Although the style and form of Chinese historical writings varied through the ages, the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) has defined the quality and style from then onwards. Before Sima, histories were written as certain events or certain periods of history of states; his idea of a general history affected later historiographers like Zheng Qiao (郑樵) in writing Tongshi (通史) and Sima Guang in writing Zizhi Tongjian. The Chinese historical form of dynasty history, or jizhuanti history of dynasties, was codified in the second dynastic history by Ban Gu‘s Book of Han, but historians regard Sima’s work as their model, which stands as the “official format” of the history of China. The Shiji comprises 130 chapters consisting of half-million characters.
Sima was greatly influenced by Confucius’s Spring and Autumn Annals, which on the surface is a succinct chronology from the events of the reigns of the twelve dukes of Lu from 722 to 484 BC. Many Chinese scholars have and still do view how Confucius ordered his chronology as the ideal example of how history should be written, especially with regards to what he chose to include and to exclude; and his choice of words as indicating moral judgements. Seen in this light, the Spring and Autumn Annals are a moral guide to the proper way of living. Sima took this view himself as he explained:
“It [Spring and Autumn Annals] distinguishes what is suspicious and doubtful, clarifies right and wrong, and settles points which are uncertain. It calls good good and bad bad, honours the worthy, and condemns the unworthy. It preserves states which are lost and restores the perishing family. It brings to light what was neglected and restores what was abandoned.”
In writing Shiji, Sima initiated a new writing style by presenting history in a series of biographies. His work extends over 130 chapters — not in historical sequence, but divided into particular subjects, including annals, chronicles, and treatises — on music, ceremonies, calendars, religion, economics, and extended biographies.
Sima’s Shiji is respected as a model of biographical literature with high literary value and still stands as a textbook for the study of classical Chinese. Sima’s works were influential to Chinese writing, serving as ideal models for various types of prose within the neo-classical (“renaissance” 复古) movement of the Tang–Song period. The great use of characterisation and plotting also influenced fiction writing, including the classical short stories of the middle and late medieval period (Tang–Ming) as well as the vernacular novel of the late imperial period. Sima had immense influence on historiography not only in China, but also in Japan and Korea. For centuries afterwards, the Shiji was regarded as the greatest history book written in Asia. Sima is little known in the English-speaking world as a full translation of the Shiji has never been attempted.
His influence was derived primarily from the following elements of his writing: his skillful depiction of historical characters using details of their speech, conversations, and actions; his innovative use of informal, humorous, and varied language; and the simplicity and conciseness of his style. Even the 20th century literary critic Lu Xun regarded Shiji as “the historians’ most perfect song, a “Li Sao” without the rhyme” (史家之绝唱，无韵之离骚) in his “Hanwenxueshi Gangyao” (汉文学史纲要).
Sima and his father were both court astrologers (taishi) 太史 in the Former Han Dynasty. At that time, the astrologer had an important role, responsible for interpreting and predicting the course of government according to the influence of the Sun, Moon, and stars, as well as other phenomena such as solar eclipses and earthquakes.
Later generations refer to him as the Grand Historian for his monumental work; a work which in later generations would often only be somewhat tacitly or glancingly acknowledged as an achievement only made possible by his acceptance and endurance of punitive actions against him, including imprisonment, castration, and subjection to servility.
Sima married young and had one daughter.
Edited from Wikipedia