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Sima Qian had an unprecedented chance to record China's history as he saw fit within the Records of the Historian. He began writing them at the request of his father, Sima Tan, who began the project but died long before its completion. Sima Qian could selectively choose who, how, and why things happened; quoting directly from his sources when possible and creating consistent and probable events1 where none were available.2 Eventually his Records came to include 130 chapters of Dynastic Houses, biographies of Han emperors, dates of events, descriptions of rites, music, and other such affairs; the histories of states within pre-Qin China, and biographies of important peoples in history.3 The origins of previous dynastic historical writings, much like Sima Qian's Records, always had a habit of downplaying the previous dynasties and promoting their own as having the Mandate of Heaven. Records was no different in this aspect, as Sima Qian consistently depicted the Legalist state of the Qin, the dynasty previous to the Han, as a sort of evil empire that deserved to fall. This is reflected within some of his biographies, most of which have moral lessons and anecdotes hidden within them. When appropriate, Sima Qian made it a point to show that Legalist ideals that were commonplace in the Qin dynasty did not work out for the benefit of anyone, unlike Confucian ideals that did. Three biographies that are exemplary of this are those of Chen She, Han Xin, and the Empress Lu.

Sima Qian's personal bias against the Qin dynasty, and legalism, is fairly obvious throughout the Records. He favors Confucianism because it seems to him to be a more preventative way to keep peace amongst the peasantry; if the rulers are fair, just, and moral, the peasantry will be fair, just, and moral; and peace will be obtained.4 This is opposite legalist views where peace is created and preserved through a tyrannical government that disarms, enslaves, and mistreats the peasantry, nobles, and ministers. Other important differences between the two are in their treatment of ancestors and rituals. Confucianism beliefs were such that rituals and ancestor treatment are key, which is reflected in both biographies of Chen She and Han Xin. Sima Qian notes that Chen She's grave is cared for by thirty families, a presumably honorable feat. Han Xin, on the other hand, had buried his mother "on a high broad expanse of earth with room enough around to set up 10,000 households," much like that of an "exalted ruler."5 And both practiced Confucianism in their decisions while alive, for the most part, and were rewarded with power and influence. Legalism holds no such beliefs, and in fact, the Empress Lu, whom is clearly a stout believer in legalism, dishonors her deceased husband and asks her ministers to break an oath they once took with her husband; rewarding those that did and punishing those that didn't.

The exercising of power is an important theme throughout the three biographies, and Confucian and Legalist views are both represented and consistent with Sima Qian's other messages about the two ethic codes, Confucian ideals are rewarded and those of Legalism are punished. Confucian belief is such that a ruler exists to organize and maintain peace through moral actions, and if the ruler were to do something immoral, he would lose the Mandate of Heaven; this is best shown in the biography of Chen She. Chen She is chosen to lead a group of peasants in a battle for Qin, but rains prevent his troops from reaching their destination. Facing an unjust and certain death, Chen She organizes a revolt with his friend Wu Guang against the legalist rule of the Qin dynasty. Initially Chen She is successful but is eventually corrupted by power6 and fell from grace in his defeat to the Qin; Chen She was eventually honored after death by those that succeeded in overthrowing the Qin.7 Chen She was at first exercising power for the benefit of everyone, in leading the revolt against the Qin, but as soon as he became power-hungry, a legalist attribute, he lost his right to rule. The story of Han Xin is one of a legalist view of power. Han Xin came to power through Confucian means, by being fair and just, even to a general he had just defeated. Han Xin greedily seized power in the state of Qi, however, and in the end, despite being moral and just, he became paranoid and joined a revolt against the Emperor Gaozu, for which he was executed.8 Sima Qian even remarks that "if Han Xin had given thought to the Way9 and had been more humble instead of boasting of his achievements and priding himself of his own ability how fine a man he might have been!"10

Given the obvious tendency of Sima Qian to favor Confucianism, it is not a surprise that he does not distinguish the right to rule to a particular gender or class, as long as the leader is fair and moral. The Empress Lu may seem as a contradiction to this, but her rule resulted in peace, so Sima Qian sparred her the humiliation he gave to Han Xin. Both Chen She and Han Xin were of a commoners' ancestry, yet they came to power using fair and moral methods, and only fell from power when they became greedy for more power. So, according to Sima Qian, there is, or at least should be, a clear and obvious link between power and morality. One can easily rise to power through both Legalist and Confucian means. But Siam Qian seems to tell us that the only way to stay in power is to maintain peace through any possible means, a fact that cannot be argued, and that if one becomes too legalist, he will fall from power and be dishonored in death; implying that only Confucian practices and actions can maintain peace and secure one's right to rule. These three stories tell us that Sima Qian's Records of the Historian can be seen as a lasting testament to the importance of Confucianism in Chinese tradition.






  1. Sima Qian was surprisingly able to recreate the events and keep the characters involed consistent with their known personalities.
  2. Ebrey, B. Cambridge Illustrated History: China.
  3. Sima Qian. Records of the Historian. (B. Watson, Translator)
  4. Possibly as a message to the Emperor Wu, who had Sima Qian castrated for defending a defeated General.
  5. Records of the Historian.
  6. Chen She was enraged by Wu Chen proclaiming himself king of Zhao, so he seized the families of Wu Chen and his ministers, a very legalist action. Chen She's ministers are able to persuade him to not execute the families, but that does not necessarily mean that Chen She was sparred of losing the Mandate of Heaven.
  7. Records of the Historian
  8. Records of the Historian
  9. The Way refers to a pure Confucian way of thinking and acting.
  10. Records of the Historian

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