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Sima Qian (ca. 145–86 BC) was a Prefect of the Grand Scribes (太史令) of the Han Dynasty. He is regarded as the father of Chinese historiography because of his highly praised work, Records of the Grand Historian (史記), an overview of the history of China covering more than two thousand years from the Yellow Emperor to Emperor Han Wudi (漢武帝). His definitive work laid the foundation for later Chinese historiography.
After his travels, he was chosen to be a Palace Attendant in the government whose duties were to inspect different parts of the country with Emperor Han Wudi. In 110 BC, at the age of thirty-five, Sima Qian was sent westward on a military expedition against some "barbarian" tribes. That year, his father fell ill and could not attend the Imperial Feng Sacrifice. Suspecting his time was running out, he summoned his son back to complete the historical work he had begun. Sima Tan wanted to follow the Annals of Spring and Autumn - the first chronicle in the history of Chinese literature. Fuelled by his father's inspiration, Sima Qian started to compile Shiji in 109 BC. In 105 BC, Sima was among the scholars chosen to reform the calendar. As a senior imperial official, Sima was also in the position to offer counsel to the emperor on general affairs of state.
In 99 BC, Sima Qian got involved in the Li Ling Affair: Li Ling and Li Guangli (李廣利), two military officers who led a campaign against the Xiongnu in the north, were defeated and taken captive. Emperor Han Wudi attributed the defeat to Li Ling, and all the officials in the government condemned Li Ling for the defeat. Sima was the only person to defend Li Ling, who had never been his friend but whom he respected. Emperor Han Wudi interpreted Sima’s defence of Li Ling as an attack on his brother-in-law, who had also fought against the Xiongnu without much success, and sentenced Sima to death. At that time, execution could be commuted either by money or castration. Since Sima did not have enough money to atone his "crime", he chose the latter and was then thrown into prison, where he endured three years. He described his pain thus: "When you see the jailer you abjectly touch the ground with your forehead. At the mere sight of his underlings you are seized with terror... Such ignominy can never be wiped away."
In 96 BC, on his release from prison, Sima chose to live on as a palace eunuch so as to complete his histories, rather than commit suicide as was expected of a gentleman-scholar. As Sima Qian's words explained:
The losses he [Li Ling] had formerly inflicted on the enemy were such that his renown filled the Empire! After his disgrace, I was ordered to give my opinion. I extolled his merits, hoping the Emperor would take a wider view, but ...in the end it was decided I was guilty of trying to mislead the Emperor...
I had not the funds to pay a fine in lieu of my punishment, and my colleagues and associates spoke not a word in my behalf. Had I chosen suicide, no one would have credited me with dying for a principle. Rather, they would have thought the severity of my offense allowed no other way out. It was my obligation to my father to finish his historical work which made me submit to the knife...If I had done otherwise , how could I have ever had the face to visit the graves of my parents?
...There is no defilement so great as castration. One who has undergone this punishment is nowhere counted as a man. This is not just a modern attitude; it has always been so. Even an ordinary fellow is offended when he has to do business with a eunuch -- how much more so, then, a gentleman! Would it not be an insult to the court and my former colleagues if now I, a menial who sweeps floors, a mutilated wretch, should raise my head and stretch my eyebrows to argue right and wrong?
I am fit now for only guarding the palace women's apartments. I can hope for justification only after my death, when my histories become known to the world.
Although the style and form of Chinese historical writings varied through the ages, Shiji has defined the quality and style from then onwards. Before Sima, histories were written as 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). The Chinese historical form was codified in the second dynastic history by Ban Gu’s (班固) History of Han (漢書), but historians regard Sima’s work as their model, which stands as the "official format" of the history of China.
In writing Shiji, Sima 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. Sima's influence on the writing style of histories in other places is also evident in, for example The History of Korea.
The influence is derived from the following key elements of his writing:Skillful depiction Sima portrayed many distinguished subjects based on true historical information. He would illustrate the response of the subject by placing him in a sharp contrast or juxtaposition, and then 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's new approach in writing involved using language which 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; even Lu Xun (魯迅) regarded Shiji as "the first and last great work by historians, poems of Qu Yuan without rhyme." (史家之絕唱，無韻之離騷) in his Hanwenxueshi Gangyao (《漢文學史綱要》).Concise language The style was simple, concise, fluent, and easy-to-read. Sima made his own comments while recounting the historical events. In writing the biographies in Shiji, he avoided making general descriptions, and instead tried to catch the essence of the events. He would portray the subjects concretely, giving the readers vivid images with strong artistic appeal.
Before compiling Shiji, in 104 BC, Sima Qian created Taichuli (which can be translated as 'The first calendar') on the basis of the Qin calendar. Taichuli was one of the most advanced calendars of the time. The creation of Taichuli was regarded as a revolution in the Chinese calendar tradition, as it stated that there were 365.25 days in a year and 29.53 days in a month.
Sima adopted a new method in sorting out the historical data and a new approach to writing historical records to establish the relationship between heavenly law and men. He analysed the 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.
Sima emphasised the role of men in affecting the historical development of China. It is the first time in Chinese history that men were put under the spotlight in the analysis of historical development. He also denounced Emperor Han Wudi, who was superstitious, and prayed to gods extravagantly. In addition, he also proposed his historical perception that a country cannot escape from the fate of the boom-bust cycle. With these in-depth analyses and insight, Sima set an example for writing journalistic articles in later generations.
Unlike Hanshu, which was written under the supervision of the Imperial Dynasty, Shiji was a privately written historiography. Although Sima was the Prefect of the Grand Scribes in the Han government, he refused to write Shiji as an official historiography covering only those of high rank. The work also covers people of the lower classes and is therefore considered a "veritable record" of the darker side of the dynasty.
The minor planet 12620 Simaqian is named in his honour.