Sima Qian

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Sima Qian

Sima Qian
Sima Qian. PD Courtesy of Wikipedia

Born near Longmen ("Dragon Gate") on the Yellow River, around 145 B.C., during China's Han dynasty, Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch'ien) is "the father of Chinese history" (sometimes, historiography) -- like the late fifth century father of Greek history, Herodotus.

There is scant biographical record of Sima Qian, although the historian does provide autobiographical insight in his private magnum opus, the Shi Ji 'Historical Records' (also known by variants), a history of the world known to China. Sima Qian wrote 130 chapters, which would amount to thousands of pages if written in English. In contrast with fragmentary classics from the Greek and Roman world, almost all of it survives.

The Shi Ji's chronologies extend backwards to the mythological kings and the first monarch Sima Qian and his father deemed historical, Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor) (c. 2600 B.C.), and forward to the historian's own time [The Lessons of the Past]. China Knowledge pinpoints it to the year 93 B.C.

Sima Qian was not the first historian in China. His father, Sima Tan, appointed grand astrologer in 141 B.C. -- a post that offered advice on political matters to the reigning emperor -- under the Han Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 B.C.), had been working on a a history when he died. Sometimes Sima Tan and Qian are called grand historian instead of grand astrologer or scribe, but the history they worked on was a sideline. In 107 B.C., Sima Qian succeeded his father in the political post and helped the emperor reform the calendar in 104 [Herodotus and Sima Qian].

Some Sinologists believe Sima Qian was following an historical tradition begun (supposedly) by Confucius (as commentator, editor, compiler, or author) in the Spring and Autumn Annals [also known as The Lessons of the Past], about three centuries earlier. Sima Qian used such material for his research, but he developed a form for history writing that better suited the Chinese: It served as an enduring model through 26 dynasties, for two millennia, into the twentieth century.

Writing history combines eye witness accounts or records and author interpretations with author-filtered facts. It combines biography of select important figures with regional chronology. Some historians, like Sima Quan and Herodotus, the Greek father of history, include extensive travel in their research. Individual historians uniquely evaluate and combine the various, generally conflicting demands of each component as well as of all the contradictions inherent in the sets of so-called facts. Traditional Chinese history had included separate sets of chronological records, including genealogies, and collections of speeches. Sima Qian included it all, but in five separate sections. While this may be a thorough method, it also means that the reader must read many sections to learn the whole story of a given individual. In a trivial example, it's about like looking on this site for information on Sima Qian. You'd need to consult the related pages on Confucius, the first emperor, the Chinese dynasties pages and the Chinese timelines pages, and also read the interpretive information on Taoist, Legalist, and Confucian systems. There's a reason for doing it that way, but you might prefer to have it all in digested, compact form. If so, Sima Qian's Shi Ji is not the history for you.

Sima Qian concentrated on earlier regimes because he was not particularly happy with the regime under which he lived. He feared his monarch, Emperor Wu. As it turns out, he had good reason. Sima Qian stood up for General Li Ling, a Chinese man deemed a traitor because he surrendered -- in the face of insurmountable odds -- to the Xiongnu (a Steppe people often thought to have been ancestors of the Huns). The emperor responded to the defense by denouncing the historian, and sending him to the courts on the capital charge of defamation of the emperor. The court, reducing the sentence, condemned him to prison and castration [Mountain of Fame]. It wasn't much of a reduction. Sentencing to mutilation was enough to make most men commit suicide before the sentence could be carried out -- similar to the Romans, e.g., Seneca under Emperor Nero -- in order to avoid violating the filial duty to preserve the body parents give their children. Sima Qian, however, had a conflicting filial obligation that kept him alive. About ten years earlier, in 110, Sima Qian had promised his dying father to carry out his historical work, and so, since Sima Qian had not finished the Shi ji, he suffered the castration and then went back to and finished his work, with confirmation of his low opinion of the current regime. Soon he became a highly honored court eunuch.

"I wished to examine into all that concerns heaven and man, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, completing all the work of one family. But before I had finished my rough manuscript, I met with this calamity. It is because I regretted that it had not been completed that I submitted to the extreme penalty without rancor. When I have truly completed this work, I shall deposit it in some safe place. If it may be handed down to men who will appreciate it and penetrate to the villages and great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret would I have? "
Chinese Cultural Studies: Sima Qian Ssuma Ch'ien: Two Biographies, from The Records of the Grand Historian of China (The Shih Chi) (6th century BCE)

In 96 B.C., Emperor Wu appointed Sima Qian Prefect Palace Secretary [Herodotus and Sima Qian]. About a decade later, the emperor died and shortly thereafter, so did Qima Sian.


  • "The Idea of Authority in the Shih chi (Records of the Historian)," by Wai-Yee Li; Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Dec., 1994), pp. 345-405.
  • "Form and Narrative in Ssu-ma Ch'ien's Shih chi," by Grant Hardy; Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), Vol. 14 (Dec., 1992), pp. 1-23.
  • "Herodotus and Sima Qian: History and the Anthropological Turn in Ancient Greece and Han China," by Siep Stuurman; Journal of World History, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Mar., 2008), pp. 1-40
  • "Sima Qian and His Western Colleagues: On Possible Categories of Description," by F. H. Mutschler; History and Theory, Vol. 46, No. 2 (May, 2007), pp. 194-200.
  • Mountain of Fame : Portraits in Chinese History, by Wills, John E.; Princeton University Press.
  • "The Lessons of the Past" (THE HERITAGE LEFT TO THE EMPIRES), by Michael Loewe Cambridge Histories Online 2008.