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Sima Qian
Portrait of Sima Qian
Statue of Sima Qian
Statue of Sima Qian
Sima Qian
Portrait of Sima Qian

Sima Qian perhaps was Chinese first world-famous professional historian in ancient times. Widely known for his masterpiece----The Records of The Grand Historian, Sima Qian was highly acclaimed as the father of Chinese historian, and his representative works also became the No.1 of Chinese ancient 24 official-compiled historical books. Lu Xun even positively commented this unprecedented book as The Unmetrical Li Sao and Incomparable Splendor of Historian(史家之绝唱,无韵之离骚. By the way, as for Li Sao, something explanative should be additionally noted. Li Sao in Chinese literature, especially ancient literature of China, belonged in the system of Chu Ci, or Verse of Chu State, the origin of southern China’s literature and also the representative of romantic-style literature in ancient China. To a great degree, Chu Ci represented by Li Sao and Zhuang Zi were the real source of Chinese Literature, although someone said Book of Songs should be origin of Chinese Literature) . Lu Xun was a picky and acid-tongued writer in modern China. Majorities of his essays and writings are full of criticism and dissatisfactions except his comment to Sima Qian. It was an evident witness to show how influential and great Sima Qian and his renowned The Records of The Grand Historian were! In details, Sima Qian’s The Records of The Grand Historian strictly did not belong to the official historical books under the supervision and support of government in different dynasties. Instead, it was just a private book written by the governmental official in charge of recording the historical events and the important acts and tongues of emperors. Moreover, according to the original meaning of Sima Qian, the completed book was planned to hide in deep mountains till the coming generation discovered it and understood it, because many contents in this book were riddled with individual values and standpoints in opposition to the mainstream of that time as well as his personal displeasure about Han Dynasty and the Emperors of Han Dynasty. But after the death of Sima Qian, his grandson, a man called Yang Yun(杨恽), made this book with over 520,000 words be known by the world. Since then, the influence of this book was extensively and complicatedly famous in China and became the sample for different dynasties’ governmental historians or emperor-appointed historians to edit or compile official historical books of last dynasty. In Qing Dynasty, the scholarly and talented Emperor Qian Long bought The Records of The Grand Historian into the official-edited 24 historical books and listed it as the top one. In history, Sima Qian and Ban Gu(the writer of Book of Han Dynasty, another famous historian in Eastern Han Dynasty) were called Ban Ma together. Traditionally, in academia, scholars or learners called him Tai Shi Gong instead of his name or literary name. Tai Shi Gong or Lord of Tai Shi(太史公) was the title of his post in government.

Family Background of Sima Qian ---Material Source from The Biography of Sima Qian in Han Shu

In the far ancient times, Lord Zhuan Xu(颛顼) assigned Zhong(重), Nan Zheng, as Si Tian, or Managing Sky Observation and Li(黎), Huo Zheng, as Si Di, or Managing Earth Observation. During the administration of Tang Yu(唐虞, Lord Yao, one of the primitive lords of China known as one of forefathers of Chinese people ), the descendants of Zhong and Li were also appointed to be the old posts of their fathers. Up to Xia and Shang periods, the offspring inherited the posts of managing the sky and earth. During Zhou Period, their descendant was Chengbo Xiufu(程伯休甫) . Amid Zhou during the reign of King Xuan, however, the posts succeeded by offspring of Zhong Li all the time, were replaced by officials with family name Sima. Sima family took charge of Zhou History for generations. During the late period of Zhou Dynasty, Sima family moved to Jin State and later left to Shao Liang(少梁). Since their remove to Jin State, some parts went to Wei State, some went to Zhao State and some went to Qin State. Sima family in Wei State assisted Zhong Shan Kingdom; Sima family in Zhao State was an authority. and a historically famous figure, Kuai Kui(蒯聩) , was said to be the posterity of Sima Family. Amid Qin Dynasty, the great-great-grandson of Kuai Kui, Ang, became a king in Yin Area, which was the former center of Shang. Up to the war between Han State represented by Liu Bang and Chu State represented by Xiang Yu, Ang surrendered to Liu Bang. Another branch of Sima Family in Qin State was Sima Cuo(司马错) of late Warring States Period at one time debated with Zhang Yi(张仪), a quite famous speechmaker,on whether they conquered Shu Area(today’s Sichuan and Chongqing area roughly). Finally, The King Huiwang of Qin State allocated Sima Cuo to lead troops to occupying Shu Area as well as staying in Shu to administrate it. The grandson of Sima Cuo was Sima Ji(司马蓟). Sima Ji served as a fellow of Bai Qi(白起), crowned as Wu An Jun of Qin State. They changed Shao Liang to be Xiayang. Besides, they together killed and buried more than 300,000 soldiers of Zhao State in Changping Campaign(长平之战). The grandson of Sima Ji was Sima Chang(司马昌) who used to be the official of Qin Dynasty in charge of steel production and reservation. Sima Chang’s son was Sima Wuyi(司马勿怿),who was said to be the administrator of Han Dynasty Market; Sima Wuyi’s son was Sima Xi(司马喜) who acted as Wu Da Fu(五大夫). Sima Xi’s son was Sima Tan(司马谈), the father of Sima Qian acted as Tai Shi Gong of West Han Dynasty.

