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Sima Qian, His Attainments and Writings Term Paper

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Updated: May 14th, 2020


Sima Qian is a famous historian who lived in China during the Han dynasty (Leung par. 1). He was born in 145 B.C. and became well-known mostly due to his work the Records of the Grand Historian, which is also called the Shiji.

Sima Tan, the author’s father, occupied the position of historian and transferred it by succession to his son. Sima Qian, in his turn, did his best to create impressive texts that attract many people even now. He was a remarkable writer and historian, who provided the readers with authoritative information and influenced the works of his successors even though he had no particular source of valid data.

This paper will discuss his attainments and peculiarities of the writings on the basis of different literature sources.


A lot of historical information regarding early China became known to the general public by virtue of his works. The historian himself realized that his writings will be appreciated with the course of time and claimed that everything he made was for the readers in posterity:

“If it may be handed down to men who will appreciate it, and penetrate to the villages and great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret would I have?” (Sima 8).

Several scholars considered Sima Qian in regard to the author-function. Vincent Leung examined the study conducted by Esther Klein and pointed out that Sima Qian, in this context, is a kind of a function of the responses to the writing by “readers from one period to the next, subject (if at all) less to the objective facts of Sima Qian’s historical existence and whatever authorial intent he may have had than to the varying historical circumstances and idiosyncratic biases of the readers themselves” (Leung par. 4).

According to this concept, the Records of the Grand Historian were written not by the author but by the group of author-functions (in other words, discourses). Every time the work is read by someone, it is interpreted differently, but the interpretation is to be based on the Sima Qian’s life. The environment, in which the author lived, is said to have an influence on the way he treated the things around him and created the texts.

Thus, the Shiji become meaningful only when it interacts with the readers. This relationship makes the work not only a dataset of historical information but also a literature source. Sima Qian occurs to be a bridge that allows the readers enter particular historical contexts and perceive it through the eyes of the author.

Sima Qian’s Style

The greatest source that allows people increase their knowledge about the history of Asian countries is the Shiji. It is an innovative text that impresses the readers by its stylistic effect, which deals with the representation of characters and the way Sima Qian’s thoughts and ideas are conveyed. The enormous extent, the peculiarities of the author’s language and the usage of the rhetorical devices that referred to the culture turned the historical text into a masterpiece. The work is well-known for its rhetorical style that is extremely complicated to maintain during the translation. Sima Qian’s style occurred to be so remarkable that it influenced China writers and the way they composed their texts for a number of decades.

The “brilliant fusion” of style and content and “uniqueness of artistic expressions” endowed Shiji with an extraordinary rhetorical effect, as “the syntactic and semantic dependency relations are largely co-extensive” (Wilss 154). In principle, the intermingling of “aesthetic and semantic denotative and connotative information” is true of practically all literary prose (Li 276). The most significant idea within the framework of these peculiarities is the fact that Sima Qian’s style occurred to be so influential that its imprint can be observed while analyzing the works of other writers occupied in the sphere of Chinese prose.

The rhetorical devices Sima Qian employed, including “allusion, parallelism, antithesis, metaphor, metonymy, hyperbole, repetition, rhetorical question, irony, euphemism, etc.” gave the historical narrative and the direct speeches a touch of aesthetic achievement and literary significance: vivid, imaginable, moving, knowledgeable and philosophical (Li 277). Such impressions are provided due to the peculiarities of the language that existed thousands of years ago. As the author made his characters utilize mentioned devices, the cultural essence occurred to be implemented into their speech and some kind of “music” seems to be conveyed.

Accurate Data

The author decided to cope with an extremely complicated task, as he started writing the history of China. No one dealt with such a task on this level before him because the historians had to conduct a huge research to get all needed information. Moreover, the text was to be properly organized and planned beforehand. It was really hard to cope with this task, as there was no library or some other database the author could refer to in order to find evidence and support his ideas and claims. Thus, Sima Qian found the sources that were unknown for the population of China of that time. For instance, today we know about the Zuozhuan by dint of his research.

The historian used the information he found in the imperial archives as well as those gathered due to the travelling. If the evidence occurred to be extensive and numerous, Sima Qian rejected the data he considered to be not trustworthy and provided the considerations according to the proved course of events. In cases when there was not enough evidence, he provided the readers with everything he could found including traditions, and did not conclude the topic by a particular judgment (“Sima Qian and Our View of Early China” 3). He believed that it was better to live some blanks in the history than provide unreliable data.

