Pan Ku (32-92) was a Chinese historian and man of letters. His name is mainly associated with the Han-shu, the standard history of the Western Han period.

At the beginning of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-100) there existed no full historical account of the preceding century, as the Shih-chi, which had been compiled by Ssu-ma Ch'ien, ended its record at about 90 B.C. Pan Piao (died A.D. 54), father of Pan Ku attempted to repair this deficiency by continuing the Shih-chi's account to cover those years.

While trying to improve and complete his father's work, Pan Ku was imprisoned on a charge of falsification of the record, but he was later released at the personal order of the Emperor and ordered to finish his work. However, by the time of his death in 92 Pan had not been able to do so; his sister, Pan Chao, was ordered to take responsibility for the task, and the imperial archives were put at her disposal. The process of compiling the history may thus have been protracted over a period of 80 years.

Comparison of Histories

There are several differences in principle between the Shih-chi and the Han-shu, although both works take as their main theme the history of the Han dynasty. While the Shih-chi was compiled as a private venture, the Han-shu, though starting likewise as a matter of personal initiative, was finally completed under the patronage of the government. This change set a precedent whereby, from the 7th century onward, Chinese imperial governments regularly assumed responsibility for the compilation of histories as a task which devolved on the state.

In compiling the Shih-chi, Ssu-ma Ch'ien had incorporated material on the history of mankind prior to the Han period, whereas the Han-shu is, on the whole, restricted to that dynastic period only. For this reason, in place of the five groups in which the chapters of the Shih-chi are divided, four suffice for the Han-shu, whose 100 chapters are set out as imperial annals, tables, treatises, and biographies.

Although much of the material is identical in these two histories, it cannot be known for certain whether Pan Ku utilized the text of the Shih-chi or drew on the original documents on which that work had been based. Stylistically the compilers of the Han-shu preferred to retain the archaic expressions of their sources rather than introduce simplifications in the way that was sometimes done in the Shih-chi.

While the material that is included uniquely in the Han-shu is mostly concerned with the 1st century B.C., some of the information given in respect of those years, for instance, the figures for the population of China in A.D. 1-2 or the list of titles of the books collected in the imperial library, bears a significance of much wider proportions within the whole context of Chinese history.

Other Writings

Pan Ku also wrote other compositions. These included at least one fu, a type of rhymed prose that had been developed during the Han dynasty. He also compiled an account of a conference held at court in 79. This was the second occasion that a Chinese emperor had convened a formal meeting of scholars to discuss problems which concerned the authenticity and interpretation of certain versions of early Chinese canonical writings.

Pan Ku's account of the discussions is entitled, in brief, the Po hu t'ung, or White Tiger Debate, named after the hall where the meetings were held. The account may be generally accepted as being representative of the discussions which took place and throws considerable light on the intellectual controversies and developments of the 1st century A.D.

The 43 chapters range over a wide variety of subjects, such as cosmology, the workings of heaven and earth, human nature, the relationships between man and his neighbor and the behavior appropriate for certain situations, religious cults and observances, the Five Elements, divination, and the ranks and titles used in the protocol and institutions of state. These matters are discussed in the light of precedent evolved before the Han dynasty and the authority of texts of a similarly early origin.

Further Reading on Pan Ku

Critical translations of the 12 chapters of imperial annals and one other chapter were made by Homer H. Dubs, The History of the Former Han Dynasty (3 vols., 1938-1955). For annotated editions of two of the treatises see Food and Money in Ancient China, edited and translated by Nancy Lee Swann (1950), and A. F. P. Hulsewé, Remnants of Han Law (1955). The standard work on the Po hu t'ung is Pan Ku's Po Hu T'ung: The Comprehensive Discussions in the White Tiger Hall, edited and translated by Tjan Tjoe Som (2 vols., 1949-1952). Ernest Richard Hughes, Two Chinese Poets: Vignettes of Han Life and Thought (1960), contains a brief biography of Pan Ku and an appraisal of his work. For background information consult Charles S. Gardner, Chinese Traditional Historiography (1938).