Sima Qian Introduction - Essay


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.