Sima Qian 司馬遷

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【(左馮翊夏陽)】司馬遷 (子長)

Also Known As: "Father of Chinese historiography"
Birthplace: Longmen, near Hancheng, Shaanxi, China
Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of Sima Tan 司馬談
Father of 司馬氏

Occupation: Chinese historian
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Sima Qian 司馬遷

Sima Qian 司馬遷 (ca. 145–ca. 86 b.c.e., alt. birth year 135 b.c.e., alt. death year 90 b.c.e.), zi Zichang 子長, Western Han historian and writer.

Sima Qian's natal place was Xiayang 夏陽 in Zuopingyi 左馮翊 (modern Hancheng 韓城, Shaanxi). He reputedly came from a family of historians. Sima Qian claimed that his ancestors had charge of the historical records of the Zhou court. His father, Sima Tan 司馬談 (d. 110 BCE), around the year 136 BCE received an appointment in the capital as grand historian (or grand scribe). The main duty of the grand historian was to draw up the yearly calendar and present it to the emperor before each New Year's day. He also determined which days of the month were auspicious for state ceremonies, and which days were to be avoided. Another duty was to keep a record of good and bad omens. This position, which Sima Qian eventually inherited after his father's death, was not a high-paying or particularly prestigious position. In his “Letter in Reply to Ren An,” Sima Qian refers to the grand historian as simply a plaything of the emperor.

In 126 BCE, at about the age of twenty, Sima Qian made an extensive tour of the Han realm. Sima Qian was one of the most widely traveled men of his age, and his experience visiting ancient sites probably broadened his knowledge of history. He began his journey from Chang'an and went south across the Yangzi river to Changsha 長沙 (modern Hunan). Changsha was the place where Jia Yi 賈誼 (ca, 200–168 b.c.e.) had been exiled. From there he went to the Miluo 汨羅 river, where he visited the site at which Qu Yuan reputedly committed suicide (either north of modern Miluo, Hunan, or northwest of modern Yicheng 宜城, Hubei). He then went to the Jiuyi 九疑 Mountains (modern Ningyuan 寧遠, Hunan), the burial place of the legendary ruler Shun. After climbing Mount Lu 廬 in Jiangxi, he traveled to the Guiji 會稽 Mountains (near modern Shaoxing, Zhejiang) to seek out the cave in which the Great Yu was said to be buried. From here went to north to Huaiyin 淮陰 (modern Huaiyin, Jiangsu) to investigate the haunts of the early Han general Han Xin 韓信 (d. 196 BCE). He then traveled north to the old Lu area where he studied ritual and other subjects in Confucius' natal place of Qufu 曲阜.

Upon returning to the capital, Sima Qian entered government service as a palace gentleman. This was probably sometime between 122 and 116 BCE. The position of palace gentleman was a very low rank, and those who served in this position were nothing more than attendants and guards to the emperor. However, because he had to accompany the emperor, Sima Qian again had an opportunity to travel. The emperor was now Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BCE), who was traveling constantly making inspection tours of the empire. Sima Qian participated in the great western expedition of 111 BCE to Shu 蜀 (modern Sichuan). In 110 BCE Sima Qian was a member of the imperial entourage that accompanied Emperor Wu on his ascent of Mount Tai where elaborate sacrifices were performed.

Sima Qian's father was not permitted to go on the journey to Mount Tai. When Sima Qian returned to the capital, he found his father gravely ill on his deathbed. Sima tan spoke to his son as follows: “Our ancestors were grand scribes for the house of Zhou. From high antiquity they had illustrious achievement and fame during the reigns of Yu [Shun] and Xia when they had charge of astronomical matters. In later ages our clan declined. Will this tradition end with me? If you also will become grand historian, you may continue the work of our ancestors.”

Sima Tan had used his position as grand historian to consult the imperial archives, and he had begun to compile a history of the Chinese empire. He urged his son to carry on his endeavor.

After observing a twenty-four-month mourning period for his father, in 108 BCE Sima Qian succeeded to his father's post as grand historian. True to his father's instructions, Sima Qian continued writing the history of the empire. In 105 BCE, Sima Qian participated in a major reform of the calendar. The calendar introduced at this time, the Taichu 太初曆 or Grand Inception Calendar, became the official calendar used throughout the succeeding periods of Chinese history for the next 2,000 years.

In 99 BCE, Emperor Wu sent an expedition into Central Asia against the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu were the most powerful foreign threat to the Han. One of the commanders of the Chinese armies was a general named Li Ling 李陵 (d. 119 b.c.e.). Li Ling's force of 5,000 penetrated deeply into Xiongnu territory, where they were surrounded. Li Ling was forced to surrender. Almost all of the officials at the Han court turned against Li Ling and condemned him for surrendering. Only Sima Qian came to Li Ling's defense. In his “Letter in reply to Ren An,” Sima Qian writes that he was not a close friend of Li Ling's, but he had always admired his character. Sima Qian made the mistake of mentioning in his defense of Li Ling that one reason for Li Ling's defeat was that the relief column that was supposed to come to his rescue did not arrive. It so happened that this relief column was headed by none other than General Li Guangli 李廣利 (d. 88 BCE), who was the elder brother of Emperor Wu's favorite concubine Lady Li 李夫人. Outraged, Emperor Wu had Sima Qian thrown into prison. The charge against Sima Qian was “misleading the emperor.” This was a crime that was punishable by execution. In Han times, it was possible to commute the crime by paying a large sum of money. The amount would have been 500,000 cash. Sima Qian was not wealthy and could not afford to pay this huge sum. The only other choices left to Sima Qian were (1) to commit suicide, or (2) to undergo the punishment known as the “punishment of rottenness” — castration. The usual practice for a man of Sima Qian's status was to commit suicide. In his “Letter in response to Ren An” Sima Qian indicates that he had no choice but to accept the humiliation of castration, for he had not yet completed the task his father had bequeathed to him, completing the history.

In 96 BCE Sima Qian was released from prison and appointed palace secretary, a relatively high position. Scholars have assigned various dates for the year of his death. He may have died as early as 90 BCE or as late as 86 BCE.

Sima Qian's most important work is Shi ji 史記 (Grand scribe's record or records of the grand historian). He may have completed the work around 93 BCE.

Sima Qian is attributed with the “Bei shi buyu fu” 悲士不遇賦 (Fu lamenting the neglected scholar), which survives only as an extract in the Tang commonplace book Yiwen leiju (30.541). Although the piece was attributed to Sima Qian as early as the Six Dynasties period (see Tao Qian's preface to his “Gan shi buyu fu” 感士不遇賦, Tao Jingjie xiansheng ji 陶靖節先生集, Sbby, 5.1a), several modern scholars have doubted its authenticity. Most of the piece is not a personal complaint, but a general statement about the unlucky fate of the man of talent who was born in an unenlightened age.

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Sima Qian 司馬遷's Timeline

near Hancheng, Shaanxi, China
Age 58