Sima Xiangru Biography

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Sima Xiangru (soo-MAH shee-AHNG-zhew) was a fencer, lute player, but primarily a fu poet of Western Han (206 b.c.e.-23 c.e.). His versatility won him a unique love, court positions, and a reputation as a great fu maker. Fu, a descriptive metered verse with rhyme interspersed with prose, became the preferred court genre during the Han period. For Prince Xiao of Liang, Sima wrote his famous Zixu Fu (second century b.c.e.; Sir Fantasy, 1971), in which three speakers describe their pleasure at hunting. He later eloped with Zuo Wenjun, a widow and a lute player, to Chengdu, but poverty drove them back to Wenjun’s home, where the couple ran a tavern for survival, winning historical fame as true lovers. Wenjun’s wealthy father finally agreed to the marriage and gave the couple money.

Emperor Wudi called Sima to join the court, where he wrote Shanglin Fu (second century b.c.e.; “imperial park”), an ode to the emperor. He then pleaded illness and left the court. Provided for by his wife’s fortune, Sima continued writing until his death. About thirty of his fu poems have survived, including the great Nanshu Fulao (second century b.c.e.; “refutation to the Sichuan elders”), which addresses taxation corruption and popular complaints. Most of his fu poems describe court prosperity but end with implicit satirical touches and remonstrations.


Sima’s works helped establish the genre of fu poetry, which has been imitated by many subsequent Chinese poets.

Further Reading:

Gong, Kechang. Studies on the Han Fu. Translated and edited by David R. Knechtges, et al. New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1997. Includes an excellent chapter on Sima Xiangru’s literary writings.

Idema, W. L. “The Story of Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju and Cho Wen-chü in Vernacular Literature of the Yüan and Early Ming Dynasties.” T’ung Pao 70, nos. 1-3 (1984): 60-109. Full treatment of the love story and its influence.

Knechtges, David R. “Problems of Translating Descriptive Binomes in the Fu.” Tamkang Review 15, nos.1-4 (1985): 329-347. Good introduction to aspects of the distinctive language used by Sima Xiangru and others.

Perkins, Dorothy. Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture. New York: Roundtable, 1999.

Sage, Steven F. Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. Chapter 6 discusses Sima Xiangru’s diplomatic missions.

Xiao, Tong. Rhapsodies on Sacrifices, Hunting, Travel, Sightseeing, Palaces and Halls, Rivers and Seas. Vol. 2 of Wen xuan. Translated by David R. Knechtges. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. Elegant and true translations of Sima Xiangru’s most important writings with copious annotation. The introduction also discusses his use of language.

Watson, Burton, trans. Chinese Rhyme-Prose: Poems in the Fu Form from the Han and Six Dynasties Periods . New...

(The entire section is 680 words.)