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Sima Qian: China’s first great historian

By Mubarak Ali
March 03, 2018

Before the unification of China, it territories were divided into a number of large and small states. The ruling dynasties of these states were conscious of their history and appointed record keepers to chronicle the important events that occurred during their reign.

They also used the information compiled by record keepers to legitimise their rule on the basis of their royal lineage. It was the responsibility of the record keeper to mention the wars, conquests, administrative measures, rebellions and reforms that took place during a ruler’s reign. The history of each state created a sense of identity among its people and separated them from other regions on the basis of their cultural customs and values. The historical identities of various states created major hindrances to the unification of China.

When the Qian Dynasty came into power, its first emperor Shihuangdi (259BC-210BC) unified China for the first time and built an empire after doing away with the system of independent states. During his rule, the legalist philosophers guided him on how to consolidate his power. Their approach was driven by an aversion to history. These legalist philosophers argued that history did not have any role in power politics. They gave references to past rulers who had acquired political domination without any knowledge of history.

On the advice of these philosophers, the emperor ordered that written books should be deposited at the Royal Court. All books about China’s history before its unification were burnt while books on agriculture, medicine and astrological were allowed to remain on the bookshelves. The policy of the dynasty was to erase any historical memory that was associated with their former rulers and the region.

However, when the Han Dynasty replaced the Qian, it restored the writing of history and appointed scribes to record the events of the period. Sima Tan began to write a comprehensive history of China in addition to writing official chronicles.

After completing two chapters, he became seriously ill. Before his death, he asked his son Sima Qian to complete his work and the latter promised to fulfil his father’s request.

However, Sima Qian encountered a major problem in this regard. One day, when he was present at the court, a messenger brought the news that the Han Dynasty’s general Li Ling, who was sent to fight against the nomads, had surrendered in the battlefield. The news shocked the emperor and all those who were present at the court blamed the general for his cowardice.

Sima Qian was the only one who spoke in favour of the general. He argued that without any reinforcements, the general had no alternative but to lay down his arms. The emperor was furious over Sima Qian’s opposition and ordered his execution. He was given two options: either to pay a large amount to save his life or to be castrated. Since he did not have money to pay, he was forced to go with the second option. He endured this humiliation because he wanted to fulfil the promise that he had made to his dying father to complete the account of China’s history.

The comprehensive account of China’s history, which was completed by Sima Qian, is titled ‘Shiji’ (‘Records of the Grand Historian’). In his book, Sima Qian provided a detailed account of China’s history for nearly 2,000 years that began from the legendary Yellow Emperor to events that had occurred in his times. The book was written on pages that were made by bamboo slits and was divided into 130 chapters. He used all available resources – including official papers, documents, and oral accounts – and travelled throughout China to collect material for his book.

He traced the history of royal dynasties and the important events that occurred during their rule. Sima Qian also wrote biographies of aristocrats, philosophers, intellectuals, artists and other professionals. He adopted a literary style of writing history, which appears to be linguistically appealing. ‘Shiji’ began to represent the model that was followed by future historians of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. He was the first historian who widened his account to encompass the cultural and social history of China.

While Sima Qian paid a heavy price to complete his comprehensive account of China’s history, his work continues to keep his name alive and is recognised for its authenticity and veracity. He had the courage to oppose the opinion of the courtiers and support a fallen general. We find the same courage in the remarks that he includes at the end of each chapter of his book after analysing key historical events. Sima Qian’s work made him the first great historian of China.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.