In five thousand years of Chinese history, Sima Clan family produced the best known and most important historians. Sima Qian and Sima Guang top the list.
Sima Qian is considered the father of Chinese historiography for his Records of the Grand Historian. Sima Guang’s Zizhi Tongjian is a pioneering reference work in Chinese historiography.
Not only their historical books are well-known, their private lives with remarkable stories are often remembered as moral models in the minds of millions. We have a brief introduction here.
Sima Qian and Records of the Grand Historian
Sima Qian was born at Xiayang in today’s Shaanxi Province around 145 BC.
Around 136 BC, his father, Sima Tan, received an appointment to the position of “grand historian”. The grand historian’s primary duty was to formulate the yearly calendar, identifying which days were ritually auspicious or inauspicious, and present it to the emperor at the end of the year.
Besides these duties, the grand historian was also to travel with the emperor for important rituals and to record the daily events both at the court and within the country.
By the age of ten, Sima Qian, able to read the old writings, was considered a promising scholar. As he grew up in a Confucian environment, Sima always regarded his historical work as an act of Confucian filial piety to his father.
Around the age of twenty, Sima Qian began an extensive tour around the country. He started his journey from the imperial capital of Chang’an to the south of Changsha across the Yangtze River, then to the north of Huaiyin and Qufu,.the hometown of Confucius.
After his travels, Sima became an attendant in the imperial palace. He married young and had one daughter.
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 due to the distress of not being invited to attend the Imperial Feng Sacrifice. Suspecting his time was running out, he summoned his son back home to complete the historical work he had begun.
Fueled by his father’s inspiration, Sima Qian started to compile Shiji, which became known as the Records of the Grand Historian.
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. His works were influential to Chinese writing for two thousand years.
Sima Guang and Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance
The Zizhi Tongjian, or Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance, was published in 1084 in the form of a chronicle.
In 1065 AD, Emperor Yingzong of Song Dynasty ordered the great historian Sima Guang (1019–1086 AD) to lead other scholars in the compilation of a universal history of China. The task took them 19 years to complete.
The Zizhi Tongjian records Chinese history from 403 BC to 959 AD, covering 16 dynasties and spanning across almost 1,400 years, and contains 294 volumes and about 3 million Chinese characters.
The Simas were originally from Xia County in Shǎn Prefecture, and claimed descent from Sima Fu in the 3rd century. A famous anecdote relates how the young Sima Guang once saved a playmate who had fallen into an enormous vat full of water. As other children scattered in panic, Sima Guang calmly picked up a rock and smashed a hole in the base of the pot. Water leaked out, and his friend was saved from drowning.
At age 6, Sima Guang once heard a lecture on the 4th-century BC history book Zuo Zhuan. Fascinated, he was able to retell the stories to his family when he returned home. He became an avid reader, “to the point of not recognizing hunger, thirst, coldness or heat”.
Sima Guang obtained early success as a scholar and officer. When he was barely twenty, he passed the Imperial examination with the highest rank of jìnshì -metropolitan graduate, and spent the next several years in official positions.
Translation by staff editor