintances were philosophically opposed to each other and had vigorously debated their differences on national policies. When Wang Anshi’s reform program received imperial support from 1070 to 1085, Sima Guang emerged as the leader of the opposition to Wang’s sweeping reforms. His vigorous opposition forced Sima out of government during this period. He retired to Luoyang with a comfortable sinecure and dedicated himself to his historical endeavor.

Between 1070 and 1084, Sima Guang directed the collection and writing of his great history. He began with a chronological outline of the 1,362 years of Chinese history preceding the Song Dynasty. Next, he had all available sources, family records, biographies, anecdotes, document collections, inscriptions, dynastic histories, and literary works reviewed and cited in the outline in the appropriate places. From this outline he created what he called the “long draft.” If the cited accounts all agreed, the draft was so written; if there were varying interpretations, the most logical explanation was used with the conflicting accounts noted and an explanation offered as to the inclusion or exclusion of the account.

Sima Guang then began the process of summarizing and reducing the text to the most essential details. He reduced the long draft (originally several hundred...

(The entire section is 1,694 words.)