- The Grand Scribe's Records, Volume 5.1: The Hereditary Houses of Pre-Han China, Part I
This book is the latest installment of the University of Wisconsin group's annotated translation of the Shiji, the massive historical text compiled primarily by Sima Qian (145–ca. 86 B.C.). The present volume covers chapters 31–40, the first ten of the "Hereditary Households" that comprise the Shiji's fourth division.1 This is the first time these chapters have been rendered into English, and they are presented here with a wealth of scholarly annotations. Each chapter recounts the story of a given region's ruling house: from its origins in the semi-mythical past, through the successive ages of its glory and decline, and finally, in each case, to crushing defeat and annihilation.
William Nienhauser's introduction includes a brief discussion of the "Hereditary Household" as an historical subgenre and is especially praiseworthy for examining interpretations by various scholars, both traditional and modern. The "Hereditary Households" are chronological in form, and their primary concern is genealogical; the generations of the houses are given, along with the often sordid details of their successions, and sometimes other information about how they conducted the internal and external affairs of their domains. Although Nienhauser does not mention the fact, the "Hereditary Household" as a genre was excluded almost completely from later dynastic histories, though these in other ways modeled themselves closely on the Shiji's structure.2 This is probably because the genre—like the feudal-type system it reflected—was politically problematic. Each chapter in this volume, for example, has its own chronology and version of events, and differences among them (to judge by commentarial wranglings past and present) at times prove irreconcilable. Without discounting the very real possibility that the compiler was simply overwhelmed by the complexity of his material, we can still take these contradictions as a symbol and symptom of tensions between nominal center and the semi-independent states, as well as the diplomatic and military conflicts among those states. The chapters clearly show how each hereditary household was engaged in its own ongoing struggle, whether for domination or mere survival.
An analogous tension appears in the nature of the translation. Rather than presenting the work as a communal endeavor, the Wisconsin group has taken pains to preserve the separateness of each translator's contribution (in most cases, one chapter per translator). There is noticeable variation in style and quality from chapter to chapter. Occasionally there are differences in translation conventions as well. One example is the translation of the character Ji 姬 as it appears in a name. Ji [End Page 544] was one of the major surnames (cognomens) during the period in question, but in historiographic conventions of the time it rarely appears as part of a person's name except in the case of high status women. In some cases, it seems to have taken on an extensional meaning of "a palace beauty" generally, as in the present volume's "Duke Li had many favored beauties" (p. 358, original on Zhonghua shuju Shiji 39.1680). Therefore, some translators in this volume have decided to render Ji as "Beauty" (chap. 9) or "Belle" (chaps. 2, 10) or "Lady" (chap. 7) whenever it occurs as part of a woman's name. In the case of the "many favored beauties" mentioned above, a semantic rendering seems appropriate, but in most other cases Ji is better understood as a surname. Thus the translator of chapter 6 quite properly gives it in romanized form (pp. 227, 229).3 Whatever the translators' final decision, it should have been made consistent, rather than causing (for example) the same woman to be referred to as Xia Ji in chapter 6 (p. 227) and as Beauty Xia in chapter 9 (p. 355).