Highlights of Chinese Culture and History
Sima Qian and His Historical Memoirs
The first great historical work in ancient China, The Historical Memoirs, was written by Sima Qian, a famous historian and writer in the Western Han Dynasty.
Sima Qian's father, Sima Tan, was a very learned person. During the reign of Emperor Wu Di, he occupied the position of court historian and was in charge of state publications and archives. At the age of ten, Sima Qian came to Changan with his father for his schooling. Deeply influenced by his father, he studied assiduously and soon was able to read classical Chinese prose. In his youth, he had devoured a large variety of books.
From the age of 20, Sima Qian started out on a tour around the country. He had been to Kuaiji, where he lingered with respect over the historical site at which, according to legend, Yu the Great had gathered other chieftains for meetings; to Changsha where on the banks of Miluo River his mind dwelt on the great patriotic poet Qu Yuan; and to Qufu where he visited the sites of Confucius' former schools. He had roamed over the famous mountains and rivers in various parts of the country and got in touch with people of all walks of life. Sima Qian's mental horizon was considerably widened as a result of his tours and explorations. And he had also gathered a substantial amount of historical data and large numbers of folk tales. He got to know the customs and habits in different areas and learned to use the vivid picturesque language of ordinary life.
After returning to Changan, Sima Qian became Emperor Du Di's personal attendant, going often on inspection ours in the company of the emperor to various places. Once he was even ordered to make an inspection tour to the southwestern part of China. This made him even more well-informed and helped lay a solid foundation for his writing of The Historical Memoirs. When he was 36, his father became mortally ill. On his deathbed, the old gripped his son's hand and enjoined time and again, "If you should be appointed as a court historian, do not forget that I have long cherished the wish to write a comprehensive history!" Grief-stricken, Sima Qian lowered his head and said tearfully, "Though I am far from being learned, I should surely follow in your footsteps and write a complete history on the basis of what data you have accumulated."
Three years later, Sima Qian was appointed a court historian. This gave him access to all the books and historical documents in the imperial palace. In 104 A.D., after he had made all the necessary preparations, Sima Qian started working on The Historical Memories. But while he was busy working on the book, Sima Qian had somehow offended Emperor Wu Di and was sentenced to death. According to the laws of the time, one could buy his way out of a death penalty with 5,000 strings of cash. Another possible alternative was to undergo the inhuman punishment of castration. Unable to pay the huge sum of money, he had to suffer the humiliation of being castrated, for he needed time to complete his Historical Memoirs. Being wrecked mentally as well as physically, Sima Qian lived in great pain and the thought of committing suicide was never far from his mind. But it occurred to him that it was often in great distress or adversity that many well-known persons, filled with sadness and indignation, had produced many of their immortal literary masterpieces. Emperor Wen Wang of the Zhou Dynasty wrote The Spring and Autumn Annals when he was kept in solitary confinement. In his exile at the order of the King of Chu, Qu Yuan created The Lament (Li Sao). Zuo Quming, after he had gone blind, completed his Guoyu and Sun Bin, whose feet had been chopped off, brought into the world The Art of Warfare. At the thought of this, Sima Qian firmed up his will to live on in order to complete The Historical Memoirs, which his father had long wished to write.
After 18 years of strenuous work, Sima Qian eventually finished writing this world-famous classic of history. The Historical Memoirs, consisting of 130 essays and 520,000 words, is divided into five parts, namely, Chronicles, Tales, Documents, Biographies of the Nobility's, and Biographies of Different Dynasties. This important historical work, which covers the 3,000-year history of China starting from the legendary times of Huang Di down to the middle of the reign of Emperor Wu Di of the Han Dynasty, marks the beginning of the chronological style in writing a general history. It describes in detail the politics, economy, military affairs and culture of that long historical period, and bring alive many historical figures, such as kings and ministers of various dynasties, politicians, military commanders, men of letters, political strategists, chivalrous heroes and merchants. In his descriptions of these persons is manifested Sima Qian's love and hatred. The language of the book is both vivid and lively, drawing heavily on folk expressions and proverbs. In The Historical Memoirs are also recorded the histories of some national minorities and neighboring countries of the time.
Lu Xun, a great writer of modern China, acclaimed The Historical Memoirs as the "acme of historical writing and the Lament (Li Sao) in unrhymed form," which means that though it is not a poem in form, this excellent and outstanding historical book is a perfect literary work, as good as Qu Yuan's Lament. Sima Qian and his Historical Memoirs, which has exerted a tremendous influence on Chinese historiography and Chinese literature, have enjoyed high prestige among countless Chinese historians and men of letters in the last 2,000 years, who have often looked upon Sima Qian as their model.
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