Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty 
by Sima Qian, edited and translated by Burton Watson.
Columbia, 221 pp., $50, June 1993, 0 231 08166 9
Show More
Show More

Educated Chinese and Western lovers of Chinese culture alike would have little trouble compiling a short list of the finest Chinese classical poets, but they would never be able to reach unanimity on who was the best; the same generalisation would hold true for philosophers, essayists, dramatists or painters. But with historians, there is no doubt they would soon agree that there was only one true candidate, Sima Qian (?145-?89 BC), author of the Shi Ji, or ‘Historical Records’.

Sima Qian’s claim to greatness rests on a number of interconnected factors. He was, first, immensely ambitious. He designed his masterwork to cover all of China’s history, from the earliest glimmers of historical records (we might call them folk tales) on the five legendary sage-rulers and the three dynasties of antiquity, down through the Qin dynasty of 221-206 BC, and on to the rule of the powerful Han dynasty Emperor Wu-di (c. 140-87 BC), who controlled China in Sima Qian’s own lifetime. He was, in addition, structurally innovative: confronted by the bewildering mass of competing kingdoms and political figures who fought over China for much of this long period, Sima Qian decided on a five-part arrangement of his data that would cover as much as possible, in a lucid and retrievable way. The opening 12 chapters were devoted to the dominant ruling houses and their heads; ten chapters of chronological tables followed, to list schematically the key events; eight ‘treatises’ then cut across chronology to present a broad overview of aspects of China’s history, such as music, law, rituals, astronomy, river control and the stabilisation of grain and commodity prices. Thirty chapters were devoted to the ‘hereditary houses’ that had dominated parts of China for various periods, without ever managing to control the entire empire. And finally the longest section of 70 chapters was devoted to the lives of powerful or interesting individuals and to some of the countries on China’s borders. This became the model adopted by all state historians of ensuing dynasties.

Sima Qian was a master of narration, absorbed by the craft of storytelling, the use of vivid detail and telling dialogue – often reconstructed or fabricated to make the story succinct and emotionally charged – and endlessly inventive in his choice of topics. Thus among the 70 chapters of biography, besides those dedicated to statesmen, administrators, scholars and generals, we find unforgettable portraits of knights-errant and assassins, the male favourites of certain emperors, diviners and fortune-tellers, humourists and those adept at making money.

Sima Qian had remarkable dignity and moral courage. Born to a scholarly family of high status – his father also had been a historian and an expert on ritual matters, and was perhaps the first to propose writing the history of China on a grand scale – Sima Qian knowingly jeopardised his career by defending a military commander he believed had been wrongfully punished by the Emperor Wu-di. Forced to undergo the humiliating and agonising punishment of castration, Sima Qian chose to live on, a ‘remnant of the knife and saw’ as he termed it, so that he could complete his vast work of history, which one day perhaps might ‘be handed down to men who will appreciate it, and penetrate to the villages and great cities.’ The long letter to a friend, in which Sima Qian discussed this terrible period of his life, and the reasons for his decision not to commit suicide as ‘even the lowest slave and scullion maid’ might have done in similar circumstances, was preserved by a later historian, and is justly regarded as a stylistically brilliant and moving piece of moral reasoning and autobiographical frankness.

But how is one to make this vast work accessible, in whole or in part, to a Western audience? In the concluding chapter of the Shi Ji, Sima Qian estimated its length at 526,500 characters. But even if fairly accurate – some parts of the manuscript have been lost, and a few others may have been tampered with by near-contemporary editors – that figure refers to what we now call ‘classical Chinese’, a written form of astonishing compression, that today needs frequent notation and explication even for Chinese readers. One recent edition I have on my desk takes 881 pages of Chinese to present a mere 35 chapters of the original 130, selected by the editors in what they consider a comprehensible form. For the Western translator the problem of space in relation to clarity is even harder. The great French scholar and pioneer translator of the Shi Ji, Edouard Chavannes, needed five volumes, published between 1895 and 1905, to present his selection from Sima Qian’s opening chapters. Derk Bodde took a whole volume in 1940 to present a careful English translation of two and a half of the biographical chapters.

Then, in 1961, Burton Watson, who had already published a fine analytical study of Sima Qian as a historian, took the bold step of cutting through the problems of scale and scope by publishing two volumes which drew together most of the chapters from the Shi Ji concerned with the last part of Sima Qian’s narrative, namely the period of the Han dynasty, from 206 to around 100 BC. That is to say, he reconstructed a more compact narrative by drawing Han materials from each of the Shi Ji’s five main structural blocks. Watson’s two volumes on the Han incorporate fluent translations (with the minimum notation consonant with basic clarity) of 65 chapters, in around nine hundred and fifty pages and have been republished in a revised form along with the Qin volume.*

Astonishing though that achievement was, and useful though it might be in advanced Chinese history courses, this is still hardly the kind of work that would lure the modern Western reader to try to understand Sima Qian’s greatness. The mass of detail is still too vast to be absorbed, the storyline too diffuse, the sense of historical sweep too muted. But with this new volume, which focuses entirely on the march of the Qin rulers across five centuries culminating in their final seizure of absolute power in China, Watson has at last given us the kind of manageable yet deeply nuanced volume that should bring Sima Qian, if not exactly into household parlance, at least into the domain of those who enjoy Thucydides, Xenophon or Herodotus.

