Biography 24.3 (2001) 600-606
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Readers of Biography surely know Sima Qian (ca. 145-ca. 86 B.C.E.), or should. (For those unfamiliar, he was the compiler of China's most influential work of history and biography, the 130 chapter Shi ji [also romanized Shih chi], Records of the Historian, 1 a monument of vast scope and insight, still one of China's most read classical works. Sima was the man's family name, Qian his given name [also romanized as Ssu-ma Ch'ien].) As Grant Hardy relates at the outset of his provocative and thoroughgoing treatment of the man and his opus, "after Confucius and the First Emperor of Qin, Sima Qian was one of the creators of Imperial China"; indeed, "he virtually created the two earlier figures" (xi). Again, in Hardy's cogent phrasing, "Sima Qian's book became a foundational text in Chinese civilization. Sima wrote a universal history . . . and in doing so, he defined what it meant to be Chinese." These are bold statements. But I will not quibble here, for Hardy's broad and insightful analysis of Sima Qian's "universal history" progresses to its conclusion with the relentless propulsion of the tides at Mont-Saint-Michel.
Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo is, in the author's opening words, "a book about another book." It is not about an individual, per se, yet in the end it clearly also is about Sima Qian--it is, after all, subtitled "Sima Qian's conquest of history." For Sima's Shi ji was by and large formulated and executed by one determined individual, and it stands as the inescapable and principal fount for surmise about Sima Qian's own intentions in carrying his grand oeuvre to fruition. Sima Qian was the scribe par excellence for the Han court. As the Grand Astrologer--the official recorder of all phenomena, an inherited post--he was responsible for recording not only the consecutive happenings in the human world, but also relevant events in the terrestrial and celestial worlds. He had full access to the imperial archives. The Shi ji quotes more than eighty texts, as well as numerous memorials, edicts, and stone inscriptions (43). But when Sima Qian defended a military officer--Sima Qian believed that the general's surrender to a northern chieftain was an appropriate, even noble act, undertaken on account of circumstance (in this case, military inattentiveness on the part of the court), compassion, and the hope of future service to the court--this defense was taken as an offense by the emperor. However, Sima Qian did not requite his offense by suicide, as would have been appropriate, customary, and in most ways honorable. Instead, driven as he was to complete his private project of writing a comprehensive, universal history, he accepted the alternative punishment of castration. [End Page 600]
Sima Qian tells us this quite clearly in a letter to his friend Ren An, one of the most moving and poignant of Chinese writings ever: "If I concealed my feelings and clung to life, burying myself in filth without protest, it was because I could not bear to leave unfinished my deeply cherished project, because I rejected the idea of dying without leaving to posterity my literary work." 2 Sima Qian cites many examples of famous historical figures who, in their time of crisis, wrote books that ultimately brought them their due recognition by posterity. At base Sima Qian wished to embed his personal philosophy in a universal history, "in the hope that someday people like himself would read it, recognize his worth, and justify his life" (211). 3 Certainly, Sima Qian has gained posthumous redemption and an enduring legacy on account of the Shi ji. Hardy's thesis is that Sima Qian sought for more than the respect of later ages. He designed the Shi ji as a textual microcosm, an intentional and...