Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qian's Conquest of History

Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qian's Conquest of History

Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qian's Conquest of History

Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qian's Conquest of History

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

This is a book about another book, the Shiji (Records of the scribes), written about 100 B.C.E. by Sima Qian, the Grand Astrologer at the court of Emperor Wu in Han dynasty China. I refer to the Shiji as a book, but it actually bore little resemblance to the volume you are now holding. First of all, it was written with brush and ink on thousands of bamboo slips, packaged into about 130 bundles (pian), each held together by three or four silken cords and rolled up like so many window shades. It would have been impossible to hold the original Shiji in one's hands; in fact, it would have taken a cart to contain it.

There is also a profound difference in the influence exerted by this book and Sima Qian's. Although I, like all authors, have the highest hopes for my book's success, I have written the previous sentence with absolute confidence. My efforts will join those of earlier interpreters, may have some slight impact on the way the Shiji is read, and perhaps, in the very best case, may even provoke some discussion of comparative historiography, but Sima Qian's book became a foundational text in Chinese civilization. Sima wrote a universal history, an account of the entire world (which to him was China and its neighbors) from earliest legendary times to his own age, and in doing so, he defined what it meant to be Chinese. Not only do standard surveys of Chinese history and historiography include a chapter on the Shiji, but such chapters also are common in surveys of Chinese literature and Chinese philosophy. In fact, I would argue that after Confucius and the First Emperor of Qin, Sima Qian was one of the creators of Imperial China, not least because by providing definitive biographies, he virtually created the two earlier figures.

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