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Sima Qian’s Judgement by the Purity of Intention Essay

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Updated: Jul 17th, 2020


In his letter to Ren-An, Sima Qian argues that one should be judged by the purity of one’s intention, and not whether one is successful. He argues that there are cases where one takes a noble course that is meant to help his people and to make the world a better place but fails to achieve the noble goals one set. Such a person should not be considered a failure. A noble act that is taken by anyone, even if it does not result in the intended goal, should be treated as a good act that others should emulate. On the other hand, someone may take a path that is meant to create pain and suffering for others and end up being successful in one’s objectives.

It is not advisable to consider such a person successful in life for having achieved destructive goals. Si-ma says that when he inherited the throne from his father, he intended to achieve greatness and to make his people more successful (Owen 137). However, he was not able to achieve most of the goals he set to transform his society. At his old age, he looks back and remembers the great plans that he should have implemented to transform his community, and it pains him that most of them were never fulfilled.

He lists various levels of his failure, as a commander of the force entrusted to him, as a leader, and as a family member (Owen 136). However, in this letter, he says that he should not be judged by these failures, but by the purity of his intention in every action he took. In this essay, the focus will be to discuss how Si-ma demonstrates this attitude of judging people based on how he writes history.


Si-ma Qian believed that as a ruler, a military commander, and a family member, he had several failures because he did not live up to expectations. In this letter to Ren An, He is cognizant of the fact that when he inherited the throne from the father, people had a lot of expectations of him. He also had personal expectations that he set to realize for the duration that he was a ruler. However, in his sunset days, he is melancholic, trying to remember the good plans he had and how some of them were never realized. He appreciates that at his old age probably he may not be in a position to achieve most of these objectives.

However, there is one thing that makes him happy despite the sad memories of unfulfilled goals. He states that in all his actions, his intentions were always pure. He admits that there are cases when some people took advantage of the purity of his intentions to achieve selfish gains, but he never shared their selfish interests (Owen 136). He is pleased that every time he was forced to suspend a plan, the suspension of such plans was done in the interests of more pressing issues to the society. He often gave priority to the service of his people. People often make unfair judgments without looking at the forces that led to a given failure. In his case, he argues that he meant to do good to the society, and that is why sometimes he did things that others did not expect him to do as a ruler and military commander.

The ‘Biographies of Lian Bo and Lin Xiang-ru’ is another great demonstration that one should be judged not by the level of success, but the purity of the intention. In this historical account, the traits of several characters can help demonstrate this attitude. King Zhao of Qin heard that the Zhao Kingdom had a jade disk of Bien, a treasure that was valued all over the world (Owen 84). King Zhao was interested in the treasure, and therefore, sent his envoys to request King of Zhao to give up the treasure in exchange for fifteen walled cities. The intentions of King Zhao of Qin were not pure. However, he knew that his Qin Empire was stronger than the Zhao Kingdom, hence he could use military force to take the treasure in case King of Zhao refused the deal.

King of Qin had no intention of giving up fifteen cities to Zhao. King of Zhao, out of the desire to act with nobility and maintain good relations with Qin, sent his envoys with the treasure. He knew that there were chances of King Zhao failing to give the promised cities to Zhao. When judging the two kings, it will be unfair to emphasize their military strengths, but by the nobility of their actions. King of Zhao accepted the request made by King of Qin.

However, King of Qin did not return the favor. King Zhao intended to retain both the treasure and the fifteen cities within his kingdom. As demonstrated in this account, he failed to achieve his selfish goal of cheating Zhao of its treasure. Zhao retained its jade disk, while Qin retained its fifteen cities and the two kingdoms continued to live in peace.

In this biography of Lian Bo and Lin Xiangru, it is Lin Xiangru that comes out as the ultimate champion, not because of his great military prowess, but because of his intention as a man who would want to see justice prevail in the society. When King of Zhao had decided to send the jade disk to King of Qin, the next challenge was to find a trustworthy envoy to be sent with the treasure. The envoy was to ensure that the fifteen cities were transferred to Zhao.

Lin Xiangru offered to take the treasure to King Zhao of Qin. He knew very well that Zhao had the intention of taking the treasure, but not giving up the fifteen cities. However, his intentions were pure. He was determined to deliver the treasure and convince King Zhao to give up the cities. As was expected, King Zhao received the treasure and made no attempts to keep his part of the bargain. Using his wits, Xiangru was able to convince King Zhao to hand over the treasure so that he could explain to the king some of the defects in the treasure. At this moment, it may be possible for one to judge Xiangru as a con who used his wits to deceive the king. However, his intention was still pure. Once he had the treasure, he demanded that the king should fulfill his promise to have the treasure back or else he promised to destroy it.

The king had to follow all the demands that Xiangru had set to get the treasure back. In his wisdom, Xiangru sent one of his men to take the treasure back to King of Zhao because King Zhao had demonstrated beyond any doubt that he had no intention of keeping his promise. When King Zhao came to know about the deceit of Xiangru, he was enraged and even contemplated killing Xiang. However, he realized that it was he who went into this deal with impure intentions.

The sincerity and pure heart of Xiang enabled him to protect the Zhao’s treasure from the greedy King Zhao. Xiang did not use military force and neither did he allow the two kingdoms to go to war. On the contrary, he offered himself as a sacrifice to ensure that peace and justice prevailed. His pure intention was rewarded by the two kings. Instead of killing him as was expected by many, King Zhao decided to release him in the interest of peace and justice. Upon his release, King of Zhao made Xiang a High Grand Master (Owen 87). This was a sign of appreciation for the effort he made in protecting the treasure of his kingdom and protecting it from an attack by Qin.

The Biographies of the Assassins can also be used to evaluate the concept of the intentions of purity. In this account, Nie Zheng is presented as a hardworking person who did everything to protect and provide for his family. The circumstances under which he murdered a colleague back in his Deepwell hometown are not clearly stated. However, his character comes out as a responsible man who was able to sacrifice his youthful desires to care for and provide for his mother and elder sister. He worked as a butcher. When approached by Yan Zhong Zi to help in assassinating Xia Lei, a minister of Han, he turned down the offer of a hundred pieces of gold and opted to continue caring for his mother.

Upon the death of his mother, he decided to listen to the grievances of Yan that made him plan for the assassination of Xia Lei. He was convinced and decided to help him assassinate the minister. Since the act of taking the life of another person was wrong, the intentions of Nie Zheng were not driven by self-interests. He was not driven by the desire to get the gold that Yan promised to offer to anyone who would kill the minister. He was only interested in serving justice. As Nienhauser states, sometimes death may be justified (45). After killing the minister, he goes ahead to mutilate his own body, before taking away his own life, a sign that his interest was to see justice served.


It is clear from the discussion above that one should be judged by the purity of the intentions, not by success. The motive that drives one to engage in a given activity should always be pure. The outcome of a given action may be unjust in the face of many in society, but it is important to question the motive. Si-ma failed to achieve some of his objectives as a ruler and a military commander, but his intentions were always pure. Nie Zhen was an assassin, but his intention was pure. Ling Xiangru used trickery, but the aim was to defend his kingdom.

Works Cited

Nienhauser, William. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Print.

Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. Print.

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