Sima Qian Writes Chinese History Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Sima Qian’s history of China, which described the events and people who had shaped the country through a Confucian viewpoint, initiated the tradition of creating histories that would guide future leaders.

Summary of Event

Sima Qian led one of the most productive lives in Chinese intellectual history. As the author of Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960, rev. ed. 1993), he laid the foundation for the Chinese historical tradition. His philosophy of history was influenced by both the political events and the major intellectual currents that dominated China during his lifetime. Sima Qian Shi Huangdi Dong Zhongshu Wudi Zhang Qian

Sima was born into a state that was still recovering from the great upheaval of the Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.). This was a time of unprecedented political and social chaos. For more than two and a half centuries, China had suffered the scourge of constant warfare. Military leaders battled each other in an attempt to become the dominant force in the region. Large standing armies of more than a quarter of a million men, armed with the latest weapons, clashed in some of the bloodiest battles in Chinese history.

The instability of this era drove China’s intellectual class to search for models of good governance and individual behavior that would restore peace and prosperity to the war-torn region. Schools of philosophy bloomed like a thousand flowers, as intellectuals competed for recognition. In time, three major philosophical models—Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism—came to dominate the intellectual landscape. The Confucian school was based on the belief that political and social stability could be found in the patriarchal social structure of the early Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 1066 b.c.e.-256 b.c.e.). Legalism vehemently rejected relying on the past and instead insisted that stability could be restored only through the harsh implementation of a strict “law and order” policy. The Daoists rejected the first two models as the vain attempt to impose human rules and regulations on the natural order of the cosmos. These intellectuals believed that stability could be achieved only by acting in harmony with the natural rhythms of the universe.

Sima followed the Confucian model, based on the teachings of China’s most influential intellectual of the period, Dong Zhongshu. Dong’s worldview was based on a belief in universal natural law, which governed both the cosmos and the affairs of humankind. He believed that once these laws were understood, a societal model could be developed that would create an environment in which peace and prosperity would flourish. Dong also believed in the existence of a powerful force that regulated the affairs of humankind, which he referred to as heaven. It was this divine power that bestowed the right to rule on China’s leaders. If the emperor acted in accordance with natural law, China would prosper and the emperor would maintain the mandate of heaven. If, on the other hand, the emperor became corrupt and the people suffered, he would lose his divine sanction.

The concept of the mandate of heaven also elevated the importance of history because it could provide the factual explanation for the rise and fall of dynasties. Events such as famine, war, or governmental corruption could be documented by the historian and then used as evidence of the failure of a particular ruler.

Sima attempted to bring all of China’s history in line with the theory of the mandate of heaven as interpreted through the Confucian worldview. His writing concentrated on both historical events and the biographies of important political and cultural figures. Unlike modern historians, Sima did not offer an interpretation of historical events. He believed it was his duty to remain neutral and to allow the reader to reach his own conclusions. Sima was convinced that through extensive training based on Dong’s Confucian model, history could be an important tool in the development of a well-ordered society.

Sima’s great work begins with an overview of early Chinese history, from the Five Sage Emperors (Wudi) to the fall of the Zhou Dynasty. The history of the early Zhou is of particular importance to Sima because Confucian scholars use it as a model of excellent government. He then focuses on the Qin Dynasty (Ch’in; 221-206 b.c.e.), which Sima believed was an excellent example of a government at war with the natural law. Shi Huangdi, the new emperor, rose to power at the end of the Warring States Period. In an attempt to restore stability, he installed a governmental system based on Legalist principles. Sima describes events that paint Shi Huangdi as an unfit leader. The emperor is portrayed as egotistical, greedy, and unwilling to take the advice of his ministers. Like Confucius (Kongfuzi, K’ung-Fu-Tzu; 551-479 b.c.e.), Sima believed that good government was based on virtue and that the successful ruler relied on the judgment of advisers who had proved their merit through honest and intelligent service to the state. Shi Huangdi further violated the natural law when he attacked the intellectual foundation of China by ordering the destruction of all the histories of the earlier dynasties, especially the ones pertaining to the Zhou. The emperor then compounded the outrage by ordering the execution of 460 scholars who refused to take part in the destruction of China’s historical legacy. Sima interpreted these violations as the reason the emperor eventually lost heaven’s mandate, which ended in the fall of his government and the rise of the Han Dynasty.

Sima focuses the majority of the remaining sections of his work on recording the major events of the Han Dynasty. In particular, he focuses on Wudi, the emperor who ruled China during the time Sima was composing The Records of the Grand Historian. Initially, he believed the new emperor was the answer to China’s problems. Wudi embraced the philosophy of Dong Zhongshu, and he attempted to create a government based on Confucian principles. Industrial and agricultural output increased, and China’s population reached an all-time high. In the area of foreign affairs, China expanded its borders and opened vast trading networks that increased the nation’s prosperity. Sima viewed China’s good fortune as the result of the emperor’s virtuous form of government, which was in line with natural law.

One of Sima’s most important biographies discussed the accomplishments of the general Zhang Qian. Sima believed Zhang was the model Confucian government official. He was a virtuous man who always placed his well-being second to the welfare of the nation. When China was embroiled in one of its many struggles against the nomadic tribes that occupied the region along its northern borders, the emperor requested a volunteer to negotiate a peace agreement on his behalf. Zhang immediately stepped forward and volunteered for the dangerous mission. He was subsequently captured and spent the next ten years living among these nomads. During that time, he collected valuable intelligence concerning the people and the geography of Central Asia. Zhang eventually escaped, and the information he brought back to China allowed the Han Dynasty to expand westward and establish trade networks with the Roman Empire. Zhang’s exploits seemed to confirm Sima’s belief in the Confucian concept that virtuous men have a positive impact on the welfare of the state.

The march of history would eventually test Sima’s conviction about leading the virtuous life. One of China’s great generals, who also happened to be the historian’s close friend, volunteered to lead a campaign against one of China’s northern rivals. Badly outnumbered and short on supplies, the general engaged the enemy; however, though he and his troops fought bravely, in the end they suffered a tragic defeat. It was traditional in classical China for a defeated general to be executed for his failure. Sima spoke out on his friend’s behalf and was also sentenced to death by the angry emperor. The historian had two choices. He could accept execution and leave his great work unfinished, or he could submit to the great indignity of castration and live to finish his world history. Sima accepted humiliation in order to complete his task, which he believed could be used to train future ministers in the Confucian tradition. He spent the remainder of his life completing the work.


Sima began the Chinese historical tradition that emphasized the importance of past events in the training of future virtuous leaders. He also began the tradition of Chinese intellectuals using their respected position to both criticize governmental injustice and to initiate social reform.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Durrant, Stephen. The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conflict in the Writings of Sima Quin. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Discusses the major works of Sima Qian. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardy, Grant. Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qian’s Conquest of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Discusses the major interpretations of the writings of Sima Qian. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lowe, Michael, and Edward L. Shaughnessy. The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 b.c.e. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Provides a comprehensive overview of the history of ancient China. Maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watson, Burton. Early Chinese Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1962. Discusses the importance of history in early Chinese literature. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watson, Burton. Records of the Grand Historian: New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Provides the best translation of the work of Sima Qian. Bibliography and index.
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Confucius; Shi Huangdi; Sima Qian; Wudi. Shiji (Sima Qian)

Categories: History