The First Emperor

Jonathan Spence

  • Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty by Sima Qian, edited and translated by Burton Watson
    Columbia, 221 pp, $50.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 231 08166 9

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.

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[*] Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty (Columbia, two volumes, 499 pp., and 506 pp., $55 each, 22 June, 0 231 08164 2 and 0231 08168 5).