Sima Qian

Eumenis Megalopoulos | Jun 6, 2024

Table of Content


The main goal of this work is to help the Chinese people to understand the history of China and the world. He is known as the creator of the Shi Ji, a grandiose work describing the history of China from the mythical ancestors to the modern times of Sima Qian.

There are different versions as to what year to consider as the date of birth of Sima Qian. The historian himself did not indicate a specific date in his works, speaking only about the approximate period and place of birth. In turn, the available indirect data on this subject is quite contradictory and unspecific, which also complicates the dating. For example, the work "Bo-u ji" says that Sima Qian was admitted to office "in the third year of the sixth month on the day i-mao", that is 107 BCE, at the age of 28 years, i.e. he was born in 135 BCE. On the other hand, one of the early Shih-ji commentators Zhang Shou-tze wrote that in 103 BCE Sima Qian was already 42 years old (which, in turn, gives 145 year BC). The scholarly debate has centered mainly on these two dates, although other versions have been put forward. Each point of view has its own arguments: for example, in favor of the year 135 speaks one of the historiographer's letters, written, according to experts, in 93 or 91 B.C. and stating that Sima Qian at that time had served at the court for over 20 years (and it is known that he entered the service there some time after his twentieth birthday). As for the year 145 BCE, for example, Cheng Jin-tsao cites as a proof the words of a historian, linking his childhood with the time of his father's relocation to the capital, the year 140.

The father of Sima Qian, Sima Tang, was a historiographer under Emperor Wu (Han Wu-di): his duties included managing the imperial library and overseeing the calendar. Under the influence of his father Sima Qian had already studied ancient writings by the age of ten. His teachers were the famous Confucianists Kun Ango (孔安國

On his return he was assigned to accompany imperial inspection expeditions. In 110 BC, at the age of 35, Sima Qian was sent on a military expedition against the Western "barbarians," but news of his father's fatal illness forced him to return to the capital. Sima Tang bequeathed his son to complete his historical research. Sima Qian took up this work in 109 B.C. In 105 B.C. he was chosen as one of the scholars called to reform the calendar. As an official of the highest rank, he also served as an advisor to the emperor.

In 99 BC, Sima Qian was involved in the case of Li Lin (李陵) and Li Guangli (李廣利), two commanders accused of failing in the campaign against the Xiongnu. The sovereign himself acted as prosecutor and Sima Qian, the only one in the entire corps of officials, dared to raise his voice in defense of the accused. The emperor sentenced Sima to death. The alternative, according to the laws of the day, was to offer the condemned a bribe or castration. For lack of money, tormented by shame and bound by his duty to his father to complete his work, Sima Qian chooses the latter.

The last years of the scholar's life are little known; the exact date of Sima Qian's death has not been established. Some researchers have suggested that he did not even have time to complete the "Historical Notes," but a study of the historian's autobiography later disproved this version.

The innovation of Sima Qian's historiographical approach is that it goes beyond the "court" history of the dynastic character. This form was laid down even before him and, naturally, continued to exist: see Tongshi (通史), All-Reflecting Mirror (資治通鑑, Zizhi Tongjian). The official history of the Han dynasty, Hanshu (漢書), was written by Ban Gu (班固) in the first century AD: it is framed along dynastic lines and has narrower objectives.

The early chronicles of the Dogan period are characterized by the desire of their authors only to record events, without giving them any interpretation. The question of historical dependencies and regularities was not yet raised at that time. In part this was due to the fact that such analysis becomes possible only after the accumulation of a certain amount of information. Sima Qian was the first in China and one of the first (along with Polybius) in the world who made an attempt to systematize historical data, generalize them and draw certain conclusions. It should be noted, however, that although the works of Polybius and Sima Qian are similar, there are features that significantly distinguish them from each other.

If the historical work of Polybius focused on summarizing a short period in the existence of several countries, the study of Sima Qian examines the entire history of China from mythical times to the II century BC, which in total is not less than two thousand years. The book by the court historiographer has 130 chapters and more than 500,000 characters - an extremely voluminous work, which had no analogues and precedents in modern science. The development of Chinese historiography actually entered a new phase with the appearance of the Historical Notes; the interest in historical science increased and its position strengthened.

