About Sima Tan 司馬談
Sima Tan 司馬談 (ca. 190 – 110 BCE), Western Han historian and prose writer.
Sima Tan's ancestral home was Xiayang 夏陽 (south of modern Hancheng 韓城, shaanxi 陝西). He was the father of Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145 or 135 BCE – 87 or 86 BCE). Sima Tan studied astronomy under Tang Du 唐都 (n.d.), the Yi jing under Yang He 楊何 (fl. 134 –123 BCE), and Taoism under a Master Huang 黃子 (n.d.). Between the Jianyuan (140 –135 BCE) and Yuanfeng (110 – 105 BCE) periods, Sima Tan served as the grand historian (grand scribe) under Emperor Wu 武 (r. 140 – 87 BCE). In 113 BCE, Sima Tan was one of several court officials who advised Emperor Wu to perform sacrifices to Houtu 后土 (sovereign Earth) at Fenyin 汾陰 (southwest of modern Wanrong 萬榮, shanxi). He also urged him to initiate the worship of the deity Taiyi 太一 (Grand Unity) the following year.
In 110 BCE, Emperor Wu decided to make an inspection tour to Mt. Tai where he offered sacrifices to heaven and earth. Sima Tan was supposed to accompany the Emperor on the trip. However, he fell ill and was unable to travel. He became quite depressed and died in Luoyang. Right before his death, he asked his son Sima Qian to complete his unfulfilled wish of writing a history.
Sima Tan was a learned scholar and a skillful prose writer. He feared that even though scholars studied the Classics and the writings of the Masters, they did not fully understand their true meaning. He wrote the “Lun liujia yaozhi” 論六家要旨 (Discussing the essence of six philosophical schools). In this piece he discusses the thought of each school, which include the school of Yin-yang (cosmology), Ruism, Mohism, Logic, Legalism, and Taoism. He identifies the strengths and weaknesses of each school, but pays supreme tribute to Taoism. This work is recorded in the Shi ji and Han shu. Yan Kejun also has collected it together with sima tan's “Ci Houtu yi” 祠后土議 (Opinion on offering sacrifices to sovereign Earth), and “Yi li Taizhi tan” 議立太畤壇 (Offering an opinion on establishing the Grand Altar) in his Quan shanggu Sandai Qin Han Sanguo Liuchao wen.