Ancient China has an incredibly rich historiographical tradition that is nearly as vast and complex as that of the Greeks. At the basis of this tradition lay Sima Qian’s ‘Records of the Grand Historian’, a monumental work on China’s history that spans the period between the reign of the mythical Yellow Emperor and that of the Han emperor Wu, Sima Qian’s contemporary. Sima Qian has been called the Chinese Herodotus, which at first glance seems to be a textbook example of the Eurocentric tendency to compare great eastern people to their western counterparts, but there are indeed some significant similarities between the two. Nevertheless, Sima Qian’s magnum opus – the Records of the Grand Historian, has a lot of unique Chinese characteristics as well.
Historiography in ancient China
Unlike Herodotus, Sima Qian was not the first one among his people to systematically investigate the past. Ever since the Shang dynasty (1558-1046 BC), court scribes kept annals in which they recorded the king’s words and deeds, along with remarkable natural occurrences. The ancient Chinese people believed that natural disasters were the direct result of the king’s behavior, so they took great care to record these events in a concise and objective way. This makes the annals highly reliable. The Spring and Autumn Annals (722-481 BC), for example, offers modern historians a lot of useful contemporary information on the Warring States Period. The court annals were written down for consultation by later astrologists. These astrologists would look for causal relationships between unfortunate events and the actions of certain kings.
A Grand History
Sima Qian (145-86 BC) was the son of Sima Tan, a court astrologer serving under the Han emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BC). During Wu’s reign Han China reached its zenith. He expanded Chinese influence westward to Central Asia and ruled the largest empire the world had yet seen. Emperor Wu had awarded Sima Tan with the office of ‘Grand Historian’. The Grand Historian’s duty was to investigate court annals to find out which days on the yearly calendar were favorable or unfavorable. Historiography in ancient China started off as a sub-discipline of astrology, but Sima Tan had greater ambitions. He wanted to create a more systematic work on the past, that included information from all the annals, records, sayings, and stories known to him. Sima Tan died before he could finish his work, however, and his son Sima Qian took it upon his to finish his father’s work.
Sima Qian had already built up a good resume as a researcher before he succeeded his father as Grand Historian. He had traveled across China as royal attendant and he had visited all the historically significant places. He also interviewed the local people, like Herodotus did. He probably did this to help his father with his work. Sima Qian was an independent researcher whose investigations went beyond what was expected of him as an astrologer. His work – and that of his father – was a highly personal endeavor. When his father died in 109 BC, Sima Qian continued his work and in 105 BC he was appointed Grand Historian. He spent most of his life writing his history, despite the hardships that were brought on him. Because of intrigues at the court, Sima Qian was threatened with a death sentence, imprisoned and castrated, but he refused to commit honorable suicide because he wanted to finish his father’s work. That way, he entered history as a martyr for historiography.
The Records of the Grand Historian
Like with Herodotus, Sima Qian’s work was originally subdivided into dozens of separate stories, but unlike Herodotus’s work, Sima Qian’s work was never put into a chronological order. This may confuse the modern western reader, who is used to viewing history as one chronologically ordered narrative. Nevertheless, when one learns to appreciate all these chapters as individual texts, they turn out to be very interesting. Here is an overview of the Records of the Grand Historian.
- Basic Annals
The first 12 chapters bear great resemblance to the annalistic tradition among earlier Chinese historians. These chapters give a concise account of the rule of all kings and emperors from all Chinese dynasties, from the mythical Five Emperors to the legendary Xia dynasty, the historical Shang and Zhou dynasties, the Warring States Period and the Qin and Han dynasties. They give a basic chronological overview of history as it was viewed during the Han period.
The following 10 chapters consist of one genealogy and a few chronological tables. These are meant to complement the information contained in the Basic Annals.
The next 8 chapters all deal with the history of one specific aspect of Chinese culture, like ritual, administrative practices, and music. These texts are more prosaic.
The following 30 chapters deal with the ruling dynasties of the Warring States and the subsequent Qin and Han dynasties. The material largely overlaps with the material covered in the Basic Annals and the Tables, but these chapters are more prosaic overall and when discussing the more recent emperors (the Qin and the Han) Sima Qian offers more detail on the individual rulers.
- Ranked Biographies
The last 60 chapters deal with the biographies of individual people, ranging from emperors to commoners. To the modern reader this is by far the most interesting part of the work, but it is also the least objective. The biographies are mainly used to provide moral examples for Sima Qian’s own time. Nevertheless, they give a very life-like impression of what life in ancient China was like. Besides, the biographies often highlight negative aspects of Chinese emperors and their rule that are not mentioned in the Basic Annals. The fact that Sima Qian did not shy away from mentioning the negative aspects of royal power in a society that viewed the emperor as the Son of Heaven does speak for his objectivity. The biographies are written in narrative prose, which makes them relatively easy to read.
Although Sima Qian was certainly not the first Chinese historian, he did reinvent his profession. By his personal endeavor, Chinese historiography was transformed from a sub-discipline of astrology into a true science similar to modern historical studies. The Records of the Grand Historian became a seminal work to later Chinese historians. No less than 24 other Chinese historians composed their own histories to emulate Sima Qian. They adopted his prosaic and biography-oriented style and broke with the age-old annalistic tradition. Sima Qian is remembered as one of the founding fathers of Chinese civilization, along with Qin Shi Huang and Confucius, and even surpasses emperor Wu in significance. The latter is now remembered mostly for his cruel treatment of this Grand Historian who was so dedicated to his work.