Students of history should be quick to recognize the importance of historians themselves. After all, we would know little about historical events without the dedication of scholars to actually pay attention to those events. Indeed, the farther that we go back into history, and thus the scarcer and more unreliable historical accounts are, the more cherished historians actually become.
This is the reason that we so often laud the likes of Herodotus. They provided critically important works that not only analysed the events of their period and the general histories, and stories of their areas, but also did so in a way that has allowed us to gain insight on how societies would have functioned and the tensions that would have been inherent to them. Compilations and compendiums of the likes of The Histories or The Ecclesiastical History of the English People are unfathomably valuable.
It is for this reason that a figure like Sima Qian also deserves our respect. He was the first real historian that China ever produced, and in a nation where history stretches back a good four thousand years that is quite the honour. Before Sima Qian, Chinese histories were recorded in accordance with certain periods, between which there was no real chronology, nor any effort to try and connect these periods. Everything was viewed as an isolated bubble of sorts, and as a result the accounts of events were written with a rather narrow viewpoint.
This historian had something different in mind though. To understand why Sima Qian so radically departed from other chroniclers of Chinese history, it is important to look to the most influential figure in his life: his father, Sima Tan. Sima Tan was an incredibly well educated scholar, as Qian rather proudly pointed out various times, working in the Han court as its Grand Historian – Qian would later take up the same role. He thus had access to the imperial library, and it seems evident that he dedicated a good deal of his time towards training his young son. Sima Qian mentions rather briefly that, by the age of ten, he was widely versed in ancient texts, which seems to indicate that his father wasted no time in taking advantage of the resources at his disposal.
It seems clear then that Qian received a rather impressive education from his father. This influence stretched to his career as well; it was his father, after all, that actually started working on the Records of the Grand Historian, also known as the Shiji. His father always dreamed of completing a general history of China, but, unfortunately, he died before he could see it completed. On his deathbed, he made his son swear to complete the epic, and Qian stuck to that promise.
This monumental work is what Sima Qian is most well-known for, and for good reason at that, being a historical compilation that covers over two thousand years of history. More than that, unlike other works, it focuses very heavily on being a general historical work, covering not only the chronology of China’s dynasties, but also the society and culture of those different periods as well. As such, a good deal of the Shiji focuses on the people of the lower classes, as opposed to just the elites, and on the ceremonies, religious practices and lifestyles that they were accustomed to. That sort of information is absolutely invaluable to historians. It also often lambasted the top officials and rulers of the dynasties, to the point where it seems rather clear that Qian was just committed to relaying the truth, as opposed to creating propaganda, which seemed to be the goal of other recorded histories at the time.
As such, the Shiji essentially became a model for the format of Chinese historical works thereafter, with most dynastic historians using his idea of a general history for their own chronicles. Truly, in this sense, one could really say that Sima Qian was the father of Chinese history, and potentially the nation’s greatest historian as well. He was also something of a political theorist, arguing in a very Confucian fashion that China had something of a dynastic cycle, which is an idea that is still prominent among historians today.
In addition to that, Qian’s writing style was also a departure from his contemporaries, using an innovative informal prose that was rather humorous and varied. And, like any good writer, there was a good deal of Sima Qian’s own personal life that fed into his work, and that allows us to understand certain nuances and underlying themes that were prevalent in Chinese society. Most striking of these would be his relationship with his father. The amount of filial devotion and loyalty that Qian pours into his writings would suggest that, by his lifetime, Confucian ideals had truly seeped into the higher echelons of Chinese culture, and indeed his overall admiration of the sage is rather telling.
Indeed, the man’s loyalty to his father and his dream went above and beyond most expectations. Unfortunately, being a scholar that was sometimes rather audacious in his approach to history and the portrayals of the court, Sima Qian managed to draw the ire of Emperor Wu having written favourably about a general that the Emperor himself had named a traitor. Qian was condemned, imprisoned, and offered two fates: death, or castration. Death would have ensured his honour, whereas castration would have, rather understandably, been humiliating beyond belief and resulted in his expulsion from the position of Grand Historian. He chose the second, his duty to his father, and to the still incomplete Shiji, pulling him through the excruciating shame. If that alone does not make him admirable, I’m not entirely sure what would.
If you would like to read more about Sima Qian and his works, I would suggest taking a look at The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conflict in the Writings of Sima Qian by Stephen W. Durrant.