Shiji or Sima Qian: The History of China from an Everyman Essay

Shiji or Sima Qian: The History of China from an Everyman Essay

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The way the Chinese have conceived of their past - and thus of themselves - was profoundly shaped by a book written in Han times, the Historical Records (Shiji) of Sima Qian. Before Sima Qian was able to complete his history, he made the political mistake of defending a general who had surrendered to the Xiongnu. Given the choice between death and becoming a palace eunuch, he chose the humiliation of castration and servitude rather than leave his history unfinished. He wrote to a friend that he had chosen to live in disgrace "because I have things in my heart that I have not been able to express full." (Cambridge Illustrated, Pg. 67) Qian lived a life marked by devoted piety, rightness, and dedication to a cause; however, he still felt worthless. In a letter to his friend, Jen An, he explains why he is unable to recommend anybody to the imperial service. Sima Qian did not requite his offense by suicide, as would have been appropriate, customary, and in most ways honorable. Instead, driven as he was to complete his private project of writing a comprehensive, universal history, he accepted the alternative punishment of castration. Sima Qian tells us this quite clearly in a letter to his friend Jen An, one of the most moving and poignant of Chinese writings ever: "If I concealed my feelings and clung to life, burying myself in filth without protest, it was because I could not bear to leave unfinished my deeply cherished project, because I rejected the idea of dying without leaving to posterity my literary work." Sima Qian cites many examples of famous historical figures who, in their time of crisis, wrote books that ultimately brought them their due recognition by posterity. At base Sima Qian wished to embed his personal philosophy i...


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...cities, permanent dwellings, or agriculture. Where the Xiongnu excelled was in warfare, for their men could all ride and shoot and would raid without hesitation: "When they see the enemy, eager for booty, they swoop down like a flock of birds." (Cambridge Illustrated) In Sima Qian’s ethnography of the Xiongnu we encounter a similar inversion of the standard Chinese view of the northern “barbarians.” The standard view was, of course, that the customs of the Han Chinese were in every way superior to those of the nomads. Sima Qian, however, first explains the functioning of Xiongnu society in remarkably neutral and unbiased terms, and then has a Chinese who has gone over to the side of the Xiongnu explain why the customs of the nomads are reasonable in the steppe environment, and in some ways even superior to the ways of the Han. (Sima Qian’s treatment of the Xiongnu)

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