Sima Qian’s Self-Conception in Claims of Legitimacy

His Postface to the Shiji and his Letter to Ren An

Term Paper, 2012

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents


1. Sima Qian’s Postface, Chapter 130 of the Shiji

2. Sima Qian’s Letter to Ren An

3. Conclusion

Appendix – Daoism in Sima Qian’s Writing



What we know today of Sima Qian’s司馬遷 (145 –90 BCE)[1] life and especially of the way he saw himself is drawn mainly from two sources of Chinese historiography – the Records of the Grand Historian or Shiji史記, written by himself and his father Sima Tan司馬談 (164 – 110 BCE), and the History of the Former Han or Han Shu漢書, written by Ban Gu班固 (32 – 92 CE)[2]. Chapter 130 of the former, i.e. the author’s postface, provides us with an autobiography of Sima Qian, whereas Ban Gu offers a biography of him in the Han Shu that is mostly copied from the Shiji’s postface. Additionally, after the biography Ban Gu added a letter to Ren An任安, a friend of Sima Qian’s, which was written as a response to Ren An’s own letter to the Grand Historian[3]. The two mentioned accounts of Sima Qian’s life and his self-conception differ strongly from each other. Whereas his postface serves as a biography both for his father Sima Tan as well as his reasons for writing, or rather completing, the Shiji, his letter offers a great deal of insight into his situation at court and the way he perceived it.

The purpose of this paper is to give some insight into Sima Qian’s self-conception and especially into his ways of legitimising his life and work. Thus, I will argue that the reason for his Confucian agenda of self-legitimation can be found in his self-conception displayed in his letter to Ren An.

1. Sima Qian’s Postface, Chapter 130 of the Shiji

This chapter stands out against a background of 129 chapters of writing about others[4], although a considerable part of it again speaks not of Sima Qian himself but of his father Sima Tan. He starts the chapter with a genealogy of his family, reaching back to the time of the legendary rulers Yao and Shun[5] and thereby establishing a line of legitimation for the office he and his father held. Since this is customary among Chinese writers, it does not come as a surprise at this point. However, in this case it serves as one of Sima Qian’s veiled provocations against Han Wudi 漢武帝 (r. 141 – 87 B.C.E.), who in turn could not trace his genealogy back to that legendary golden age. In comparison with other provocations, as they are spread across the whole breadth of the Shiji, this is one of the subtler ones.

Following this introduction is a brief biography of his father. Sima Tan served as Grand Historian from 140 to 110 B.C.E. and wrote “The Discussion of the Essentials of the Six Schools” 論六家之要指[6]- This treatise reveals that Sima Qian’s father was a very staunch supporter of Daoism[7]. One part of it specifically tells us where he set his priorities, as translated by Burton Watson:

The Daoists teach men to live a life of spiritual concentration and to act in harmony with the Unseen. Their teaching is all-sufficient and embraces all things. Its method consists in following the seasonal order of the Yinyang -School, selecting what is good from the Confucian and Mohist teachings, and adopting the important points of the Logical and Legalist schools[8].

As can be seen here, when speaking of any of the other schools, he tends to find weaknesses in all of them, but when it comes to Daoism his view is that it combines every strong point of the other schools in itself. At a time when eclecticism was not yet frowned upon[9], Sima Tan made his position clear that for him there was one philosophical school surpassing all the others. It is worth noting that the one quality of Daoism that is emphasised here is its eclectic way of combining aspects of other views[10].

What follows is a brief introductory biography of Sima Qian until the time when his father fell ill and, being on his deathbed, instructed Qian to carry on his legacy, i.e. finish the Shiji[11]. The following passage of his last words to his son reveals another facet of Sima Tan:

After I die, you will become Grand Historian. When you become Grand Historian, you must not forget what I have desired to expound and write. Now filial piety begins with the serving of your parents; next you must serve your sovereign; and finally you must make something of yourself, that your name may go down through the ages for the glory of your father and mother. This is the most important part of filial piety.[12]

First of all, we learn that with the office of his father passing on to him, the task of writing the Shiji comes along with it[13]. He then goes on to speak about filial piety 孝, a Confucian concept which he regards highly, saying “none of the other schools can change or approve upon this”[14]. While this view is already mentioned in his “Discussion of the Essentials of the Six Schools”, here he speaks of another Confucian theme. Sima Tan reminds his son that the most important part of his filial duty towards his parents as well as his ancestors is to make his and their name known[15]. Even though Sima Qian introduced his father as a proponent of Daoism by copying his “Essentials” into the biography, we might now be inclined to think of Sima Tan as more of a Confucianist.