The book is a complex work, the material of some sections (ben ji, shi jia) is distributed in chronological order, others (zhi) imply a thematic breakdown. In terms of composition this is a complex work, the material in some sections (ben ji, shi jia) is arranged in chronological order, in others (zhi) it is arranged thematically: sections on music, ceremonies, calendars, beliefs, economy, as well as detailed biographies (le zhuani). These include, for example, the first known biography of Lao-tzu, the legendary author of the Tao De Jing, as well as biographies of Ancient Chinese generals and statesmen such as Li Si, Wu Qi, Wu Tzu-hsu, and others. "The Shi Ji was a private historical study (rather than an official chronicle) and this allowed the author to use a lighter form and colorful language that has remained for posterity the highest example of the artistic word.

In connection with a significant number of later interpolations, editorial corrections, additions and changes, as well as factors relating to the personality of the historiographer himself, quite a significant problem from the point of view of modern researchers is the task of establishing the authenticity of the text of the "Shi Ji". Scholars pay attention, for example, to the chronological limits of the narrative (almost all records beyond 104 BC are questioned as to the authorship), as well as to the tabooing rule, which Sima Qian followed: the historian avoided the use of not only the characters that corresponded to the names of emperors (respectively, those sections where the sign "tan" occurs, must be considered not belonging to Sima Qian.

The problem of authorship is also expressed in another ambiguity: scholars are faced with the question of the extent to which Sima Qian used the results of his father's work in the Historical Notes. It is known that the historiographer promised Sima Tang to "expound in detail the news of the past, systematized by you" - from this it follows that at the time of his death Sima Tang had already managed to collect, process and expound a certain amount of information. On the solution of this problem depends also the assessment of Sima Qian as a historian; in this connection scientists have developed a certain set of criteria, aimed at determining the authorship.

Some commentators, such as Pei Yin, thought that the identifier could be the non-standard term "taishigun" ("court historiographer") used by Sima Qian instead of the usual "taishilin": it was hypothesized that the son used this special form as a sign of respect for his father and, therefore, wherever the narrative begins with the impersonal "Court historiographer said" or similar expression, it belongs to Sima Tang. This version has also been accepted by Western specialists; however, researchers have drawn attention to the fact that in his autobiography Sima Qian uses the same term in reference to himself, referring to the case of Ling - from which it follows that the distinction cannot be made in this way.

In this aspect a certain guarantee of accuracy is provided by the chronological criterion: in some sections those facts and events which took place before Sima Qian's birth are stated from the position of an eyewitness, from which it clearly follows that the historiographer himself could not have written about them. In the general case, however, researchers rely on the simultaneous application of several private criteria for determining authorship, rather than on one general and universal one.

In addition to the Shi chi, there are eight odes (compositions in the Fu genre) of Sima Qian recorded in the Hanshu. The most famous among them is "On the Misfortune of the Grieving Scholar.

The asteroid 12620 Sima Qian is named after Sima Qian. Sima Qian is depicted in Wu Shuang Pu (無雙 譜, Table of Incomparable Heroes) by Jin Gulyan.

Like his father, Sima Qian worked as an astrologer in the imperial court. Astrology and astronomy were not separated at that time. The duties of the court astrologer included measuring the passage of time, and predicting the success of certain activities of the ruler, depending on the movement of celestial bodies, explaining unusual phenomena in the sky (such as solar eclipses), as well as in nature (e.g., earthquakes). This activity was based on the theory of the "celestial mandate.

In 105 BC, Sima Qian was chosen to carry out a major reform of the calendar. Together with Tang Du (唐都), Deng Ping (邓平) and Luo Xia-hong (落下闳), Sima Qian developed a new complete calendar, called Taichu (太初历) from the era of Emperor W. The new time-keeping system took effect in 104-101 BC.

The year of Taichu was 365.25 days (to be exact 365 385 1539 {\displaystyle 365{\begin{matrix}{\frac {385}{1539}}\end{matrix}}} days) and was divided into 12 lunar months, each lasting 29.52 days ( 29 43 81 {\displaystyle 29{\begin{matrix}{\frac {43}{81}}\end{matrix}}} ). The new calendar, based on the Qin lunar calendar (Zhuangxuili 颛顼历), was a real revolution in the Chinese system of measuring the flow of time. It is believed to be the most accurate calendar of ancient China, based on careful astronomical observations.

The main principles that determine the structure of the circle of people's historical life, Sima Qian calls straightforwardness (zhong), reverence (jing) and culture (wen).

The first of the principles is, in modern parlance, the principle of centrism. The written sign, by means of which the word "zhong" is recorded, is a combination of the symbols "middle" and "heart," meaning something that comes from the heart itself--pureheartedness, straightforwardness, sincerity, truthfulness, and other terms from this synonymous series. In this case "zhong" is explained not simply as one of the many properties of man, but as one of the few valuable, attributive characteristics of "zhen" (humanity), which, in fact, is what makes a man human, makes him human. It is straightforwardness as an attributive, profound characteristic of human nature that, according to Sima Qian, constitutes one of the three cornerstone principles of political power.

