Sima Qian

From Academic Kids

Sima Qian's names
Given name Style name
Traditional 司馬遷 子長
Simplified 司马迁 子长
Pinyin Sīmǎ Qiān Zichang
Wade-Giles Ssŭma Ch'ien Tzu-ch'ang

Sima Qian (circa 14590 BC) was a Prefect of the Grand Scribes (太史令) of the Han Dynasty. He is regarded as the father of Chinese historiography because of his highly praised work, Shiji (史記history record), an overview of the history of China covering more than two thousand years from the Yellow Emperor to Emperor Han Wudi (漢武帝). His work laid the foundation for later Chinese historiography.


Biography of Sima Qian

Early life and education


Sima Qian was born and grew up in Longmen, near present-day Hancheng. He was raised in a family of historiographers. His father, Sima Tan (司馬談) served as the Prefect of the Grand Scribes of Emperor Han Wudi. His main responsibilities were managing the imperial library and calendar. Under the influence of his father, at the age of ten, Sima Qian was already well versed in old writings. He was the student of the famous Confucians Kong Anguo (孔安國) and Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒). At the age of twenty, with the support of his father, Sima Qian started a journey throughout the country, collecting useful first-hand historical records for his main work, Shiji. The purpose of his journey was to verify the ancient rumors and legends and to visit ancient monuments, including the renowned graves of the ancient sage kings Yu and Shun. Places he had visited include Shandong, Yunnan, Hebei, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Hunan.

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After his travels, he was chosen to be the Palace Attendant (郎中, Lang Zhong) in the government, whose duties were to inspect different parts of the country with Emperor Han Wudi. In 110 BC, at the age of thirty-five, Sima Qian was sent westward on a military expedition against some "barbarian" tribes. In 110 BC, Sima Tan fell ill for not being allowed to attend the Imperial Feng Sacrifice. Suspecting his time was running out, he summoned his son back to carry on the family tradition, that is, to complete the historical work he had begun. Sima Tan had the ambition to follow the Annals of Spring and Autumn (春秋左氏傳 the first chronicle in the history of Chinese literature). Therefore, from 109 BC, Sima Qian started to compile Shiji and inherited his father's inspiration.

As a senior imperial official, Sima Qian was also in the position to offer counsel to the emperor on general affairs of state. In 99 BC, Sima Qian got involved in the Li Ling (李陵) Affair. Li Guangli (李廣利) and Li Ling, two military officers, were ordered to lead a campaign against the Xiongnu (匈奴)in the north. Having been defeated and taken as captives, Emperor Han Wudi attributed the defeat to Li Ling.

While all the officials in the government condemned Li Ling for the defeat, Sima Qian was the only person who defended Li Ling, who had never been his friend but whom he respected. Emperor Han Wudi thought Sima Qians defence of Li Ling was an attack on Wudi's brother-in-law who was fighting against Xiongnu without much success. Subsequently, he was sentenced to death. At that time, execution could be replaced either by money or mutilation (i.e. castration). Since Sima Qian did not have enough money to atone his fault, he chose the latter and was then thrown into prison.

In 96 BC, Sima Qian was released from prison. The three-year ordeal in prison ("When you see the jailer you abjectly touch the ground with your forehead. At the mere sight of his underlings you are seized with terror... Such ignominy can never be wiped away.") did not frighten Sima Qian away. On the contrary, it became a driving force compelling him to succeed his familys legacy of recounting history. So he continued to write Shiji, which was finally finished in 91 BC.

Significance of his life

As a historian

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Although the style and form of Chinese historical writings varied through the ages, Sima Qians Shiji has since dictated the proceeding quality and style. Not only is this due to the fact that the Chinese historical form was codified in the second dynastic history by Ban Gus [Pan Kus] (班固) Han Shu [History of Han] (漢書), but historians regard Sima Qians work as their model, which stands as the "official format" of the history of China.

In writing Shiji, Sima Qian initiated a new writing style by presenting history in a series of biographies. His work extends over 130 chapters — not in historical sequence, but was divided into particular subjects, including annals, chronicles, treatises — on music, ceremonies, calendars, religion, economics and extended biographies. Before Sima Qian, histories were written as dynastic history, his idea of a general history affected later historiographers like Zhengqiao (鄭樵) in writing Tongshi (通史) and Sima Guang (司馬光) in writing Zizhi Tongjian (資治通鑑). Sima Qian even affected the writing style of histories in other places, as seen in The History of Korea, which was written as a general history.

As a literary author

Sima Qian's Shiji is respected as a model of biographical literature with high literary value.

