The best-known historical book in China after Zuo's Commentary is Records of the Historian, the first general history in China written in the form of a series of biographies. Records of the Historian was written by Sima Qian of the Western Han Dynasty (c.145-c.86 BC). It covers all the developments in the fields of politics, economy and culture in three thousand years starting from the legendary Huangdi (Yellow Emperor) down to Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty (156?87 BC ). It created five forms of historical writings, including emperors' biographies (basic annals), memorials to the emperors (tables), treatises, hereditary houses of nobles and princes, and biographies of historical figures. Among these five forms, the emperors' biographies, hereditary houses of the nobles and princes, and the biographies of historical figures have had an extraordinarily far-reaching influence upon Chinese literature of later ages.
|Sculpture of Sima Qian|
Sima Qian started to learn classics at an early age. For some time he studied The Spring and Autumn Annals under the guidance of Dong Zhongshu, a great Confucian classicist of the time. When he reached the age of twenty, he traveled widely, investigating the ruins of Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun in the south and experiencing the tradition of Confucianism in the former States of Qi and Lu in the north. All this laid the foundation for the writing of Records of the Historian in the days to come. His father Sima Tan, who used to be the grand historian of the court, made up his mind to write a historical book. After his father's death, Sima Qian, at the age of 38, succeeded his father as the grand historian of and, taking forward his father's unfinished wish, began collecting historical materials for the book. At 42, he started to write Records of the Historian. He was punished by Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty with castration for his defense of General Li Ling who surrendered to the Huns. After he was set free from prison, he was appointed as the Royal Court Secretary. Humiliated and distressed, he nevertheless went on writing the history and finally completed the work. In addition to this, through the writing of Records of the Historian, he also developed his idea that most writings were "emotional outlets for the pent-up feelings of the sages,"
King Wen of Zhou, when Earl of the West, was in captivity and elaborated the Book of Changes; Confucius was in a desperate situation and wrote The Spring and Autumn Annals; Qu Yuan was banished, and only then composed the Li Sao; Zuoqiu Ming lost his sight, and he wrote The Discourses of the Domains; Sun Bin had his feet amputated, and then his The Art of War was drawn up; ...The Book of Songs. All these were for the most part written as the emotional outlets for the pent-up feelings of the sages. All of these men had something eating away at their hearts; they could not carry through their ideas of the Way, so they gave an account of what had happened before while thinking of those to come.
Sima Qian held that because all the authors of the great classics in ancient China, such as the Book of Changes, The Spring and Autumn Annals, Li Sao, and The Book of Songs and so on, had something eating away at their hearts after they fell into desperation, they took to writing to give vent to their pent-up feelings. Actually the same can be said of Sima Qian. Records of the Historian has always been acclaimed as a "faithful record" for containing "no praises undeserved and no demerits covered up." Later comments on Sima Qian like "faithful record" and "a good historian's account" lead to the conclusion that Records of the Historian was written "strictly in line with historical facts." However, it was actually too difficult a task to keep records of history "strictly in line with historical facts." "Faithful record" or "faithful account" in the strict sense often requires a historian to pass no judgment on the rights and wrongs. On the contrary, Sima Qian was often inclined to give expression in a straightforward manner to his judgments on morality and his orientations and sentiments in the work either through putting the personages into different "grades" or through "the Grand Historian comments" at the end of each piece. The reason why he did so is that, as he had put it, people wrote because "they suffered from pent-up sorrows in their hearts." So he was determined to write a historical book that "fully explores the interaction between Heaven and Man and gives a complete and authoritative account of the historical changes of the past and present." He had both the courage and the motivating force to challenge the values prevalent at the time and to develop an independent discourse that was entirely his own. He criticized the emperor of his own time in "The Treatise on the Balanced Standard" and denounced current evil practice in "The Harsh Officials." In "The Money-makers" he voiced his disagreement with the current practice of valuing agriculture more than commerce.
The influence Records of the Historian has exerted upon literature of the later ages is manifold. The most significant influence perhaps lies in its portrayal of characters. Xiang Yu was a tragic hero who rose in arms in the region of Chu during the last years of Qin and later contended for the rule of the country, eventually cutting his throat when routed. Though Xiang Yu was active for only eight years in the historical time and space of Qin and Han, "Xiang Yu" in Records of the Historian gives an incisive and vivid depiction of this hero whose strength "uprooted mountains and whose spirit overtopped the world," covering his irresistible mettle in taking cities and seizing territories, his majestic appearance when staring angrily at people and uttering denouncements on the battlefields, and his deep attachment to his concubine Lady Yu and his steed, as well as his tragic death caused by his refusing to cross the river for life. However, Sima Qian did not steer clear of Xiang Yu's various weaknesses and defects in his writings. He criticized Xiang Yu by saying, "He boasted of his conquests, trusted only his personal judgment and did not follow ancient precedents." Apart from this, he also commented that Xiang Yu was shortsighted, suspicious and jealous, brave but not resourceful, and ruthless and bloodthirsty. In "XiangYu," Sima Qian gave an account of Xiang Yu's evildoings of massacring more than two hundred thousand Qin soldiers who had laid down their arms, massacring the citizens of Xianyang (the capital of Qin Empire) and setting fire to the Qin palaces after he took the Qin capital.
