Sima Qian (circa 145—90 BC) was a Prefect of the Grand Scribes (太史令) of the Han Dynasty and an astrologer. He is regarded as the father of Chinese historiography mainly because of his highly praised work, Shiji (史記), which is the first overview of the history of China covering more than two thousand years from the Yellow Emperor to Emperor Han Wudi (漢武帝)—comparable to the Old Testament. His work not only laid the foundation for Chinese historiography but the writing method and style adopted by Sima Qian have great impact on the literature as well as journalism.
Biography of Sima Qian
Early life and Education
Sima Qian was born and grew up in Longmen, which is 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 10, 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 20, with the support of his father, Sima Qian started a journey throughout the country. In this journey, Sima Qian collected 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.
Succeeding his father
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. Later in 110 BC, at the age of 35, 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) and to continue to recount the history. Therefore, since 109 BC, Sima Qian started to compile Shiji and inherited his father's inspiration.
The Li Ling Affair
As a senior imperial official, Sima Qian was also in the position to offer counsel to the emperor on general affairs of the 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 Qian’s defence for 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 the prison.
In 96 BC, Sima Qian was released from prison. The three-year ordeal in prison did not frighten Sima Qian away. On the contrary, it became a driving force compelling him to succeed his family’s legacy of recounting history. So he continued to write Shiji, which was finally accomplished in 91 BC.
Significance of his life
As a Historian
Although the style and form of Chinese historical writings varied through ages, Sima Qian’s 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 Gu’s [Pan Ku’s] (班固) Han Shu [History of Han] (漢書), but historians also actually regard Sima Qian’s work as their model, which stands as the ‘official format’ of 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 a 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.
Sima Qian and his Shiji have a tremendous influence on Chinese historiography and prose, well comparable to the entire Old Testament in the Bible, Herodotus and his Historiai.
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 and even Lu Xun (魯迅) regarded Shiji as "the first and last great work by historian, poems of Quyuan 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 to Literature: Sima Qian’s 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 times (Tang-Ming [T'ang-Ming]), as well as the vernacular novel of the late imperial times. 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 compiled in Ban Gu's Hanshu. Sima Qian expressed his suffering during Li Ling Affair and his perseverance in writing Shiji in these rhapsodies.
As an Astrologer
Sima Tan and later his son, Sima Qian were both court astrologers (taishi) 太史 in the Former Han Dynasty. At that time, astrologer was an important post, responsible for interpreting and predicting the course of government according to the influence of the Sun, Moon, stars, as well as other phenomena like sun eclipses, earthquakes, etc.
Before compiling Shiji, in 104 BC, with the help of his colleagues, Sima Qian created 'Taichuli' (which can be translated 'The first calendar') on the basis of 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.
Contribution to Journalism
The influencce of Sima Qian and his Shiji is not only limited to historioigraphy, but in it contains the essence of journalism in its broader definition - the pursuit of truth. In this aspect, Sima Qian employs a journalistic approach comparable to today's practice, undergoing the three levels of reporting, namely the collection, verification and analysis of information. Shiji is a model for the later historians, providing a methodology of objective reporting, bringing impact to 'journalism' in the historical field.
Collecting information: The historical data in Shiji was mainly derived from three main sources. Firstly, from the documents and books found in the Imperial Library, including authoritative sources like The Six Classics (《六經》), Analects of Confucius (《論語》), Mencius (《孟子》) and Zhanguoce (《戰國策》). Secondly, from the manuscripts that inherited from Sima Tan. Thirdly, from the firsthand data collected by Sima Qian through travelling the relics and his real-life experience in the contemporary dynasty.
Verifying information: Sima Qian insisted on the truthfulness of the data and would not put any unproven data in Shiji. This is why he used the firsthand data that he had collected during his travels. For instance, in order to verify the truthfulness of the ancient rumours and legends, he had been to the birthplace of Confucius and the place where the mythical Yellow Emperor rose to power. Sima Qian also quoted the speeches and works of the historical characters to act as proof of the historical events.
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 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 indepth analyses and insight, Sima Qian set an example for writing journalistic articles in later generations.
A Display of Journalistic Elements in his Work
Although Shiji was written more than two thousand years ago, it is a model for journalistic articles as it fulfils various elements of journalism, which makes its influence timeless.
Journalism's first obligation to the truth
Sima Qian not only visited the relics in person to verify historical data, but he also aimed to reveal the truth by writing Shiji. Unlike the historical records of the previous dynasty, Shiji not only covered those of high rank, but also every social stratum so as to form a true picture of the society. For instance, he wrote 'The Biographies of Assassinators' and 'The Biographies of Chivalrous Men' to reflect history from different angles.
Pursuit in objectivity
Sima Qian insisted on maintaining a neutral attitude in his writing. Although Shiji is not journalistic literature, Sima Qian made great effort in balancing different opinions. For example, he praised the achievement of Emperor Han Gaozu in unifying the country, while criticizing his cunning and dishonesty.
Sima Qian also adopted an objective method in the selection of data. In "Chronological Table of Six Kingdoms", he stated that the chronological order of the Six Kingdoms is so confusing that he would not take any unproven data as real. Moreover, in dealing with data that could not be proven, Sima Qian clearly listed out all versions by using the word "or".
Maintaining Independence from Those Covered
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.
- Sima Qian and His Shiji (http://www.members.tripod.com/~journeyeast/sima_qian.html)
- Significance of Shiji on literature (http://english.ccnt.com.cn/?catog=literature&file=040201&ads=service_001)
- 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.