Today the researchers believe that the information provided by Sima Qian is almost not biased. They examined the texts and claimed that claim that the author’s judgments are precisely and accurately formulated, they do not raise up any questions. The closing remark in his discussion of Wen-di, where he praises as “Ren Wen-di’s restraint in declining to stage the fengshan sacrifices” is a great sample (“Sima Qian and Our View of Early China” 4).

Many scientists question the validity of the portraits depicted by Sima Qian, as they consider that the readers can see the contradictions. Thus, they claim that the author prefers particular personalities and treats them better than others, which affects the information he includes in his works. Still, others refute such allegations and prove that Sima Qian always provided evidence to support his views, and he only applied some ethically framework, which allows others to consider the issue as true historians.

Influence on Fiction

Wuxia is a particular fiction genre that was extremely popular in the 20th century and influenced Chinese cinema greatly. Even nowadays directors refer to it, enlivening various knights and assassins. The characters are often known throughout the history, and first information about them occurs to be found in the Records of the Grand Historian written by Sima Qian.

The style, in which Qian wrote, allowed him to load the descriptions of the characters with some kind of flourishes. Due to it, the individuals are represented in what we now call a poetical and romantic view. They perfectly meet the needs of the cinema industry, as the historical figure occurs to be heroic at the same time.

Among the first texts, in which one can found the information about the knights and assassins (they are referred to as the xia), are the mentioned earlier Shiji. They include the biographies of the assassins and wandering knights that became extremely popular characters in two centuries after the records were written. On their basis, the readers may come up to the conclusion that these knights and assassins were people who neglected the law and other rules accepted in their society to keep to their ideals.

Thus, the characters upheld validity, verity, loyalty and bravery. Some considered the xia to be impatient and intolerable, as they used force to cope with private issues and undermined the existed society in such way. Still, Sima Qian makes a difference: “the magnanimity, sense of public justice, and distain for governmental authority of the (wandering knights)mingle with the (assassin’s) valour, prowess, idiosyncratic bearing, fierce personal loyalty, dedication to repaying debt and avenging injury, and thirst for a Zhi ji’s (benefactor) recognition, if not fame” (Cunliffe par. 3).

Describing the knights, Sima Qian underlined their wish to help other people and save their lives. This category of the xia occurred to be noble. They do not boast to make others treat them as heroes. They seem to be highly influenced by morality. The theme of self-sacrificing is common for many characters described by the author. Thus, the readers can see the values that were highly appreciated by the author and entered the world of fiction as the traits of the wandering knights. These people occurred to be treated as ideal ones with the course of time. The knights were characterized by heroism; they lived to cope with difficulties and help others. Their task was to rectify the wrongdoings targeted at innocent people by fighting with villains.

It may sound strange, but assassins who were not as altruistic as knights also occurred to be ready to sacrifice their lives. Needless to say that they had various reasons for the use of violence and force, but commonly they dealt with politics and individuals who were respected by them.

Of course, Sima Qian did not literally claim that the individuals whose biographies he was writing were extremely brave and could deal with any enemy or were always __. Such conclusions are an exaggerate considerations made in regard to the deeds described by the historian. Still, they turned out to become a foundation for the wuxia, which allowed them to enter the modern life.


Taking everything mentioned into consideration, we may conclude that Sima Qian and his works attract the attention of today’s readers and scientists because they occur to be innovative and impressive. Sima Qian contributed greatly to the knowledge of future generations. The author bridged the gap between two centuries with the help of his records. He searched for the most credible data and organized it in the most alluring way. His texts are the bedrock of many Chinese writings; they influenced its fiction greatly. Sima Qian is the person who deserves honor and respect of his succession.

Works Cited

Cunliffe, Tom. . 2014. Web.

Leung, Vincent 2010, . Web.

Li, Xiuying. “Writing Sima Qian’s Rhetorical Style into English.” Intercultural Communication Studies 12.2 (2008): 275-286. Print.

Sima, Qian. Records of the Grand Historian, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Print.

Sima Qian and Our View of Early China 2010. Web.

Wilss, Wolfram. The science of translation: problems and methods. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2001. Print.

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