Ssu-ma Ch'ien (145-ca. 90 B.C.), who has been described as the "Grand Historian of China," held the office of T'ai-shih, or director of astrology, in the imperial government. He completed a draft history of mankind started by his father.
In his capacity as court official, Ssu-ma Ch'ien became involved in political rivalries. He defended Li Ling, an officer who had led a force of infantry against China's enemies in central Asia. Li Ling had been fighting at a great distance from his base and had been forced to surrender after a prolonged and gallant struggle. For espousing Li Ling's cause, Ssu-ma Ch'ien suffered disgrace and punishment by castration.
The work produced by Ssu-ma Ch'ien and his father, Ssu-ma T'an, constitutes China's first systematic history. It was written as a matter of private initiative. Before this time a number of works had been written which can be regarded as historical documents or chronicles, such as the Shu-ching (Book of Documents), the Ch'un-ch'iu (Spring and Autumn Annals), the Tso chuan (Tso's Commentary), and the Kuo-yü (Discourses of the States). By the time of Ssu-ma Ch'ien, some of these works were held in great repute, for instance, the Shu-ching and the Ch'un-ch'iu. These were said to have been selected or compiled by Confucius for didactic purposes and included accounts of solemn speeches or oaths taken by some of China's very early kings as well as chronological records of incidents that had occurred at some of the lesser courts established in China between 722 and 481 B.C. Some of the works included a highly varied content— the trivialities of court procedure, the observance of religious cults, and political, dynastic, and matrimonial intrigues.
In all these works there is no attempt at an ordered review of human development. The sense of chronology varies widely, and the treatment of and emphasis on different aspects are highly diverse. With the Shih-chi, or Historical Records, of Ssu-ma Ch'ien, a new type of purposeful record was evolved. Divided into 130 chapters, the work was designed as no less than a history of mankind from earliest times until the contemporary age. From the outset a contrast was drawn, implicitly and at times explicitly, between the Chinese, who were fortunate enough to enjoy life under the dispensation of the emperor, and those other mortals who lived beyond the pale of civilization as barbarians.
Owing partly to the nature of the source material available to Ssu-ma Ch'ien and partly to political, social, and dynastic differences, there is a very considerable variation in the Shih-chi's treatment of China before the imperial period (before 221 B.C.) and during the Ch'in (221-207 B.C.) and Han (from 202 B.C.) dynasties. For the preimperial period Ssu-ma Ch'ien could draw on material of the type mentioned and on a number of works that have long since been lost; for the imperial period he was able to consult the records of the imperial administration, edicts issued from the throne, and reports submitted by officials. In addition, he had acquired considerable information during his own wanderings in China and from his personal observations.
The 130 chapters of the Shih-chi are divided into Annals of the Kings and Emperors (12 chapters), Tables (10), Treatises (8), Accounts of Certain Families (30), and Biographies (70). The Annals extend back to the reigns of sovereigns of the Shang-yin kingdom and before, and end with that of the contemporary Han emperor (Wu-ti). These chapters are written in a terse style, recording acts or utterances with which the emperor was personally concerned—edicts, acts of worship, the establishment of imperial consorts or heirs, military campaigns, the submission of foreigners, and reports of phenomena and rarities observed on earth and in the heavens. These events are arranged in strict chronological order, with precisely defined dating.
The Tables are set out in rows and columns indicating the succession of rulers (in the preimperial age) and of noblemen and officials (in the Han period), together with short notes on the circumstances in which a nobility or senior office was created, filled, vacated, or subjected to change. The eight Treatises are studies of subjects chosen for their overriding importance in the conduct of human and imperial affairs, for instance, ceremonials, music, state cults, calendars, economic balance, and waterways. These chapters include notes on the observation of events and accounts of the reaction of officials and their submissions and cover the practices of both the preimperial and the imperial ages.
The Accounts of Certain Families are concerned with the houses of the nobility and the rulers who played a prominent part in China's political history before its unification under one empire in 221 B.C. and trace the fortunes of those families during their political vicissitudes. The Biographies, which constitute over one-half of the entire work, are concerned with individuals of importance who influenced the development of the Han dynasty or took part in political events in the previous century or so. The subjects of the Biographies include members of the imperial family, statesmen, officials and men of letters, and military officers. In some cases two or more individuals are treated together in the same chapter, if their careers were similar or if their contributions to history were of the same type. In addition, some of these chapters are monographs that concern the growth and origins of foreign communities and their relations with China.
It is by no means clear on what sources Ssu-ma Ch'ien could draw for these chapters, but there are some obvious points at which his personal contribution is discernible. Appended at the end of many chapters are short appreciations in which an attempt is made to evaluate the subject of a biography or even an emperor; although the choice of subjects for treatment as biographies may have been partly affected by political considerations, the method of treatment—the combination of several persons together for comparison and the selection of material for inclusion— may be due to Ssu-ma Ch'ien's personal judgment. In addition, it is likely that in including the texts of certain earlier works such as the Shuching (Book of Documents), Ssu-ma Ch'ien deliberately simplified the linguistic style of the original in order to ease the task of his reader.
Strictly speaking the Shih-chi is not a "Dynastic History," insofar as it covers long periods of time before the creation of a single imperial dynasty and does not cover the complete period of the Han dynasty, which lasted for a century or so after Ssu-ma Ch'ien's death; and it remained for Pan Ku to compile a history which did treat the whole of this dynastic period. However, the form, treatment, and arrangement of the Shih-chi and its effect on subsequent histories are such that it is regarded as the first of China's 26 Dynastic, or Standard, Histories, which cover the history of imperial China from 221 B.C. until A.D. 1910.
The Shih-chi is in fact dynastically centered, with its main emphasis being the rise of the Han dynasty to its exalted position. In addition, it provides documentary evidence to support the claim of the Han emperors that they enjoyed that position justifiably and with the blessing of heaven. Such purposes or characteristics persist in the later Dynastic Histories, which are concerned with the events of single dynastic periods. Ssu-ma Ch'ien's pioneer work has been held up as a model for subsequent historians and writers of prose.
Further Reading on Ssu-ma Ch'ien
An English translation of those chapters of the Shih-chi that concern the Han period was published by Burton Watson as Records of the Grand Historian of China (2 vols., 1961). For a translation of 47 chapters of the Shih-chi into French see E. Chavannes, Mémoires historiques (1895-1905; repr. 1967); this work includes a detailed introduction. In Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Grand Historian of China (1958) Burton Watson assesses Ssuma Ch'ien's work and his contribution to historical writing. Dealing with the development of historical writing in China are Charles S. Gardner, Chinese Traditional Historiography (1938; repr. 1961), and W. G. Beasley and E. G. Pulleyblank, Historians of China and Japan (1961). Also useful are William T. de Bary and others, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition (1960), and Burton Watson, Early Chinese Literature (1962).
Additional Biography Sources
Durrant, Stephen W., The cloudy mirror: tension and conflict in the writings of Sima Qian, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.