China is known for documenting its history, with records stretching back more than 20 dynasties. Many foreign scholars, including Friedrich Hegel and Joseph Needham, drew positive conclusions about the nature of Chinese culture by comparing China and other countries.
From their perspective, ancient Chinese were enthusiastic about recording national history. China’s records of its own history are long term and uninterrupted as well as highly accurate. The official governments of all dynasties carefully safeguarded historical records. Most historians maintained prudent and objective attitudes when writing history.
Ancient Chinese history takes the form of a variety of genres. According to the Catalogue of the Complete Library in Four Sections, historical books include 15 types—official histories, privately compiled histories, miscellaneous histories, chronicles, chronological historical stories, imperial decrees and memorials to the throne, biographies, historical extracts, histories of unorthodox rulers, seasons, geography, officials, government systems, catalogues and historical commentaries. There were several masterpieces in each type of historical writing during China’s long history.
The foreign scholars speak highly of the continuity of the Chinese recording of history. In The Philosophy of History, Hegel wrote: “The Chinese possess a most minute history of their country, and it has been already remarked what arrangements are made in China for having everything accurately noted down in their annals.” Exploring and summarizing the values reflected in the Chinese tradition of historiography is an important task for Chinese historians.
Ancient Chinese historical records are characterized by continuity, a systemic approach and precious literary value. Interpreting and exploring the creativity, philosophy and wisdom contained in ancient Chinese historiography will reveal the unique charms of traditional Chinese culture.
Take for example the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian in the Western Han Dynasty (202 BCE-AD 8). From the perspective of historiography, more valuable summaries of Chinese and Western academic ideas may be drawn.
The major style of historiography used by historians in the Pre-Qin Period ( -221 BCE) was the chronicle. The genres that Sima Qian created when writing the Records of the Grand Historian marked a breakthrough that would influence the science of history in China for more than two millennia. The chronicle format of history includes a clear chronology and a succinct narrative. Chronicles also have shortcomings, such as narrow coverage and the fragmentation of records on the same event organized in separated volumes.
Sima Qian overcame these disadvantages by adopting a biographical style and dividing the chapters into five sections. The 12 chapters of “Basic Annals” cover all previous dynasties and rulers—even the de facto rulers, such as Xiang Yu and Empress Dowager Lü. Ten chapters of the “Tables” section are genealogical and chronological tables. The “Treatises” section contains eight chapters on the historical evolution of matters such as rituals, music, calendars and astronomy. The 30 chapters of the “Aristocratic Families” section record the histories of leading kingdoms in previous dynasties and prestigious families in the Han Dynasty. The “Biographies” section tells the stories of more than 100 outstanding figures.
To realize his objective of “understanding the historical changes from the past to the present,” Sima Qian covered the history from the age of the legendary Five Emperors to the reign of Emperor Wu of Han in his own time. The basic annals are the guiding section of the book, covering major political, economic and military events. The chapters in the remaining four sections supplement the basic annals while having different emphasis. The “grand narrative” and “panoramic historical writing” as frequently mentioned in modern commentaries on the science of history are best reflected in the style and content of the Records of the Grand Historian.
Sima Qian observed and narrated the history from multiple perspectives. His goal was to help readers know the evolutionary timeline of an event and comprehend the cause-effect relationships of historical changes. He also provided readers with a glimpse of the figures who truly made history. At the same time, he recorded the complex social circumstances as well as various rules and systems that were vital to governing a nation and preserving its culture.
Sima Qian portrayed a panoramic, colorful and vivid picture of China’s history by using a multidimensional perspective rather than a narrow focus. This indicates that he had discovered and mastered the fundamental rules and methods for reproducing the objective history. Hence, the stylistic rules and layout of the Records of the Grand Historian became the template for ancient Chinese historiography.
The Records of the Grand Historian focuses on the activities of historical figures, showing an affirmative attitude toward the human role in making history. Of the 130 chapters, 70 were categorized into the “Biographies” section, which recorded the stories of figures from all social strata, such as officials, officers, counselors, scholars, lobbyists, paladins, assassins, doctors, soothsayers, entertainers and merchants.
Sima Qian passionately recorded the words and actions of these figures, revealing their tempers and characters as vivid as life. The chapters on Wu Zixu, Qu Yuan, Nie Zheng, Jing Ke, Su Qin, Zhang Yi, Li Si and many other figures are excellent articles that impress readers to this day.
The excellent narrative techniques used in the “Biographies” section are seen in the rigorous stylistic rules and layout running through the entire book as well as the flexible application when it was necessary.
The “Biography of Li Si” is a typical chapter that makes excellent use of these techniques. This chapter plays a significant role in all 70 chapters of biographies because it presents an account of Li Si’s influence on the course of history and the complex historical facts. Li Si, the chancellor under Emperor Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, was a vital figure in the rise and fall of the Qin Empire. The first half of the chapter describes the life of Li Si before and shortly after he arrived in the Qin Kingdom.
The layout of the second half of the chapter is significantly different from that of the first half. The first half records the personal activities of Li Si while the second tells how his life changed when he became involved with Yin Huhai, the emperor’s youngest son, and Zhao Gao, chief eunuch and later prime minister. The single-line narrative became a multi-line narrative.
The content of the second half of the “Biography of Li Si” extends far beyond a personal biography. It details the conspiracy of Yin Huhai to usurp the throne from his older brother Yin Fusu with the aid of Li Si and Zhao Gao. In addition, the tyrannical policies and ultimate collapse of the Qin Empire were also covered in the second half of the chapter.
The “Biography of Li Si” records the historical guilt of Li Si while portraying Zhao Gao as a backstabber and Yin Huhai, Second Emperor of Qin, as a tyrant. What Li Si did in his late life was no doubt the results of his temperament and manner.
Zhao Gao and the Second Emperor of Qin were the chief figures contributing to the collapse of Qin Empire. However, their stories did not deserve their own chapter nor could they be recorded in the chapter “Basic Annals of the First Emperor of Qin.” Considering that the stories of these two important figures were closely related to Li Si, Sima Qian included their stories in the “Biography of Li Si” by using a multi-lined narration technique.
This ingenious technique of clipping and organizing stories provides the historical picture with rich content and intricate plots, revealing the profound lessons of the history. In this way, the second half of the “Biography of Li Si” and the “Basic Annals of the First Emperor of Qin” complement each other, drawing a panorama of the Qin Dynasty from the unification of the warring states to its collapse.
In this sense, the life of Li Si is the main focus of the narrative in the “Biography of Li Si.” However, for the purpose of depicting the history of the final collapse of the Qin Dynasty, Sima Qian intentionally broke away from the regular route of writing personal biographies by intersecting multiple narrative lines.
While telling the stories of the figures who had less-complicated lives, like Meng Tian and Shusun Tong, Sima Qian also had a clear main thread and applied a technique of properly foiling the tempers and mannerisms of the figures, manifesting the figure’s influence on his times.
Generally speaking, whether the chapters tell complicated or simple stories, Sima Qian dedicated himself to achieving an excellent balance between the content and form. For the purpose of reappearing the historical process, the historian adopted stylistic rules and structures with holistic consideration, while using flexible techniques and even breaking the rules to tackle specific stories.
From the perspective of historiography, the Records of the Grand Historian is a treasure of both Chinese and world culture. Other Chinese masterpieces on history, including Commentary of Zuo, Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government, and Generality of Historiography, also deserve further exploration. In this way, the profound philosophies, Chinese wisdom and creativity may transcend national borders as well as space and time, contributing to the development of world culture.
Chen Qitai is from the School of History at Beijing Normal University.