Sima Qian

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Sima Qian (c. 145 B.C. – 90 B.C.) was a Han Dynasty historian. He is regarded as the father of Chinese historiography because of his highly praised work, Shiji ("History Record"), an overview of the history of China covering more than two thousand years from the Yellow Emperor to Emperor Han Wudi. The text is regarded as one of the most significant texts from the Han period.

Sima Qian
Traditional Chinese 司馬遷
Simplified Chinese 司马迁

Sima Qian's contribution to historiography included an emphasis on the human element in history rather than attributing all events to supernatural causes, which was a departure from tradition.


Sima Qian was the son of Sima Tan, the grand historian at the Han court during the period 140–110 B.C. After traveling extensively in his youth, Sima Qian entered court service. In 111 B.C. he accompanied a military expedition into the southwest of China, and in 110 B.C. he was a member of the Wudi emperor’s entourage when the latter visited Mount Tai to conduct sacrifices. In the same year, his father died, and he was appointed in 108 B.C. to succeed him in the post of grand historian.

In 105 B.C. he was among those responsible for a complete reform of the Chinese calendar. At about the same time, Sima Qian began to undertake the ambition of his father to write a definitive history of the Chinese past. Before his history was completed, however, Sima Qian deeply offended the emperor by coming to the defense of a disgraced general. Sima Qian was arraigned for “defaming the emperor,” a capital crime. Either because the emperor felt him too valuable a man to lose or because Sima Qian himself requested a reprieve so that he could complete his history, he was castrated instead of executed.

The Records of the Grand Historian

Although the style and form of Chinese historical writings varied through the ages, Shiji (时机) has defined the quality and style from then onwards. In writing Shiji, Sima initiated a new writing style by presenting history in a series of biographies. Among the biographies are Emperors such as Qin Shi Huang, Han Gaozu and Han Xian, as well as biographies of court officials, scholars, and even common laborers who Qian considered important to the empire. His work extends over 130 chapters, not in historical sequence, but divided into particular subjects.[1]

Sima Qian and Herodotus

Sima Qian is often compared to the Greek historian Herodotus. Some scholars believe that Herodotus encountered the Sima clan while he traveled across the Persian empire, and that this encounter with Qian's ancestors may inspired him in his own works. This is a controversial claim, but there is some evidence to support it.[2]

Books about Sima Qian in English

  • Burton Watson (1958) Ssu-ma Ch'ien: Grand Historian of China. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (1974), Records of the Historians. Hong Kong: Commercial Press.
  • Qian, Sima and trans. Watson, Burton (1993), Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty. Research Center for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Columbia University Press.
  • Qian, Sima and trans. Watson, Burton (1993), Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty. Research Center for Translation,