Sima Qian

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Sima Qian (ca. 145 or 135 BC – 86 BC), also called Ssu-ma Ch'ien, was a Prefect of the Grand Scribes (太史公) of the Han Dynasty. He is regarded as the father of Chinese historiography because of his highly praised work, Records of the Grand Historian (史記 or 史记), a "Jizhuanti" style general history of China covering more than two thousand years from the Yellow Emperor to Emperor Han Wudi (漢武帝 or 汉武帝). His definitive work laid the foundation for later Chinese historiography.


Early life and education

Sima Qian was born and grew up in Longmen, near present-day Hancheng, Shaanxi. He was raised in a family of astrologers. His father, Sima Tan, served as the Prefect of the Grand Scribes of Emperor Wu of Han (Emperor "Han Wudi"). His main responsibilities were managing the imperial library and maintaining or reforming the calendar. Due to the intensive training given by his father, by the age of ten, Sima Qian was already well versed in old writings. He was the student of the famous Confucians Kong Anguo (孔安國 or 孔安国) and Dong Zhongshu. At the age of twenty, with the support of his father, Sima Qian started a journey throughout the country, collecting useful first-hand historical records for his main work, Shiji. The purpose of his journey was to verify the ancient rumors and legends and to visit ancient monuments, including the renowned graves of the ancient sage kings Yu and Shun. Places he had visited include Shandong, Yunnan, Hebei, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Hunan.

After his travels, he was chosen to be a Palace Attendant in the government whose duties were to inspect different parts of the country with Emperor Han Wudi. In 110 BC, at the age of thirty-five, Sima Qian was sent westward on a military expedition against some "barbarian" tribes. That year, his father fell ill and could not attend the Imperial Feng Sacrifice. Suspecting his time was running out, he summoned his son back to complete the historical work he had begun. Sima Tan wanted to follow the Annals of Spring and Autumn - the first chronicle in the history of Chinese literature. Fueled by his father's inspiration, Sima Qian started to compile Shiji in 109 BC. In 105 BC, Sima was among the scholars chosen to reform the calendar. As a senior imperial official, Sima was also in the position to offer counsel to the emperor on general affairs of state.

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