Burton Watson’s Qin Dynasty poses its greatest challenge to the reader in its opening chapter, ‘The Basic Annals of Qin’: the unknown names come thick and fast, and the action is tersely described and often opaque in motivation to those without any background in Chinese history. But certain themes swiftly begin to emerge: the force of omens in the Qin rise, the skills with animals shown by early Qin ancestors that brought them preferment from Zhou dynasty rulers, the initial carving out of a small feudal domain by the family, the formation of a tough legal code and the gradual development of a ruthlessly efficient military machine. After nine compact pages, with the emergence on the scene of Duke Mu as ruler of Qin in 659 BC, we begin to enter the world of characterisation at which Sima Qian was such a master. The balanced dialogues between rulers and freelance officials lead us into the multi-state diplomacy of the time, to a world where every gesture – whether of compassion or violence – was finely calibrated in the interests of long-term statist benefit. (Women could be as subtle as men at this often deadly sparring.) When Duke Mu died in 621 BC he had immeasurably strengthened the Qin position in northern China, by defeating both barbarian tribes and neighbouring Chinese states. Yet because he insisted that 177 people – including three esteemed ministers – be slain and buried with him to serve him in the after-world, contemporary historians withheld their full praise, and Sima Qian – in one of the brief moral judgments he occasionally inserted into his narrative – made it clear that he agreed with them.

By the 4th century BC, after some set-backs, Qin was once more on the move, and Sima Qian gives, albeit briefly, the necessary markers so we can see how fledgling states grow strong: the building of canals, the design of city walls, the tightening of the laws, the supervision of agriculture, the grouping of previously scattered and unregistered hamlets into larger administrative units, and the imperial collection of taxes. By the later years of the 4th century BC the Qin war machine is in full expansive operation, with each victory measured in the tens of thousands of severed heads of the enemy slain. Even if these figures are not all accurate – there would have been no adult men left in northern China – they give a cumulative resonance to the relentless military expansion that Sima Qian surely found rhetorically satisfying. In the third century, under skilful rulers with ruthless and capable ministers the Qin came into their own – bridging the Yellow River for the first time in 257 BC, seizing the ritual vessels of the Zhou dynasty in 255 BC, and either drawing the remaining small states to them by way of alliances, or wiping them out, till ‘unification’ of all China under the Qin ruler Zheng in 221 BC, in which year he assumed the title of ‘Shihuangdi’, or ‘First Emperor’.

With this rapidly sketched but vivid panorama in place, Watson shows how artfully Sima Qian then deepened and embroidered the narrative using his chosen form of overlapping biographies. The story is a grand one, a tale of absolute power that erodes and corrupts itself, as Emperor Shihuangdi of the Qin, with the whole of the known world at his feet, slowly drifts into a world of megalomania and paranoia that destroys himself, his family, his loyal ministers and – in such a brief period – the dynasty that he had announced would last ten thousand years.

It is a mark of Sima Qian’s genius as a historian that he never cheapens or simplifies this story. The tragedy – for surely it is that – grows from the way different personalities interact and feed on each other. Corruption is often a slow process, and it can spring from fear, lust, greed, idleness, or from impatience and the rage for order. Thus the Qin Emperor is led to the famous order burning the books of the Confucian and other humanist scholars by his own highly educated and talented minister Li Si, who at an earlier stage had issued a passionate plea in favour of allowing aliens and immigrants to come to Qin from other parts of China because of the variety of views and talents they would bring. The discussion between Li Si and his ruler on the problems of the suppression of dissent – presented twice but with variations by Sima Qian, once in the biography of each man – is one of the great set-pieces in the study of the denial of freedom of thought and expression. As Li Si, relayed by Sima Qian, expressed it:

Now the August Emperor has unified all under heaven, distinguished black from white and establishing a single source of authority. Yet these adherents of private theories band together to criticise the laws and directives. Hearing that an order has been handed down, each one proceeds to discuss it in the light of his theories. At court they disapprove in their hearts; outside they debate it in the streets. They hold it a mark of fame to defy the ruler, regard it as lofty to take a dissenting stance, and they lead the lesser officials in fabricating slander. If behaviour such as this is not prohibited, then in upper circles the authority of the ruler will be compromised, and in lower ones cliques will form. Therefore it should be prohibited.

