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November 21, 2010

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司马迁 Sima Qian (circa 145-90 BC) Historiography father

SIMA Qian has widely been regarded as the father of Chinese historiography for his unparalleled work, namely Shiji, or Historical Records, which constitutes China's first systematic history.

Born and raised in Longmen, today's Hancheng in northwest China's Shaanxi Province during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC -AD 25), Sima came from a family of astrologers. When he was only 10, he began to study the Chinese classics and later he became a student of Kong Anguo and Dong Zhongshu, two Confucian masters at that time.

When he reached 20, with support from his father, Sima Tan, who served as the Prefect of the Grand Scribes of Emperor Wu, the young Sima embarked on an exploration to almost every corner of the country to collect first-hand information and verify the legends and stories about historical events and figures.

He visited Confucius' and Mencius' hometowns, ascended the Great Wall, inspected the ancient battle venues in central China and toured many other parts south of the Yangtze River.

The journey not only widened the young man's vision and enriched his knowledge, it also laid a solid foundation for him to pursue a career as a top-class historian.

In 110 BC, the old Sima fell sick. He felt that he might not be able to recover from his illness, so the father summoned his son back and entrusted him with the task to continue the compilation of the first full history of China.

After having inherited from his father the position of grand historian to the emperor, Sima took on the ambitious project started by his father and in 109 BC, he began to compile the then most ambitious historical work: Historical Records.

Unfortunately, in 99 BC, he was embroiled in an imperial court power struggle by defending General Li Ling.

General Li had led an army to fight the Hun tribes in central Asia. However, since he was so far away from his home base and because of other odds, he was defeated and forced to surrender to the enemies. As a result, some court officials wanted to take this advantage to get rid of Li and urged the emperor to hold him fully responsible for the defeat.

Sima, though not a friend of the general, defended Li for his loyalty and hard services because he had always had great respect for him. But the emperor decided otherwise and wanted to punish the historian for defending a traitor.

The emperor gave him two choices: death or castration. For a gentleman at that time, it was harder to get castrated than to commit suicide. But Sima had to take the latter choice for he knew very well that he had a mission that must be completed.

After the humiliating punishment, Sima began to spend every minute of his life on writing the historical records. Eventually, he completed the grand project in 91 BC.

The broad-ranging work of 130 chapters includes basic annals of dynasties and rulers, chronological tables, treatises, biographies of the feudal houses and eminent persons as well as biographies of important individual figures such as Lao Zi and Mo Zi.

In the work, Sima recounted Chinese history from prehistoric times all the way to the Western Han Dynasty of the historian's own time.

Also, his work has served as a paradigm for subsequent Chinese dynastic histories.


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