Sima Tan ---The Father of Sima Qian

Commemorative Coins with Image of Sima Qian
Commemorative Coins with
Image of Sima Qian

Sima Tan actually was not a Confucian. His knowledge was mixed with a lot of other branches of academic knowledge. Sima Tan learnt the ancient astronomy from Tang Du, Book of Changes from Yang He and Taoist knowledge from Huang Zi. Sima Tan served as Tai Shi Gong between reigns of Jian Yuan and Yuan Feng. Sima Tan once did a great contribution to the academic summarization and development of ancient China. He was the first man who summarized the academic characteristics of Pre-Qin Period of China. He thought Yin-Yang School was full of limitations that made learners feel dreaded and awed, but it ordered four seasons of a year. Confucianism was extensive but short of importance as well as overworked but lacked of contribution, but it emphasizes the rituals and morals of social orders among lords, officials, fathers and sons, and this is positively useful and beneficial. Mohism was too thrifty and prudent to be followed, but its thought of strengthening the basics and decreasing the consumption was feasible. Legalism was too strict and short of humanity to be accepted. Ming School(名家, an academic school featured of studying in distinguishing the objects and conceptions ) was easily apt to distorting the truth. To Taoism, Sima Tan gave a high praise and comment. He thought Taoism could concentrate people’s attention and absorbed the quintessence of different schools. Both for state and individual, keeping Taoism is the best way to maintain the whole state in stability and prosperity as well as the individual in longevity and healthiness. In his view, Taoism rooted in disobedience to nature always circulates everything automatically and naturally.

Life of Sima Qian

Sima Qian was the son of Sima Tan. Sima Qian was born at Longmen and did the farming and shepherding in his childhood. At the age of 10, Sima Qian begun to recite Ancient Classics. At the age of 20, Sima Qian begun his visiting southwardly to Yangtze River and Huai River, and He visited Shao Xing (anciently called Kuai Ji), Yu Xue, Jiuyi Mountainous Area as well as Ruan and Xiang Rivers. He also visited northwardly to many ancient relics such as the Areas of Wen River and Si River, the capitals of Qi and Lu States, the former residences of Confucius and so on. Via this long-term experiences and learning, Sima Qian learnt a lot and collected a large amount of material sources that became the great origins of The Records of The Grand Historian. Sima Qian at the same year became Lang Zhong, an official name in West Han Dynasty. Later on, Sima Tan died, and before his death, he told his son, Sima Qian, that he must learn from Confucius to weave a classic history from the beginning of China to the day of Emperor Wudi of Han Dynasty. Sima Qian shed tears and answered: Your Son, I, is not clever but will strictly follow what you told me. After Sima Tan’s death, Sima Qian succeeded from his father and became Tai Shi Gong in charge of recording the emperors’ words as well as the important events. Besides, he also managed the Imperial or National Library of Han Dynasty, historically called Shishi Jinkui(石室金匮), which gave a great hand to assist Sima Qian with writing The Record of The Grand Historian. In line with the late study and some historical records, Sima Qian wanted to be a person like Confucius and did his own devotions to the development of Chinese culture. Due to Confucius’ achievements in weaving and editing Chun Qiu or The Historical Records of the Spring and Autumn(春秋, one of thirteen classics of Confucianism and also the basic textbook of ancient Chinese students to pass the royal examinations). Sima Qian wanted to follow the way of Confucius to create another great historical classic next to Chun Qiu. Incidentally, Sima Qian left a large number of dialogues with Hu Sui and Chu Shaosun(褚少孙), who was said to write some parts The Records of The Grand Historian because the parts concerned in the book later missed probably was intentionally destroyed by authorities of Han Dynasty for the content of these parts were illegal and treasonous in the eyes of those authorities.

Sima Qian’ Suffering from Castration Penalty

In the battle of Han Troops against Hun Troops, the General Li Ling(李陵) of Han Dynasty failed and surrendered to the Hun, which made Emperor Wudi furious. The honest Sima Qian tried to speak well of Li Ling for many times, which of course annoyed Emperor Wudi very much. Sima Qian was warned and eventually sentenced to castration penalty. It was a deathful result and shame to Sima Qian. He at first could not stand up to such a big humiliation to his soul and body. However, his father’s will helped him conquer this disaster and continued his writing of this great book. The target or principle of his Record of The Grand Historian is Forming an Academician’ Viewpoints via Researching the Oneness of Human and Heaven and Combining the Change of Ancientness and Modernness. His important letter to Ren An is a precious material for Sima Qian Life Study.