[1] His dates of birth and death are subject for a discussion. See Durrant 1995, p. 153, n. 3.

[2] See Watson 1958, p. 40.

[3] I follow Burton Watson in translating 太史 as Grand Historian. Although there are other possibilities and this choice might always we up for discussion, Watson’s argument for his translation is convincing enough at this point. S. Watson 1958, p. 204-5, n. 24. Note that Stephen Durrant opts for translating 太史 as Grand Astrologer whereby he is following both Chavannes and Bielenstein. See Durrant 1986, p. 36, n. 27.

[4] Since it is generally labeled as Sima Qian’s autobiography, this seems obvious, but obvious points sometimes have to be made.

[5] See Watson 1958, p. 42.

[6] See Watson 1958, p. 43.

[7] Since it would not be fitting in this paper to go into detail about Sima Qian’s views on Daoism versus Confucianism, I discussed these briefly in the Appendix.

[8] See Watson 1958, p. 44; Note that I changed his Wade-Giles transcription of Chinese terms into versions based on Pinyin.

[9] See Watson 1958, p. 152; It was under Han Wudi that Confucianism became the basis for governing the state and that other schools were gradually being viewed as niche schools of thought. See also Durrant 1995, p. 2.

[10] See Durrant 1986, p. 35.

[11] See Watson 1958, p. 49.

[12] See Watson 1958, p. 49.

[13] He does not explicitly name the Shiji here, but as he had started working on it and was far from finishing at the time of his death, I think it is safe to assume what is meant here.

[14] Translation in Watson 1958, p. 46.

[15] The notion of a reputation in Confucian thought is somewhat ambiguous. Lunyu 15.19/20 衛靈公 says: “The gentleman would be upset at the idea of his reputation not being praised after his death.” (See Dawson, p. 62) This seems to go against the preceding chapter, saying “The gentleman is pained at the lack of ability within himself; he is not pained at the fact that others do not appreciate [or: know, see Legge, p. 300] him.” (See Dawson, p. 62). Lunyu 12.20 顏淵also speaks differently of reputation: “[...] But the man of reputation assumes an air of humaneness although his conduct belies it, and he does not feel any misgivings about persisting in this.”, meaning that reputation is spoken of in a similar way as in Lunyu 15.18/19. Arguing from a grammatical point of view, in the case of reputation as something to pursue, this reputation is represented by the name 名 being called 稱, whereas in the other two chapters it is expressed by knowingthe gentleman and hearing ofhim. Since Sima Tan is using the phrase to gain a reputation 揚名, quoting thechapter Amplification of Making Our Name Famous 廣揚名of the Classic of Filial Piety孝經, he clearly had this distinction in mind. Following James Legge (see Legge, p. 300) and Raymond Dawson (see Dawson, p. 99), the apparent ambiguity with this notion of reputation or fame can be explained as the difference between caring to be known during one’s lifetime and achieving a reputation after death because of one’s merits, thereby fulfilling one’s filial duty to bring glory to one’s parents. In conclusion, we can safely assume that Sima Tan was referring to the latter aspect.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Sima Qian’s Self-Conception in Claims of Legitimacy
His Postface to the Shiji and his Letter to Ren An
University of Heidelberg  (Sinologisches Seminar)
Beginnings of Chinese Historiography
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
638 KB
China, Chinese, Historiography, History, Writing, Sinology, Sima Qian, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Shiji, Legitimacy, Self-Conception
Quote paper
Tony Buchwald (Author), 2012, Sima Qian’s Self-Conception in Claims of Legitimacy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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