Sima Qian Criticism

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Burton Watson (essay date 1958)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 87,645 words.)