Sima Qian Research Paper

This sample Sima Qian Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Free research papers are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality research paper on history topics at affordable price please use custom research paper writing services.

Sima Qian was the first true historian of China. Although others had compiled earlier historical works, mostly in the form of state chronicles or collections of documents and anecdotes, Sima Qian was the first to write a history of China under his own name. The history he produced in the second century BCE—the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian)—provided a model for Chinese historians over the next two thousand years.

The Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) was the first official history of China authored by one person, Sima Qian, a court historian of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). Most of what we know of Sima Qian’s life comes from the last chapter of the Shiji, which included his autobiography. There we learn that his father, Sima Tan (d. 110 BCE), was a court astrologer to Emperor Wu (reigned 141–87 BCE). As a young man Sima Qian received a classical education and traveled extensively. At the age of twenty he entered government service as a “gentleman of the palace.” Eventually he inherited his father’s office of grand astrologer, a position that combined record keeping with the interpretation of natural phenomena and, equally important, gave him access to the imperial library. His father had started a history, and on his deathbed Sima Tan begged his son to continue his efforts. It is not clear how much Sima Tan had actually written, but Sima Qian went on to complete a comprehensive history of China from its legendary beginnings to his own age.

Besides the Shiji, Sima Qian’s surviving works include a letter to a friend, Ren An, explaining his actions in what is known as the Li Ling affair. Li was a capable Han general who had led his army deep into the territory of the Xiongnu nomads on China’s northwestern frontier. When his forces were surrounded and defeated he had surrendered, provoking Emperor Wu’s wrath. Officials at court who had been praising Li only days before now joined in a chorus of condemnation. Sima spoke up for the general and in doing so offended the emperor and was sentenced to castration. Where other men might have chosen suicide rather than mutilation, Sima reluctantly accepted his humiliating punishment so that he could have time to finish his history.

The Shiji comprises 130 chapters: twelve basic annals, which recount earlier dynasties and the reigns of individual emperors in the Han; ten chronological tables correlating major events in the feudal states (both autonomous states in the pre-imperial Zhou dynasty and also semi-independent kingdoms within the Han empire); eight treatises on ritual, music, pitch-pipes, the calendar, astronomy, state sacrifices, waterways, and economics; thirty chapters on various hereditary houses (these were devoted to the feudal lords), and seventy “arrayed traditions.” The arrayed traditions are biographical chapters that often combine the life stories of two or three individuals who knew each other or were in some way similar (such as the philosophers Laozi and Han Feizi). The traditions also include group biographies of assassins, scholars, harsh officials, wandering knights, imperial favorites, diviners, and money makers. In addition, six of them describe various nomadic peoples that lived on China’s borders.

Sima Qian ended most chapters with a brief appraisal prefaced by the phrase “The Grand Astrologer remarks.” Otherwise, his interpretive comments are sparse and, at least for his accounts of early history, he borrowed extensively from already existing records. This has led some to view Sima Qian, for better or worse, as a cut-and-paste historian. Yet the unusual structure of his history allowed him considerable leeway to shape the perceptions of his readers through his editing. For instance, Confucius, who was by no means a feudal lord, got his own chapter in the hereditary house section—a sign of the importance Sima Qian attached to him, and unflattering details about particular individuals can show up when they are mentioned in the biographies of others.

There is a tremendous amount of information contained within the Shiji, but the fragmented, overlapping structure of the tome means that details about pivotal figures may be scattered over several chapters. It is a book that cannot be mastered one time through, and in its original form—written on thousands of bamboo slips—it would have been even more difficult to handle. Nevertheless, Sima Qian’s literary style and bold innovations inspired later historians. His work became the first of the “Standard Histories,” of which there are now twenty-six, although unlike the Shiji the later histories limited their focus to a single dynasty, and many enjoyed official sponsorship. Yet they continued Sima Qian’s basic format of annals, treatises, and arrayed traditions (the hereditary houses were omitted as the empire became more centralized).

From our perspective today, the Shiji is a significant cultural expression of the political trend in Sima Qian’s time toward consolidation. Just as the Han emperors had worked to bring “all under heaven” under their control, so Sima tried to bring together all of China’s history, geography, and culture within a single work. Sima himself believed that, having met failure and disgrace in his own life, he was writing primarily for future generations. In this ambition he certainly succeeded.


  1. Durrant, S. W. (1995). The cloudy mirror: Tension and conflict in the writings of Sima Qian. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  2. Hardy, G. (1999). Worlds of bronze and bamboo: Sima Qian’s conquest of history. New York: Columbia University Press.
  3. Sima Qian. (1958). Ssu-ma Ch’ien: Grand historian of China. (W. H. Nienhauser, Jr., et al., Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.
  4. Sima Qian. (1993). Records of the grand historian (B. Watson, Trans.). New York: Renditions-Columbia University Press.
  5. Ssu-ma Ch’ien (Sima Qian). (1994). The grand scribe’s records. (W. H. Nienhauser, Jr., Ed.; W. Cao, S. W. Galer, W. H. Nienhauser, & D. W. Pankenier, Trans.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom research paper on political science and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655