Ssu-ma kuang (1019-1086) was one of the greatest Chinese historians and a leading conservative statesman.
The family home of Ssu-ma Kuang was in Shan-chou, Shansi, but he was born, on Nov. 17, 1019, in Kuang-shan, Hunan, where his father was serving as subprefect. Ssu-ma's mother was the daughter of an editor of the imperial archives. Ssu-ma is said to have been a precocious child, filled with enthusiasm at the age of 6 for the Tso-chuan, the great historical work in the form of a commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals. He passed the highest civil service examination in 1038 at the age of 19 and obtained the chin-shih degree, thereby qualifying for appointment as an official.
After serving in a number of official posts in the provinces and in the capital, including a tour in the Institute of History, Ssu-ma became administrator of the Bureau of Policy Criticism in 1061 and went on to become a Hanlin academician in 1067 and for a short time an executive censor during the same year. In 1070 he left the capital because of his opposition to the policies of Wang An-shih, then in power. In the years preceding the conflict with Wang, Ssu-ma demonstrated his Northern conservative political orientation when he proposed a system of regional quotas in the examination system to put an end to the preponderance of successful candidates from the capital region and the southeast. In this he disagreed with Ou-yang Hsiu, as he did again when Ou-yang supported Emperor Ying-tsung's wish to honor his deceased father as "emperor" even though he owed the throne to his uncle and adopted father, Emperor, Jen-tsung.
Ssu-ma and his fellow Northerners objected to what they considered Wang's opinionated and arrogant adherence to his policies without regard for the opposition they aroused, the way in which the individual reform programs were maladministered by selfish officials, and the actual content of the various measures.
Suspicious of the growing money economy, opposed to state spending on the grounds that it was the people who had to pay for it, and placing their faith in the reform of men rather than of institutions, they viewed with dismay the increased use of money and the extension of state activities engendered by Wang's program. Yet, unlike the more moderate southwestern opponents of Wang, Ssu-ma and his associates offered few constructive alternatives. The conflict with Wang also reflected disagreements on the classics and differences in philosophical orientation.
Even before his departure from the capital in 1070 Ssuma had occupied himself with history and had completed some of the groundwork for his monumental history. In 1064 he presented to the throne a chronological table of events covering the period from the beginning of the Warring States (403 B.C.) to the end of the Five Dynasties (A.D. 959), and in 1066 he presented to the Emperor a chronicle of the history of the Warring States period (403-221 B.C.). He was commissioned to continue his work, and two scholars were assigned to assist him. The following year he read the work completed to date to the Emperor, who graced it with a preface from his own hand and gave it the title Tzuchih t'ung-chien (Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government).
In 1070 Ssu-ma was transferred to the Ch'ang-an region but was granted a sinecure in Loyang the following year, and in 1072 he obtained the transfer to Loyang of his library and the office for writing the history. He was now able to devote himself completely to his history, carefully working through the long draft compiled by his associates and selecting the material to be incorporated in the finished work. In the process he consulted over 300 sources, including not only various kinds of historical writing but a wide range of literary works. These he handled with great care, and, in an important departure from previous practice, Ssu-ma included in the completed work a section of "examinations of differences" in which he discussed discrepancies between the sources and explained the reasons for his selections.
As indicated by the title, the work was intended to offer guidance for government, and Ssu-ma fully shared the Confucian belief in the didactic function of history; but he was convinced that an accurate account of the facts would clearly convey the moral lessons of the past, and in dealing with such problems as the question of the legitimacy of governments in periods of division, he chose to apply objective rather than moral criteria.
Ssu-ma completed the Tzu-chih t'ung-chien in 1084 and presented it to the throne in that year. In 1085, after the death of Emperor Shen-tsung, Ssu-ma returned to the capital and was appointed executive of the Chancellery. Promoted to chief councilor in the second month of 1086, he had the satisfaction of obtaining the reversal of many of Wang Anshih's reforms before his death on October 11 of that year.
Achilles Fang translated a section of the Tzu-chih t'ung-chien as well as the sources used by Ssu-ma Kuang in his The Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms, 220-265, vol. 1, edited by Glen W. Baxter (1952), and vol. 2, edited by Bernard S. Solomon (1965). For a valuable discussion of Ssu-ma's historiography see E. G. Pulleybank's essay, "Chinese Historical Criticism: Liu Chih-chi and Ssu-ma Kuang," in William G. Beasley and E. G. Pulleybank, eds., Historians of China and Japan (1961), which is also useful for background on Chinese historiography as a whole. Also useful for general historical background are William T. de Bary and others, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition (1960), and James T.C. Liu and Peter J. Golas, Change in Sung China: Innovation or Renovation? (1969).