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Sima Guang on Song Taizong: Politics, History and Historiography

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 42, 2012
pp. 5-43 | 10.1353/sys.2013.0018

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The second Song emperor, Zhao Kuangyi 趙匡義, posthumously known as Taizong 太宗 (r.976-997), was beset from the beginning of his reign by questions regarding his succession and, consequently, his legitimacy. Having earlier maneuvered Taizu's (r.960-976) close advisor Zhao Pu 趙普 (922-992) out of the court, Taizong was able to take the throne when his older brother died. Leaving aside the question of whether or not Taizong assassinated Taizu, something the records do not allow us to answer definitively one way or the other, it is clear that Taizong was not unequivocally supported as the successor to Taizu. Taizong's failed attempts to legitimize his rule through military action in 979-980 nearly led to personal disaster, and the second emperor was forced take a series of measures to shore up his rule. One of those measures was to make a political deal with Zhao Pu in 981, which brought the one-time counselor back to court in exchange for Zhao Pu's sudden announcement that there was a document dictated by Taizu and Taizong's mother and verbally endorsed by Taizu stating that Taizong should succeed him.

The story of Taizu's letter was recorded by Sima Guang 司馬光 (1019-1086) in his Sushui Jiwen 涑水記聞, as well as other anecdote collections, and then duly reproduced by Li Tao 李燾 in his Xu Zizhi Tongjian Changbian 續資 治通鑑長編, as well as appearing in the Songshi 宋史 and the Xu Zizhi Tongjian 續資治通鑑. Li Tao included an extensive discussion of a number of historiographical problems with the story, though he did not question its fundamental truth. In the discussion that follows I will argue not only that the letter did not exist before 981, following Miyazaki Ichisada's contention that Taizong and Zhao Pu fabricated the story, but also that Sima Guang tried to indicate that the story was false. Several other scholars have also argued that the story and the letter were later fabrications.

I make two arguments here, one historical and the other historiographical. Historically, I tie the fabrication of the document to a political deal made in the wake of Taizong's military failure in 980. Political weakness from an uncertain succession led to rash military action, followed by battlefield failure, and, finally, a political deal that addressed the uncertain succession. That political deal created a historiographical problem for Sima Guang in the 11th century. The story of Taizu pledging to his mother that Taizong should succeed him was in circulation, but Sima believed it was a fabrication. He therefore recorded it in Sushui Jiwen in order to address both its existence and to indicate that it was false. Quite apart from several questionable aspects of the story that absorbed so much of Li Tao's attention, and a few that did not, Sima's particular reference to a "strongbox" or "Golden Casket" (jinkui 金匱) was, I believe, a direct reference to the story about the Duke of Zhou offering his own life for that of the Zhou King. This story in the Shujing 書 經 was called the "metal-bound coffer" (jinteng 金縢), or more fully (jinteng zhi kui 金縢之匱). Connecting Zhao Pu or Taizong to the Duke of Zhou was so ridiculous as to undermine the entire story.

Sima Guang had to be extremely circumspect in his treatment of this story because it went directly to the heart of Taizong's legitimacy. Given that Song emperors in the 11th century when Sima was writing were descended from Taizong's line, this was a serious issue. Sima was a dynasty loyalist as well as high official so the political aspects of this issue directly clashed with his role as historian. At the same time, it was clearly a well-known anecdote that he felt required recording. Of course, Sima had shifted historical modes in dealing with the Song dynasty itself, moving from the narrative chronology with occasional commentary that he used for pre-Song history to a collection of anecdotes for the Song. As part of an anecdote collection, Sima could be much more subtle with his intentions, leaving off any commentary on the anecdotes or their overall meaning.

The later historians who placed the story of the letter's writing in 961 obfuscated the political...



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