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The Qin and Han Dynasties through the Lens of Sima Qian: A Look at the History of China Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Apr 23rd, 2019

Introduction: The Legacy of Sima Qian

In his two-volume work of Shiji, “Records of the Grand Historian,” Sima Qian offers his perspective on the events that took place in China as the latter was ruled by the Han and Qin dynasties.

Embracing the entire range of political and historical events in China on the given time slot, this paper is, no doubt, the cornerstone work in the Chinese historiography. Offering a fairly full, though often objective, interpretation of the reign of two dynasties, the Records of the Grand Historian are decent attempt to record the Chinese history.

Shaping the Understanding of the Chinese History: Sima Qian and His Work

Being the first work that provided a description of the period of Qin and Han Dynasties, “records of the Grand Historian” offers ample opportunities to explore the world of the ancient China. However, the question is, how well the elements of the Qin and Han world are introduced in the book. While historical correctness is essential, it is also important to understand what the book has to offer to the audience as readers.

Diving into the atmosphere of the ancient China

It must be admitted that Qian does his job of restoring the atmosphere of the Qin and Han dynasties’ reign very well. Qian gives many details about the Chinese customs and the everyday life in Qin and Han era: “From the chiefs of the tribe on down, everyone eats the meat of the domestic animals and wears clothes of hide or wraps made of felt or fur” (Sima Han Dynasty 129).

Chronology and several inconsistencies: a time paradox

Having the access to the entire range of historical documents within the imperial palace as the court historian, Sima Qian, on the one hand, was able to incorporate all the pieces of information concerning the Chinese history. On the other hand, the information in one source often contradicted the data in another one.

Hence, some of Qian’s historical records are doubtful at best, incorrect at worst. As Durrant noted, “Sima Qian not only lacked a comprehensive and authoritative history for this [the Qin dynasty] period, […] he even lacked, so he tells us here, the basic annals necessary to piece together a complete picture of these critical centuries” (Durrant 100).

Sima Qian and the Key Principles of the Traditional Chinese Historiography

Despite the fact that the Chinese historiography is, in fact, a field with its own rules that were established long ago, it still offered ample opportunities to create several types of historiography traditions. Therefore, the work composed by Sima Qian bears clear characteristics of the works that appeared on the same time slot and deal with the related issues (Wang vii).

However, in the light of the fact that Sima Qian was actually the first one to start the tradition of imperial historiography, every single element of Records of the Grand Historian can be considered the staples of the future historiography style, like the obvious fake yet colorful details, such as “every man raised himself up and wept” (Sima Qin Dynasty 231).

What helped understand the specifics of the time period

One might say that his writing does follow the key principles of the Chinese imperial historiography pretty closely. However, to Sima Qian’s credit, one must mention that before he wrote his work, there were actually no standards for the Chinese imperial historiography at all; therefore, he practically invented the standards for the latter.

The later works copied the format that Qian set, i.e., listing the key facts of the “empirical ethnography, geography, cosmology, and historiography” (Chin 312), as Chin put it. Thus, Qian allowed to evaluate the historical events from different perspectives, such as the political, the economical and the scholarly one.

Mending the holes in Sima Qian’s story: essential details

It is noteworthy, however, that some of the details of Sima Qian’s story should be taken with a grain of salt. It has been mentioned above that Sima Qian got some of the information wrong.

Though it is certainly hard to spot the discrepancies several centuries later, modern researchers claim that Sima Qian might have used the sources that were not trustworthy enough: “Sima Qian, who wrote a later history called the Record of the Historian in about 100 BCE, uses older documents as sources and mentions the Xia.

Some modern historians say that these accounts are just retelling of legends” (Kleeman and Barrett 16). In fact, the authority of Sima Qian did not allow the rest of the Chinese historiographers doubt the information that Sima Qian provided; thus, it can also be considered that with Sima Qian’s Shiji, the history of inconsistencies in the Chinese historiography started: “Ancient Chimnese historians thought that Sima Qian’s book was accurate, and, in fact, later writers modeled their own accounts of history on what he had written” (Kleeman and Barrett 16).

Conclusion: A Travel Back in Time

Therefore, one can expect that the reader will have a mixed attitude towards Sima Qian’s life work. On the one hand, the ability of the author to incorporate so many sources and embrace such giant time periods as the Qin and the Han dynasties reign is worth appreciation.

On the other hand, it is noteworthy that the dates of certain events in Sima Qian’s work may be incorrect. However, in general, it must be admitted that Sima Qian’s historiography deserves appreciation as one of the earliest attempts at revisiting and evaluating the Chinese history.

Works Cited

Chin, Tamara T. “Defamiliarizing the Foreigner. Sima Qian’s Ethnography and Han Xiongnu Marriage Diplomacy.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 70.2 (2010): 311–354. Print.

Kleeman, Terry and Tracy Barrett. The Ancient Chinese World. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2005. Print.

Durrant, Stephen. The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conflict in the Writings of Sima Qian. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Print.

Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty. New York, NY: A Renditions – Columbia University Press Book.

Sima, Qian. Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty. New York, NY: A Renditions – Columbia University Press Book.

Wang, Edward. Mirroring the Past: The Writing and Use of History in Imperial China. Honolulu, HI: Honolulu, 2005. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'The Qin and Han Dynasties through the Lens of Sima Qian: A Look at the History of China'. 23 April.

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