The second of these principles is "jing" - honor, reverence, respect. Rooted in the cult of ancestors, reverence for the gods (parents and elders in general), as statehood was formed, the Jing gradually became more and more important as a political principle: respect for the ruler. Of course, a ruler who is dignified, wise and just, one who observes the laws and is guided by them, while guiding the life of the citizens of his state in a constructive direction with their help.

In the end, the third of the basic principles, which, according to Sima Qian, defines the circle of the historical life of a people, is the principle of culture, civilization - "wen". In the same way as straightforwardness and deference, he treats culture, the cultural principle, too, not as one of the many properties of man, but as a direct expression of humanity in man, something that is inherent only in him. But if respect or love for another is a characteristic of man's eternal nature, "wen" is something acquired, a characteristic of man as an exclusively social being. In this case, the cultural element, "wen," differs from social laws. Culture is something that broadens man's horizons, fills them with new content, which becomes richer over time, while laws, on the contrary, are the regulators of cultural activity, the rules by which human activity is actually guided.

In this way, "zhong" (uprightness), "jing" (honor) and "wen" (culture) are, according to Sima Qian, the three whales on which the life of a people is based throughout the whole cycle of its historical existence. The course of the processes that form this cycle is conditioned by the inevitable change in the foundations of the historical life of a people. This change becomes inevitable insofar as power based on one of the principles is inevitably reborn as a result of transformation according to its corresponding principle. Thus straightforwardness, sincerity-"zhong," hypertrophied as a principle of political power and becoming an end in itself, inevitably degenerates into what Sima Qian termed savagery-"e. Accordingly, power, which seeks to rule on the basis of straightforwardness alone, whether it wishes to do so or not, comes to a state of affairs that condemns people to savagery and, ultimately, to the degradation of the social order, which urges a transition to a different order based on the principle of respect.

However, the Jing principle of reverence also has its pitfalls. Growing out of one of the best instincts of human nature, the instinct to honor (above all, parents), deference, in the process of forming organic society, begins in its evolution to reorient itself toward law, power, and the ruler. And in this there must be a reasonable measure. If the "ching" reverence is transformed into superstition, deification of the one who is not worthy of such, in other (more modern) words, into the appearance of the cult of personality, it conditions the onset of social chaos and further leads to the urgency of transition to the next level of social structure, which proceeds from the principle of "wen" - cultural beginning, civilization.

But the Wen principle is also ambivalent in its essence. The unrestrained adherence to it and its promotion as the only correct and universally valid, causes the domination in society not of genuine culture, but of its surrogate - formal, lifeless, one might say scholastic "pseudo-education" and "pseudo-scientific". In relations between people, the exaggeration of the real role of the cultural principle leads to the violation of good-neighborly, natural ties, mutilates, or even eliminates simplicity, sincerity, informality, cordiality in them. Hypertrophied, culture turns out to be false, shameful, and surrogate. But to get out of this seemingly dead end, to save man and society from this insincerity, there is, according to Sima Qian, nothing better than to return to straightforwardness. The cycle closes.


  1. Sima Qian
  2. Сыма Цянь
  3. ^ 王國維: "絕不可考......然視為與武帝相終始,當無大誤。"
  4. "...most systematically presented in The Grand Scribe’s Records written by Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BC) in the Western Han Dynasty" Early China - A Social and Cultural History, page 48, Cambridge University Press.
  5. «Sima Qian | Chinese historian and scientist». Encyclopedia Britannica (en inglés). Consultado el 20 de mayo de 2021.
  6. I. Sui-yuen Sun, T. R. Martin y M. Berti (2008). «Sima Qian. Uomini e storie dell'antica Cina» (resumen) (en italiano). Archivado desde el original el 23 de septiembre de 2015. Consultado el 6 de diciembre de 2010.
  7. «Historiadores antiguos: Sima Qian». Historiadores antiguos: Sima Qian. 13 de enero de 2020. Consultado el 20 de mayo de 2021.
  8. «Castración o muerte: el dilema del gran historiador chino». BBC News Mundo. 8 de octubre de 2012. Consultado el 20 de mayo de 2021.
  9. ^ Nell'onomastica cinese il cognome precede il nome. "Sima" è il cognome.

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