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Sima Qian's 'Shi Ji'


Shi Ji, by Sima Qian - First Page of Chinese Manuscript

Shi Ji, by Sima Qian - First Page of Chinese Manuscript

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"I have gathered together the old traditions of the world which were neglected and lost, and investigated their deeds and affairs. I have searched into the principles behind their successes and failures, their rises and declines, making in all 130 chapters. In addition, I wished to study the relationship of heaven and man, and to penetrate changes both ancient and modern, thus establishing the discourse of a school of thought."

~ Han shu 62.2735. (written in the 1st century A.D.) quoting Sima Qian on the composition of the Shi Ji. [Form and Narrative in Ssu-ma Ch'ien's Shih chi, by Grant Hardy]

In 91 B.C., Chinese court historian and astrologer under the Han Emperor Wu, Sima Qian finished his private masterpiece, the Shi Ji 'Records of the Historian.' (You may also encounter Sima Qian's history under the name Taishigong shu 'The book of the Master Grand Scribe' or Taishiji 'Records of the Grand Scribe.') Sima Qian's father, Sima Tan, started this history in the second half of the second century B.C. The Shi Ji tells the history of the Chinese from their beginnings, as well as the story of their contact with other people, so it is considered a universal history. Mythological figures are included. The first ruler in non-mythological time is the third millennium B.C. Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, a man both Sima Qian and Sima Tan considered real.

This ambitious undertaking took 130 chapters (also referred to as volumes), an amount calculated to be about 3000-4000 pages in Western languages. It is about four times as long as Thucydides' history [Form and Narrative in Ssu-ma Ch'ien's Shih chi]. Sima Qian devised a five part system to organize the Shi Ji. Instead of taking a single approach, Sima Qian included a variety of methods to detail the story of the Chinese. Ch'ing (Qing) dynasty scholar Chao I (1727-1814), nineteen centuries later, still pointed to the Shi Ji as the model for Chinese dynastic history. He says the following about it:

"In ancient times, the historian on the left recorded the words of the emperor [like the 'Book of Documents', thought to have been edited by Confucius] and the historian on the right recorded his actions [like the 'Spring and Autumn Annals', attributed to Confucius' authorship]."
~ Form and Narrative in Ssu-ma Ch'ien's Shih chi

Hardy (cited above) adds that there are other forms not named by Chao, specifically, anecdotal style and arrangement by state. There are also speeches, sections on religious cults, astronomical observations, and the regulation of the calendar. Sima Qian, who lists more than eighty sources, considered his work in the historiographical tradition begun by Confucius, which combined (inconsistently) didactic purpose and objectivity. The division of the Shi Ji made it easier to separate the separate purposes.

List of the 130 Divisions of the 'Shi Ji' Divided into the 5 Parts

Main Translations of Shi Ji into Western Languages:

  1. Chavannes, Édouard (1895–1905). Les Mémoires historiques de Se-ma Ts'ien, 6 vols.
  2. Watson, Burton, (1993). Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty and Qin Dynasty, 3 vols.
  3. Nienhauser, William J. (1994–2008). The Grand Scribe's Records, 8 vols.


  • "The Idea of Authority in the Shih chi (Records of the Historian)," by Wai-Yee Li; Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Dec., 1994), pp. 345-405.
  • "Form and Narrative in Ssu-ma Ch'ien's Shih chi," by Grant Hardy; Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), Vol. 14 (Dec., 1992), pp. 1-23.
  • "Herodotus and Sima Qian: History and the Anthropological Turn in Ancient Greece and Han China," by Siep Stuurman; Journal of World History, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Mar., 2008), pp. 1-40
  • "Sima Qian and His Western Colleagues: On Possible Categories of Description," by F. H. Mutschler; History and Theory, Vol. 46, No. 2 (May, 2007), pp. 194-200.
  • Mountain of Fame : Portraits in Chinese History, by Wills, John E.; Princeton University Press.
  • "The Lessons of the Past" (The Heritage Left to the Empires), by Michael Loewe Cambridge Histories Online 2008.
  • China Knowledge

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