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China’s greatest classical work of history, written by Sima Qian (b. 145 B.C., d. after 86 B.C.), continuing the work of his father, Sima Tan (180 B.C. - c. 110 B.C.). It survives essentially intact (with some early reconstruction) in 130 Chinese volumes, occupying over 3300 pages in the standard modern edition. It is one of the undisputed masterpieces of premodern times in any civilization, combining (in Western terms) the grand vision of Livy, the thirst for detail of Herodotus, and the acerbic stylistic power of Tacitus.

China has a tradition of compiling “dynastic histories” - indeed, history writing is easily China’s greatest and most abundantly attested literary form. The Shiji was the first of these works, and has served as the basic model for all subsequent histories, though it has rarely been equalled. It dates from the former Han dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 23), which is to say early Imperial times, and so it includes material from the first part of the same dynasty in which it was written. Later dynastic histories were conventionally written only after the demise of the state that was their subject.

The book’s title translates literally as “Records of the Recorder.” It is also rendered “Historical Records”, which is wrong, and “Records of the Historian”, which is somewhat misleading: Sima Qian and his father held the post of shi, which was a minor position responsible for recording of court events. In origin it was descended from post of court astrologer, someone in charge of keeping track of celestial events and the calendar (documenting matters that were once of such political importance as the beginning of the lunar month, which could not always be observed directly).

The Shiji is very different from older Chinese “historical” writing in that it is not primarily a bunch of anecdotes or tales of chivalry or rhetorical models, but true history. It includes classical Chinese legends, annals of various polities, biographies of nobility and commoners, treatises on various matters of state importance, and accounts of non-Chinese peoples, among other things. The biographies are perhaps the greatest subset of writings in the whole book; at the end of most of them the author often places a paragraph ruminating on the complexities of the personalities of his subjects. He rarely depicts characters who are purely good or purely evil, and from this we know we are dealing with an author whose understanding was subtle, whose intelligence was sophisticated, a real historian in a recognizable modern sense, and above all a human being who attempted to look into the minds and motives of his subjects and to see in them some of his own ambitions and tribulations. It is up to us do the same.

Despite the dubious orthodoxy (from a rigid Confucian standpoint) of the author, the Shiji has long been a favorite of literate people in the Far East, and even today it is the subject of near worship by afficionados in Japan. One of the most alluring aspects of the book is the craft of Sima Qian’s writing. The first complete translation into a Western language was that of Edouard Chavannes (1865-1918) into French, which remains a respected scholarly resource today. Recent English translations of parts of it are in print, by Raymond Dawson and Burton Watson. Perhaps the single best Chinese edition is that by the Japanese classicist Takigawa Kametarô (1865-193?).

I have posted a short extract at Way of Archery.

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