Saturday, August 30, 2008

Historian Sima Qian

People, Bill post. He is all jealous that only I get to read the Keay and has become good at stealing the book when I am not looking. To make up for it, he has promised to write posts on on book. So here, Bill on Sima Qian:

The Chinese are often characterised as having a highly developed sense of history. With good reason, as their carefully recorded year by year accounts of rulers and dynasties goes back much longer and is more well-documented than anywhere else. It's then appropriate to talk about the first, and arguably the greatest, of the historians, Sima Qian, also known as the Grand Historian. Living in the second century BC, his life's work, the Shiji, or the Records of the Great Historian, is the model on which all later imperial histories were written, and an invaluable source of early Chinese history.

The Shiji is a large book, with around 130 volumes, purporting to record history from the earliest, heavenly precursors, to Sima Qian's own emperor, Han Wudi. It is written in a novelistic style, with dialogue, scene setting, the works. All of this was based on court records, and supplemented by written and remembered memories of actual participants and their descendants. The same period is often described from many perspectives in different volumes. Thus, a ruler may get quite conventional praise in the chapter which is his biography, but his flaws would be pointed out in another chapter describing his contemporary or a subsequent ruler. The history is structured as a series of biographies, with interspersed chapters on ceremonies, religion, philosophy and so on. Many, if not most, of the chapters on a particular period are contradictory in the explanations of motives, allowing many different perspectives to emerge.

The Shiji is the source of most of our information about pre-Han China. In particular, our knowledge of the Qin, the dynasty immediately before the Han, comes almost entirely from the Shiji. The Qin was a short-lived dynasty, started by Qin Shi Huangdi, who declared himself the first emperor. This was the guy who connected up all the short stretches to create the Great Wall and the Great Road, burned books and killed scholars of Confucianism, and buried himself with the Terracotta Army to protect himself in the afterlife. History does not have many good words to say of him, calling him a brutal tyrant. Keay makes the point that this is very different from the reputation of his contemporary, Ashoka. Ashoka we know of primarily through his stone inscriptions, which go on and on about his love of peace and his spread of Buddhism. If we had only Shi Huangdi's inscriptions to go on, we would probably say the same of him, since these are about spreading peace and prosperity as well. The reason the historical assessment is so different is all due to subsequent historians, primarily inspired by Sima Qian and the Shiji. But here we have to be careful, since Sima Qian was writing in the time of the successor empire, the Han empire, and was naturally interested in portraying the Qins in a negative light. Also, Sima Qian saw his work as preserving the collective knowledge Shi Huangdi had tried so hard to destroy. In fact, the Shiji was seen as a direct response to the massive burning of the classics Qin Shi Huang had initiated.

Typically though, Sima Qian is not wholly negative about the Qin dynasty. He had good reason to dislike the Han emperor Wu. He got involved in defending Li Ling, a defeated general who was forced to surrender (on one the many expeditions to Central Asia following Zhang's exploits) His attempts were seen as going against the emperor himself. Such a serious charge meant that he was imprisoned and expected to commit suicide, to save himself from the inevitable execution. With his great work unfinished, Sima Qian was unwilling to kill himself. The alternative of buying himself a pardon was out of the question with his lack of funds. The only alternative was the humiliating one of undergoing ritual castration. This, in a Confucian society with its emphasis on family, was the ultimate catastrophe. He chose to stay on as a palace eunuch, enduring the deep humiliation and ignominy to finish his work, writing:

"When I have truly completed this work, I shall deposit it in the Famous Mountain. If it may be handed down to men who will appreciate it, and penetrate to the villages and the great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret should I have?"

Next in the series: Monk Xuanzang

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