Skillful Depiction: Its artistry was mainly reflected in the skillful portrayal of many distinctive characters which were based on true historical information. Sima Qian was also good at illustrating the response of the character by placing him in a sharp confrontation and letting his words and deeds speak for him. The use of conversations in his writing also makes the descriptions more vibrant and realistic.

Innovative Approach: Sima Qian also initiated a new approach in writing history. The language used in Shiji was informal, humorous and full of variations. This was an innovative way of writing at that time and thus it has always been esteemed as the highest achievement of classical Chinese writing; even Lu Xun (魯迅) regarded Shiji as "the first and last great work by historian, poems of Qu Yuan without rhyme." (史家之絕唱,無韻之離騷) in his Zhongguo Xiaoshuo Shilue (中國小說史略).

Concise Language: Sima Qian formed his own simple, concise, fluent and easy-to-read style. He made his own comments while recounting the historical events. In writing the biographies in Shiji, he avoided making general descriptions. Instead, he tried to catch the essence of the events and portrayed the characters concretely and thus the characters in Shiji gave the readers vivid images with strong artistic appeal.

Influence on Literature: Sima Qians writing style was influential to Chinese writing, which become a role model for various types of prose within the neo-classical (fu gu [fu kku]) (复古) movement of the Tang-Song [Tang-Sung] (唐宋) period. The great use of characterization and plotting also influenced fictional writing, including the classical short stories of the middle and late medieval period (Tang-Ming [T'ang-Ming]), as well as the vernacular novel of the late imperial period. Shiji still stands as a "textbook" for the studies of classical Chinese worldwide.

Other literary works: Apart from Shiji, Sima Qian had written eight rhapsodies (Fu 賦), which are compiled in Ban Gu's Hanshu. Sima Qian expressed his suffering during the Li Ling Affair and his perseverance in writing Shiji in these rhapsodies.

As an astrologer

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Sima Tan and later his son, Sima Qian, were both court astrologers (taishi) 太史 in the Former Han Dynasty. At that time, the astrologer was an important post, responsible for interpreting and predicting the course of government according to the influence of the Sun, Moon, and stars, as well as other phenomena like solar eclipses, earthquakes, etc.

Before compiling Shiji, in 104 BC, with the help of his colleagues, Sima Qian created Taichuli (which can be translated as 'The first calendar') on the basis of the Qin calendar. Taichuli was one of the most advanced calendars of the time as it stated that there were 365.25 days in a year and 29.53 days in a month. The creation of Taichuli was regarded as a revolution in the Chinese calendar tradition.

Analysing information: Sima Qian analysed the historical records and sorted out those which could serve the purpose of Shiji. He intended to find out the patterns and principles of the development of human history by writing Shiji so as to find out the relationship between heavenly law and men. This is why Sima Qian adopted a new method in sorting out the historical data and a new approach in writing the historical record.

Sima Qian emphasized the role of men in affecting the historical development of China. It is the first time in Chinese history that men were put under the spotlight in the analysis of historical development. He also denounced superstition by condemning Emperor Han Wudi, who was extravagant in praying to gods. In addition, he also proposed his historical perception that a country cannot escape from the fate of "from boom to trough, and from trough to boom". With these in-depth analyses and insight, Sima Qian set an example for writing journalistic articles in later generations.

Unlike Ban Gu's (班固) Hanshu (漢書), which was written under the supervision of the Imperial Dynasty, Shiji was a privately written historiography. Although Sima Qian was the Prefect of the Grand Scribes in the Han government, he refused to write Shiji as an official historiography. This is why Shiji not only covered those of high rank, but also people of the lower class so as to portray the darker side of the dynasty, and thus Shiji is regarded as a "veritable record".

Books about Sima Qian in English

  • Watson, Burton (1958). Ssu-ma Ch'ien: Grand Historian of China. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (1974),Records of the Historians.Hong Kong: Commercial Press.
  • Qian, Sima and trans. Watson, Burton (1993),Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty. Research Center for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Columbia University Press.

External links


  • Beasley, W. G., and Pulleyblank, E. G.(1961), Historians of China and Japan. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Durrant, Stephen W.(1995), The cloudy mirror : tension and conflict in the writings of Sima Qian. Albany : State University of New York Press.
  • Hardy, Grant Ricardo (1988), Objectivity and Interpretation in the "Shi Chi". Yale University.
  • Watson, Burton (1958). Ssu-ma Ch'ien: Grand Historian of China. New York: Columbia University Press.

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