Moreover, various accounts of Xiang Yu's temperament were also given by the characters in the biographies of other personages. Some said that Xiang Yu "... is kind, generous and considerate... He is jealous of capable and virtuous people, and he murders officials who have performed outstanding service and distrusts men of virtue." Some commented that "When Xiang Yu bellows with rage a thousand men are rooted to the ground, but since he cannot appoint worthy commanders all he has is the courage of a single man. He is polite, kindly and an amiable talker. If a man falls ill he will shed tears and share his meal with him; but when a man renders such services that he deserves a fief, Xiang Yu plays with the seal till its corners are rubbed off before he can bring himself to part with it. This is what is called womanly kindness." Han Xin, chief marshal during Liu Bang's reign, made this comment on Xiang Yu. What he meant is that Xiang Yu "had the courage of a single man" and "womanly kindness" only in name and would not be able to accomplish anything great. Qian Zhongshu, a contemporary Chinese scholar, noticed the complexity of Xiang Yu's disposition as was portrayed in Records of Historian and thus commented: "Amiable when talking" and "roaring with anger," "polite and kindly" and "intrepid and cunning," "kind and respectful to talented people" and "jealous of capable and virtuous people," "womanly kindness" and "bloodthirstiness," and "sharing his meal with others" and "refusing to give awards," all these dispositions of Xiang Yu are opposite and contradicting, but are at the same time unified in Xiang Yu alone, just like a person writing with both the right and the left hand or singing different tunes with one throat. In spite of this, the character of Xiang Yu still remains consistent. If viewed in the light of modern psychology, Xiang Yu's character is also tenable.
|Sculpture of Sima Qian|
Sometimes Xiang Yu spoke in a soft, low voice and was considerate, while sometimes he also bellowed with rage and killed people like flies; sometimes he shared his meal with other men and even shed tears at the sight of others' suffering, but he appeared to be petty when he should give awards to those who had done meritorious service, which resulted in his loss of popular support. These different dispositions of Xiang Yu, opposite and contradicting, are not reflected concurrently in Sima Qian's writings. "Xiang Yu" concentrates on depicting the illustrious image of Xiang Yu as a peerless hero, while Xiang Yu's defects and weakness are described in the biographies of other personages through the "mutually explanatory and supplementary method." By doing so, the image of a tragic hero is established in "Xiang Yu."
"Xiang Yu" starts with when he was a lad. He first studied to be a scribe and then took up swordsmanship, but failed in both. After this, he became interested in military strategy, but again he refused to study it to the end. It is thus clear that Xiang Yu was careless in character when he was still young. Nevertheless, when he happened to witness the ostentation and momentum of the First Emperor of Qin who was going on an inspection tour in the south, he exclaimed, "Why not take over from him?" From this we see how ambitious he was when he was a lad. After he rose in arms, his fame spread to other states after the battle of Julu. When Qin was defeated, Xiang Yu "struck terror into the hearts of all the armies from other states." When he summoned the generals from the other states to his camp, "they entered on their knees and none dared to look up." This is possibly the zenith of Xiang Yu's fame and power throughout his life. From then on, all the forces of these different states took orders from him. Later he led his troops west, took Xianyang and massacred the citizens there, set fire to the Qin palaces and thus put an end to the unified domain of the Qin regime. Later after this, he suffered defeat at the banquet held at Hongmen, at which an attempt was made on Liu Bang's life, fell into the trap set up by Liu Bang to play his generals off against him and eventually was hemmed in on all sides by Liu Bang's troops at Gaixia. With solemn fervor, Xiang Yu chanted a tragic air, setting words to it himself, bid farewell to his favorite concubine, mounted his horse and broke through the enemy lines, killed enemy commanders and cut down their flags, and, after killing several dozens enemy soldiers, killed himself by cutting his throat.
Deeply impressed by the quickness of Xiang Yu's rise and fall, Sima Qian, in "Xiang Yu," gave a vivid description of Xiang Yu's authority and influence when he was at the height of his power as well as his tragic but heroic death when he suffered the crushing defeat, neither failing to reproach his shortsightedness because he was a peerless hero, nor failing to present his love for a woman because he was criticized for his short-lived spirit. "Xiang Yu," imbued with both sublime heroism and sentimental sadness, is probably the most remarkable biography in Records of the Historian. It can amply represent Sima Qian's writing style in terms of characterization.
Lü Zhi, Empress of Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, was notorious in the history of China for her ruthlessness and malignancy. Consort Qi was Empress Lü's rival in love. Empress Lü chopped off Consort Qi's hands and feet, blinded her by scooping out her eyes, impaired her hearing and made her deaf and dumb with poison, abandoned her to live in a toilet, and insulted her as the "Human Pig." Three of Liu Bang's sons were persecuted to death by Empress Lü. In order to arrogate all power to herself, she ordered that all of Liu Bang's sons and nephews must marry her relatives--the girls by the family name of Lü, which resulted in incestuous marriages. Resolute and steadfast in character, Empress Lü assisted Liu Bang in seizing state power. In the aftermath of ten odd years of Liu Bang's death, she maintained social stability: "Though (Empress Lü) ruled as a woman from within doors, the empire was at peace, there were few punishments and few criminals; the peasants tilled the land diligently, and there was an abundance of food and clothing." As a historian, Sima Qian laid stress on Empress Lü's talent in handling political affairs and meritorious deeds in governing the country and regarded them as positive in the biography of Empress Lü. Furthermore, he also marked off Empress Lü's political talent and moral integrity. Sima Qian did so with Empress Lü, and he did so too with Lü's husband, Liu Bang. Liu Bang was a selfish, lecherous, vulgar, and deceitful man. But he unified the whole country and freed the common people from the turmoil of war for years running, and consequently the common people got the time to recuperate and rehabilitate. This indeed was a great service rendered by Liu Bang. These two aspects typical of Liu Bang are well manifested in Records of the Historian.
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