Sima Qian and the Record of the Grand Historian

Sima Qian, historian

Life Story of Sima Qian

The Chinese have a strong tradition of a deep love and respect for history. Historical works were valued and studied by all scholars and rulers. From the earliest dynasties there were official historians in the court. It was their duty to make faithful records of important events happening in their day.

Confucius helped to develop this sense of history by editing The Spring and Autumn Annals, in which he gives appraisals to important historical figures and events.

Another book, The Book of History, one of the five Confucian classics, is also a work of history. In ancient China, history not only provided information about the past, but also gave political and moral instruction. Several historical works were produced in the pre-Qin period, but no attempt was ever made to compile a comprehensive history of the entire past of the nation. The first work of this type was written by Sima Qian of the Western Han. He was the son of an official historian called Sima Tan. On his deathbed the father asked the son to do what he had desired but failed to do - writing a history of the past events of the nation. Sima Qian promised to take up the task.

Sima Qian was appointed the Grand Historian of the court three years after his father's death. Before this he had travelled far and wide across the country, collecting material for the book he was to write. In his official position he was able to read the books and documents stored in the court. He began writing the book in 104 BC. Five years later, he incurred the anger of the emperor Wu Di, who made him suffer the punishment of castration. He decided to put up with the shame instead of committing suicide, because he was determined to complete his great work. In 92 BC, he finally finished the book.

The Record of the Grand Historian

Records of the Grand Historian, written by Sima Qian, consists of five parts, 130 chapters, and half a million words. The five parts are: Basic Annals, Chronological Tables, Treatises, Hereditary Houses, and Biographies. The first, fourth and fifth parts deal with emperors, big feudal families and famous men, respectively. The Chronological Tables are essays devoted to the history and description of various subjects, such as rites, music, and the economy. With only minor changes, this arrangement was closely followed by later official historians in writing dynastic histories.

The book was the first general history published in China, and possibly the whole world. The book has great literary value, written with excellent style, and has served to strengthen the relationship between history and literature.

Revised June 13, 2011