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  • The Letter to Ren An and Sima Qian's Legacy by Stephen Durrant et al.
  • Allan H. Barr (bio)
Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li, Michael Nylan, and Hans van Ess. The Letter to Ren An and Sima Qian's Legacy. Seattle   London: University of Washington Press, 2016. xi, 178 pp. Hardcover $40.00, ISBN 978-0-295-99544-1.

This collection of essays by four prominent scholars presents an absorbing study of the issues raised in Sima Qian's famous Letter to Ren An, the long cri de coeur that Ban Gu incorporated into his biography of Sima Qian in Hanshu. The Letter has often been seen as a key to understanding the historian's frame of mind as he labored to complete his monumental Shiji. Questions linger, however, about its provenance, dating, and reliability—questions that are raised pointedly by two of The Letter to Ren An   Sima Qian's Legacy's four authors. This compact volume offers a timely engagement with these and other issues.

The authors' Introduction crisply summarizes the book's purpose, and the detailed discussion of the letter that takes up the central chapters is helpfully framed by a full translation of the Letter to Ren An in chapter 1 and a collated version of the original Chinese text in an appendix at the end of the book. The polished, richly annotated translation, a collective effort involving all four authors, testifies to the collegial spirit with which this inquiry was conducted.

In chapter 2, Stephen Durrant mounts a thoughtful defense of the view that the letter reflects Sima Qian's mindset as he was writing his history. Although he acknowledges the impossibility of establishing conclusively that the Letter was Sima Qian's work, and further concedes that "the Letter could have passed through a number of hands and undergone revision at each stage" (p. 50), ultimately he argues that a significant portion of the Letter probably originated from a text that Sima Qian wrote, intending it as "a scenario, a mise-en-scène that would enable him to leave a testament to posterity" (p. 37).

In chapter 3, Hans van Ess lays out an alternative scenario, honing in on passages in the Letter to Ren An that he finds puzzling or suspicious, and on this basis casting doubt on the attribution of the letter to Sima Qian. He suggests instead, on what seems to me rather slender evidence, that Ban Gu himself may have written or rewritten the Letter, or at least parts of it, with the goal of painting Sima Qian in a poor light, as an ingrate and a critic of the Han dynasty.

In the opening lines of chapter 4, Michael Nylan wastes no time in making clear her position: "I have long thought the famous letter to Ren An to be the work of a later writer" (p. 71). She takes the bold initiative of undertaking a stylometric analysis of the Letter to Ren An, comparing its language to that in Shiji and in early and later texts, as a way of gauging the likelihood that the Letter to Ren An was composed by Sima Qian himself. Her provocative conclusion is that "surprisingly few phrases employed in the Letter occur [End Page 117] elsewhere in the monumental corpus ascribed to that historian" (p. 73). Nylan's second important contribution is to examine painstakingly some often neglected portions of the Letter, leading her to another unexpected insight, that it can be read as "a sophisticated rumination on the benefits of male friendship at court" (p. 95).

Wai-yee Li adopts yet another approach to Sima Qian's letter in the book's final chapter. She begins by positing that "some core of the content of the letter originated with Sima Qian," but thereafter does not concern herself with the circumstances of the letter's authorship, turning instead to the question of how the Letter "embodies a defining moment in the conception of authorship" (p. 96). She makes a subtle and sensitive comparison between the letter and Sima Qian's "Personal Narration" in the final chapter of Shiji in terms of how they present the notion that authors who suffer...


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