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Records of the Grand Historian

The Records of the Grand Historian or the Records of the Grand Historian of China was the opus magnum of Sima Qian, in which he recounted Chinese history from the time of the mythical Yellow Emperor until his own time. Records of the Grand Historian is a modern Western name; The original Chinese title is 史記 (pinyin: shi ji), which means "Historical Records". As the first systematic Chinese historical text, it tremendously influenced Chinese historiography and prose, and is comparable to Herodotus and his Historiai.

The 130-chapter text classifies all information into several categories:

  1. 12 chapters of Benji (本紀 pinyin ben3ji4) contain all biographies of the prominent rulers from the mythical Yellow Emperor including Qin Shi Huang Di and the kings of Shang dynasty and Zhou Dynasty.
  2. 30 chapters of Shijia (世家 pinyin shi4 jia1) contain all biograghies of notable rulers, nobility and bureaucrats mostly from the Spring and Autumn Period and Period of the Warring States.
  3. 70 chapters of Liezhuan (列傳 pinyin lie4 zhuan4) contain all biographies of important figures including Lao zi, Mocius, Sun Tzu and Jing Ke.
  4. 8 chapters of Shu ( pinyin shu1) are the economic and cultural records of the time covered in the book.
  5. 10 chapters of Biao ( pinyin biao3) are timelines of events

Unlike subsequent official historical texts that adopted Confucian doctrine, proclaimed the divine rights of the emperors, and degraded any failed claimant of the throne, Sima Qian's more liberal and objective prose had been renowned and followed by poets and novelists. Most chapters of Liezhuan were vivid descriptions of events and persons, a reason for which is that the author critically used stories passed on from antiquity as part of the sources, balancing reliability and accuracy of the records. For instance, the material on Jing Ke's assassination of Qin Shi Huang Di was an eye-witness story passed on by the great-grandfather of his father's friend, who served as a low-ranked bureaucrat at Qin court and happened to be attending the diplomatic ceremony for Jing Ke.

English Translation

  • Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Records of the grand historian of China. Translated from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch'ien by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961, ISBN 0231081650
  • Various titles by Burton Watson.

See also: Twenty-Four Histories

External Link

Translated version at Amazon

Last updated: 01-06-2005 04:02:37