Sima Qian

The prestige of history as a field worthy of study and historical writing as an honored pursuit were strongly rooted in Chinese intellectual life from earliest antiquity. The Han dynasty had the distinction of producing the earliest and most important major historical work.

It is titled the Shiji (Shih-chi), or Records of the Historian. It was the work of two men, Sima Dan (Ssu-ma T’an), who died in 110 b.c.e., and his more famous son, Sima Qian (145–87 b.c.e.). The monumental work totaled 130 chapters and more than half a million words.

The father-and-son team successively held the title Lord Grand Astrologer in the Han government. The title suggests that in antiquity the role of historian was closely associated with astronomical affairs and divination. With their deep knowledge historians were also accepted from antiquity as mentors and teachers of rulers.

Such ideals were endorsed and encouraged by Confucius and Confucians who held a deep sense of history and honored memories of the past. Confucians believed that to understand humanity, one had to study history. Two of the five Confucian Classics, the Book of History (Shujing) and the Annals of Spring and Autumn (Qungiu), are works of history.

Sima Dan began a project to write a complete history of the world, as the Chinese knew it, from the beginning down to his own time. Although the feudal states during the preimperial period had kept their historical records, the unification of China by the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty and the following Han dynasty required a national history. Sima Dan’s position gave him access to government archives, but he died long before he could complete the task.

According to Sima Qian, his father: "Grasped my hand [when on his death bed] and said weeping: ‘Our ancestors were Grand Historians for the house of Chou ... Will this tradition end with me? If you in turn become Grand Historian, you must continue the work of our ancestors ... Now filial piety begins with the serving of your parents; next you must serve your sovereign; and finally you must make something of yourself, that your name may go down through the ages to the glory of your father and mother ... Now the House of Han has arisen and all the world is united under one rule. I have been Grand Historian, and yet I have failed to make a record of all the enlightened rulers and wise lords, the faithful ministers and gentlemen who were ready to die for duty. I am fearful that the historical materials will be neglected and lost. You must remember and think of this!’"

Sima Qian received an excellent education. He traveled widely throughout China and knew of local traditions and men who had participated in the great events of the day. He carried on his father’s legacy, completing his monumental work, especially considering the tragic circumstances in his later life.

He had taken the unpopular stand of defending a general who had surrendered to the nomads called Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) for which he was sentenced to death in absentia. This infuriated Emperor Wu (Han Wudi), who condemned him to be castrated.

Although a fine would have been accepted as substitution, Sima Qian did not have the required sum and refused to accept help from his friends. Thus, he suffered the humiliating punishment but lived to complete his work.

The Shiji is a multifaceted masterpiece of organization. It is divided into five sections as follows:
  1. Basic Annals (12 chapters): the account of principal events from the legendary Yellow Emperor down to the reign of Emperor Wu.
  2. Chronological Tables (10 chapters): tables of dates for important events, holders of government positions from the establishment of the Han to that date, and genealogical information of ruling families down to his time.
  3. Treatises or Monographs (eight chapters): essays devoted to history and important subjects, for example, music, economics, the calendar, astronomy, rites, and the Yellow River and canals.
  4. Hereditary Houses (30 chapters): detailed accounts and collective biographies of earlier feudal families.
  5. Biographies (70 chapters): lives of famous or interesting people, including good and evil officials, historians, philosophers, politicians, rogues, rebels,
assassins, imperial favorites, merchants, and foreign lands and peoples, including aboriginal tribes, some lumped together as groups, others receiving individual chapters. This section ended with a biography of his father, Sima Dan, an outline of his own career, and his motives and methods in writing the work

Sima Qian’s format became the standard and was copied by authors of subsequent dynastic histories that chronicled imperial China. They are unsurpassed in the world for their detail and order. This work is also notable for its elegance of style, emulated but never equaled by later historians.

In addition, the work is a model of objectivity, with quotations from fi rsthand sources. In the fi rst century c.e., another family of great historians, surnamed Ban (Pan), would write another great work of historiography called the Hanshu (Han Shu, or Book of Han).

Begun by Ban Biao (Pan Piao), 32–92 c.e., it was completed by his son Ban Gu (Pan Ku) and daughter Ban Zhao (Pan Ch’ao). These two monumental works mark the Han dynasty as the era of great historians who set the standard for later generations.