Sima Qian (c. 100 B.C.E.) was China's first historian―he was known as Grand Astrologer at the court of Emperor Wu during the Han dynasty―and, along with Confucius and the First Emperor of Qin, was one of the creators of imperial China. His Shiji (published for Columbia in a translation by Burton Watson as Records of the Grand Historian) not only became the model for the twenty-six Standard Histories that the historians of each Chinese dynasty wrote to legitimize the dynastic succession, but also has been an enormously influential resource to historians, literary scholars, philosophers, and many others seeking an understanding of early Chinese history. In Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, Grant Hardy presents convincing evidence that the Shiji is quite unlike such Western counterparts as the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, for, Hardy argues, Sima Qian's work seeks not only to represent but to influence the world in a manner based on Confucian concepts of sageliness and "the rectification of names."
Although many scholars have sought close parallels between Sima Qian and the Greek historians―either criticizing Sima's work, as if Western models of historical interpretation could serve as a template by which to read it, or overemphasizing his "objectivity" to more closely align his text with these "respectable" Greek models―Hardy boldly contends that the Chinese historian never intended to produce a consistent, closed interpretation of the past. Instead, Hardy argues, the Shiji is a microcosm in which Sima Qian sought to represent the open-endedness and multivalence of the world around him, revealing and reinforcing the natural order.
In mapping out this model of the world, Sima embodies the historian as sage rather than chronicler. Transcending mere accuracy in recording events, such a historian seeks not to present an opinion about what happened in the past, buttressed with rational arguments and pertinent evidence, but to penetrate the outer details of an incident and discover the moral truths it embodies. Thus intuiting the moral significance of events, the sage-historian delineates the Way and offers his readers a chance to become more in tune with the natural order.
Illustrating his provocative theses about the Shiji by analyzing Sima Qian's handling of specific historical personages and episodes such as the First Emperor of the Qin, the hereditary house of Confucius, and the conflicts that ended with the founding of the Han dynasty, Hardy both extends and challenges existing interpretations of this crucial yet understudied text and sheds light on its puzzles and incongruities.
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