  I therefore request that all records of the historians other than those of the state of Qin be burned. With the exception of the academicians whose duty it is to possess them, if there are persons anywhere in the empire who have in their possession copies of the Odes, the Documents, or the writings of the hundred schools of philosophy, they shall in all cases deliver them to the governor or his commandant for burning. Anyone who ventures to discuss the Odes or Documents shall be executed in the marketplace. Anyone who uses antiquity to criticise the present shall be executed along with his family. Any official who observes or knows of violations and fails to report them shall be equally guilty. Anyone who has failed to burn such books within thirty days of the promulgation of this order shall be subjected to tattoo and condemned to ‘wall dawn’ labour. The books that are to be exempted are those on medicine, divination, agriculture, and forestry. Any one wishing to study the laws and ordinances should have a law official for his teacher.

Such a passage is all too clear, and readers of almost any age can draw their own conclusions or construct their own sets of comparative instances. The same is true for the early Han dynasty scholar Jia Yi’s sophisticated analysis of Qin’s rise to power in terms of what we would now call historical geography, which Sima Qian cites at length and with approval, or for the analysis of the ruthless legal systematiser Lord Shang. The problems of sex and politics are illuminated through the example of the powerful minister (and perhaps the First Emperor’s actual father) Lü Buwei, and his skilful manipulation of other people’s lust. There can be few better descriptions of the slow growth of corrupt actions than that of the influential eunuch Zhao Gao, as he induces key ministers to displace the First Emperor’s chosen heir-apparent and to appoint one they think will be more under their control – a fatal mistake and for Sima Qian a main reason for the dynasty’s swift demise. As for the ambiguities and hesitancies of the political assassin there can be few better portraits than those of the bombastic, bibulous Jing Ke and the blinded musician Gao Jianli – the one slashing at the panic-stricken Emperor with his dagger, the other swinging out in vain with a lead-filled lute. And for humiliated officials bearing their lot in silence till the final moment of transcendence and revenge, can anyone surpass Fan Ju – at one stage with teeth knocked out and ribs smashed, wrapped in a reed mat and dumped in the privy for drunken guests to piss on, until, rising by guile and skill in the Qin court, he is able to entertain his former humiliator, and force him to stand on all fours like a horse and to eat hay and beans at a great state banquet, with two tattooed criminals on either side as the ‘supervisors’ of his meal.

In one of the grand opening vignettes that set the scene for Li Si’s rise to power as chief minister of Qin, Sima Qian presents this image:

Li Si was a native of Shangcai in Chu. In his youth he served as a petty clerk in the province. In the privy of the clerks’ quarters he saw how the rats ate the filth and how, when people or dogs came near, they were frequently alarmed and terrified. And when he entered the storehouse he saw how the rats in the storehouse ate the heaps of grain and lived under a big roof, never having to worry about people or dogs. Li Si sighed and said, ‘Whether a man turns out to be worthy or good-for-nothing is like the rats – it all depends on the surroundings he chooses for himself!’

In a letter to a friend lamenting his castration and humiliation, Sima Oian had written a similar remark about himself, which helps us put his own life on the same plane as his historical narrative:

When the fierce tiger dwells in the deep hills, all the other beasts tremble with fear. But when he is in the trap or the cage, he wags his tail and begs for food, for he has been gradually overawed and broken. Therefore there are cases when, even though one were to draw a circle on the ground and call it a prison, a gentleman would not enter, or though one carved a wooden image and set it up as judge, a gentleman would not contend with it, but would settle the affair for himself in accordance with what is right. But when a man has been bound hand and foot with stocks and ropes, has been stripped to the skin and flogged with rods, and plunged into the depths of encircling walls, at that time when he sees the judge he strikes his head upon the ground, and when he looks at the jailers his heart gasps with fear. Why? Because he has been gradually overawed and broken by force. A man must be thick-skinned indeed if he come to this and yet say, ‘I am not ashamed!’ What respect could people have for such a man?

Given the insight such a passage offers us into Sima Qian the man, I would hope that if Burton Watson has a chance to issue a paperback edition of this Qin volume, he would include his own translation of this letter, which he first gave us in his initial study 35 years ago and which remains among the most powerful self-depictions of the historian at work ever written. And if one other addition were possible, Watson should add at the end of the Qin volume the brief section on the peasant rebel Chen She, the first man to rise successfully against the Qin, in 209 BC. (This currently stands as the first chapter of Watson’s reissued Han volume.) For though Chen She was soon defeated, he had made the crucial gestures that proved for all to see that the ‘invincible’ Qin were not so invincible after all, and his tale is the perfect coda for this saga of a state’s rise and fall. Sima Qian quotes approvingly the judgment of a Han dynasty scholar who described how the uneducated countryman Chen She ‘born in a humble hut with tiny windows and a wattle door’ aroused the common folk of China so that they ‘cut down trees to make their weapons and raised their flags on garden poles, and the whole world gathered like a cloud.’ Why then did Qin fall? ‘Because it failed to rule with humanity and righteousness, and did not realise that the power to attack and the power to retain what one has thereby won are not the same.’ The tale and the moral of the Qin are timeless, and with the publication of this volume Burton Watson has made the words of their greatest expositor a part of our common culture.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences