Essay / A Fortunate Tragedy? Sima Qian’s Motives for Writing the ‘Shiji’

by Bo Zhang
edited by Anthony Kuan


The Shiji, or the Historical Records, is a monumental work of history initiated by Sima Tan (c.165 BCE – c. 110 BCE) and completed by his son, Sima Qian (c.145 BCE – c.87 BCE). The text covers the history of China from the age of the legendary Yellow Emperor to the reign of Emperor Wu (156 BCE – 87 BCE) in the author’s own time.[1] Indeed, the Shiji laid the cornerstone of the Twenty-Four Histories that are, to this day, considered the most important official sources on Chinese history. , it is difficult to judge whether the Shiji is a “true recording” of the past, or, as Yuri Pines puts it, “a literary universe that doubled and replaced the real world of events.”[2] Indeed, it may be something else entirely. One fascinating way to access the Shiji is by examining Sima Qian’s possible motives for writing the text, which could have been personal, ideological or contextual; or perhaps none of the above.[3] In this paper, I will provide three theories in regard to Sima Qian’s possible motivation for writing the Shiji: first, his personal, “romantic” motive as may be evident in his early life; then, his apparent filial, Confucian motives; and finally, his potential desire to contribute to his era’s quest for unity and synthesis of the country. It is not my goal here to reconstruct his “true” motive for writing the Shiji – whatever that may have been; rather, by exploring his three possible motives, I hope to provide some insight into the fascinating complexity of both Sima Qian’s text and, of course, the life of the author himself.

In discussing Sima Qian’s possible motivations for writing the Shiji, it is perhaps most reasonable and convenient to start by tracing his early life. As the son of the taishi ling (a title which translates as “Grand Historian” or “Scribe”) Sima Tan, Sima Qian was heavily influenced by both his family’s historiographical tradition and his father directly.[4] Through him, indeed, Sima Qian had the possibility of accessing to the knowledge contained in the imperial archives. This implies that Sima Qian had at least received a somewhat more advanced education than his peers. Sima Qian’s privileged family background and undoubtedly helped in laying the foundation for his ambitious pursuit of writing the Shiji. Even in his own “Self-Narration,” Sima Qian intended to depict himself as a prodigy: “I, Qian, was born in Dragon Gate… At the age of ten I could cite ancient texts.”[5] If his account was true, his talent then soon combined with practical experiences essential to a historiographer. At twenty, Sima Qian travelled throughout Han territories to compile and verify first-hand historical records which would later contribute to his Shiji.[6] Thereafter, upon his father’s death, Qian succeeded to his position as taishi ling. Until this point in his life, evidence pieces together to indicate a young, ambitious Sima Qian driven with the likely intent of establishing his own name and legacy. It is a pity that his fortune would not last.

Just as Sima Qian was preparing to start his scholastic career, he was castrated on the order of Emperor Wu due to his defence for General Li Ling’s military failure against the Xiongnu.[7] Sima Qian recalls, in response to his tragedy: “each time I think of this shame, the sweat pours from my back soaks my robe. I am now no more than a servant in the harem.”[8] To say Sima Qian’s castration was a turning point in his life would be an understatement. Indeed, in her article “Sima Qian: A True Historian,” Michael Nylan argued that this personal calamity led to a passionate revision of the Shiji. [9] According to Nylan, this is evident in his “powerful narrative reflecting his own preoccupation with certain highly emotional themes… whose accounts ring true to emotionally attuned readers.”[10] On this point of Sima Qian writing the Shiji as a “romantic” manifestation of his frustration, Grant Hardy even went so far as to claim that, by writing the Shiji, Sima Qian “seized for himself the prerogative of rectifying names in order to play out a rivalry with the emperors in the field of performative utterance (so that he could criticise rulers like Emperor Wu).”[11] In other words, both Nylan and Hardy suggest that, in a way, Sima Qian revised or rewrote history. I think both scholars’ interpretation run the risk of being far-fetched here because Sima Qian himself reiterated that he intended the Shiji to transmit, rather than to create, narratives of the past.[12] But still, it is reasonable to say that Sima Qian’s frustration for being “unfairly castrated” may have consequently been an impetus to his “creative activity,” as Durrant puts it in Cloudy Mirror.[13] In any case, one thing is almost certain: the Shiji was influenced by the author’s own tragedy. As a result, his experience inevitably added a sense of drama or, in Nylan’s words, a “romantic,” veil to the Shiji.[14] This naturally diminishes the text’s objectivity as a transmitted record, as Sima Qian .[15] Perhaps a more convincing interpretation of Sima Qian’s supposed “romantic” intent is that he wrote this profound work of history in order to “engage his audience in the struggles of himself.” [16] He did this indirectly by writing about the “heroes” who suffered a similar fate in Shiji’s biographies, possibly in an attempt to make posterity appreciate the worth and sufferings. [17] Thus, as Hardy puts it, it is not unreasonable to claim that Sima Qian was “narrating past events, while thinking of future generations.”[18] Moreover, his perceived “heroes” included King Wen, who dictated changes when he was detained in the prison of Youli, and Qu Yuan, who composed his poem Li Sao when he was banished.[19] Together, these people shared a sense of resentment and “could not get their Ways heard in the world.”[20] It was no coincidence then, that Sima Qian portrayed these people as exceptionally admirable figures whose heroic qualities would become all the more elevated as a result of their tragic, unfair treatments. On the one hand, writing about these people could largely be attributed to Sima Qian’s empathy for their despair. More crucially, however, by writing their biographies – and consequently, through character allusion – Sima Qian ultimately projected himself among their ranks.[21] This was Qian’s way of marking his legacy, though describing whatever his legacy may have been is not the purpose of this paper.[22]

Still, it would be incorrect to think that Sima Qian’s apparent motive to write the Shiji was entirely “romantic.”[23] As is evident from the discussion above, Sima Qian visited historical sites in his early life: he gathered written materials, surveyed the local topography, and canvassed local authorities on their knowledge of past events.[24] At the same time, the Shiji reproduced several variant traditions, “where the traditions cannot be easily reconciled.” [25] This suggests that Sima Qian was committed to the principle of objectivity that “in doubtful cases, one transmits the doubt.”[26] Sima Qian’s attempt to write objectively would contradict his romantic motive for writing. As leading Han classicists like Ban Gu noted: “[Sima Qian’s] “writing is direct, with the deeds brought home; he does not exaggerate the admirable point [of his subject], nor does he conceal the evils. Therefore, we call his a “true record.”[27] Additionally, considering that it was impossible for Sima Qian to have access to all available sources (an issue which historians struggle with to this day), one then ought to admire his “willingness to reproduce true events from disparate sources,” whether it was out of “romantic” motives or not.[28]

Another highly probable motive for Sima Qian’s writing is the fulfilment of his filial duties – a notion deeply influenced by Confucius’s ideas. In the Shiji, Sima Qian recalled what his father said to him upon his deathbed:

My father grasped my hand and said, weeping, “our ancestors were Grand Historians for the house of Chou. From the most ancient times they were eminent and renowned; when in the days of Yu and Hsia they were in charge of astronomical affairs.”[29]

His father implied here that their family was in decline, thus compelling Sima Qian to write about the glories of the past so as to restore his family’s reputation.[30] This motive for writing as a means to restore former glories of his family is further supported by Hardy, when he argues that even the Grand Astrologer (or Scribe) title kept by the Simas was but “for the amusement [of] the Emperor… and made light of by the vulgar men of his day.”[31] This implicit humiliation of Sima Qian and his father’s inherited occupation also likely propelled his desire to write history, especially in a predominately Confucian setting when intellectuals sought inspiration from the past.[32] Furthermore, according to a “Letter to Ren An” preserved in the Han Shu, upon Sima Tan’s deathbed, he further urged his son to “restore the honour of their ancestors by completing an unofficial history that himself had planned,” and that the style of this work should follow the Confucian tradition.[33] In response, Sima Qian “agreed [and] accepted his father’s ambition to preserve the memory of virtuous deeds and worthy gentlemen.” [34] It is interesting to see Hardy calls this a “model of Confucian exhortation” on Sima Tan’s part. Nonetheless, he and others like Nylan also believe that to complete the Shiji would “honour his father’s dying wish to continue [their] ancestors by bringing together the tales they had gathered; thereby fulfilling some part of his filial obligation.”[35] This argument is especially convincing considering that Sima Qian’s castration meant it precluded the chance of him having a son, which was a key filial virtue under Emperor Wu’s court at the time.[36] After all, it had just become the state ideology with Dong Zhongshu’s help, even though history as a medium for ancestral or filial reverence has long been a Han tradition by Sima Qian’s time. [37]

As mentioned earlier, closely linked to Sima Qian’s filial motives are his possible Confucian influences.[38] In fact, one might even claim that Sima Qian’s standard for his ambition was Confucius himself, for two reasons. First, it is known that Confucianism was installed as the state ideology under Emperor Wu in the author’s time; this way, Sima Qian was likely influenced by Confucian teachings and that Confucius himself was seen by many ambitious scholars as an ideal model to follow. Second, upon Sima Tan’s deathbed, not only did the father instruct his son to write a grand Historical Records, but also told his son to follow Confucius’s Spring and Autumn Annals in style and approach.[39] On top of these justifications for Sima Qian’s Confucian motives, in Cloudy Mirror, Stephen Durrant further asserts that “not only [did Sima Qian] profoundly admire Confucius but would emulate the Master and assume a place beside him in the sacred succession of sages.”[40] To reiterate Confucius’s influence on him, Durrant even goes so far as to quote Li Changzhi’s assertion that Sima Qian was “the second most loyal follower of Confucius; the first being Mencius.”[41] Beyond its jocular effect, it is noteworthy to see how Durrant leveraged this point to justify how Sima Qian managed to “labour to the end of his life, much of the time in shame and disgrace”: Sima Qian had an overwhelming ambition to be another Confucius.[42] By this point, it is no longer surprising when Michael Puett takes this claim to a whole new level, again emphasizing on Sima Qian’s ambition:

Sima Qian could have been more interested in questioning, and perhaps even superseding, Confucius than in emulating him… It is also possible that Sima Qian is making his claim to sage hood precisely by creating a work far more comprehensive and complex than anything that had preceded him, including, most importantly, the text attributed to Confucius.[43]

Beyond Sima Qian’s aspiration to become another Confucius, Puett also believed that “[Confucian] classics provide a proper guide for humanity,” and saw them as a “touchstone for historical reliability.”[44] It is important to note that it is one thing to suggest Sima Qian as an imitator or transmitter of the Confucian tradition, but it is something else altogether to argue that he is a Confucian, or that he was trying to be a better “Confucian” than Confucius himself.[45] As Puett asserts, the idea that Sima Qian held Confucian motives, or that “he accepts a Confucian vision of history” by modelling his text on the Spring and Autumn Annals and hoping to organize the records of the past into a Confucian vision of unity,” would be another discussion entirely.[46] In any case, as Puett points out, when Sima Qian made the statement that he was not like Confucius in that he was “simply transmitting, not creating,” it was clearly parallel to the one Confucius himself made regarding sagehood. This way, Sima Qian “implicitly stake[d] a claim to sagehood through his denial.” [47] Here, Sima Qian’s ambition might be his “romantic” intent for writing the Shiji discussed earlier. As Sima Qian wrote the Shiji in a “state of despair, [he] compared such a situation to that faced by earlier sages when creating great works.” [48] Confucius himself was undoubtedly among these sages.

Yet another convincing motive for writing a history of such grand scope might have been Sima Qian’s desire to contribute to his era’s great quest for unity and synthesis.[49] The Han rulers had, after all, restored social unity following centuries of war and chaos. Sima Qian’s goal, in this context, then, could have been to “organize the literary remains [and harmonize] the different traditions of [the Classics].”[50] Thus, here,  Shiji becomes rather a reflection of the Han intellectual background, as opposed to the “product of Sima Qian’s tortured, solitary genius.” In other words, it reflects the general spirit of its author’s time. Thus, it was no coincidence that, by writing the Shiji, Sima Qian wanted to contribute to his era’s quest to unify “China” as the Han perceived it, both culturally and politically. This possibility is made all the more plausible, given the aforementioned personal, romantic, filial, Confucian motives and ultimately, his ambition. These are all possible motives for Sima Qian’s writing.

Sima Qian may have intended his history to be a “grand synthesis of Chinese culture and thought.”[52] This way, he could contribute to his era’s great quest for unity and synthesis. How exactly did he go about achieving this? Most notably, by capturing some inherent pattern or trend in history.[53] More specifically, Sima Qian’s Shiji was, on the one hand, a way to convey his analysis of the patterns of historical change”; and, on the other, a potential ethical guide for posterity.[54] In Nylan’s words: “[the Shiji] is a history “that – most peculiarly from our modern stance – refuses to relegate the past neatly to the past, preferring instead to make past events elucidate eternal ethical problems.”[55] And of these ethical problems, for Grant, “injustice” stood out in particular.[56] After all, Sima Qian was “keenly aware of the many individuals of integrity and talent who had unjustly suffered.”[57] As previously discussed, Sima Qian saw himself among these unfortunate people. But at the same time, he was also aware that some of these people had “managed to transcend their straitened circumstances through literature.”[58] As a result, Sima Qian might have been inspired by these people who suffered from such a tragic fate: they were able to compose great works as a means to communicate their ideas to those who might someday recognize their true worth. Sima Qian’s great work would become the Shiji, a monumental text which covers the history of China from the age of the legendary Yellow Emperor to the reign of Emperor Wu in the author’s own time. Thus, it would be an understatement to say that Sima Qian had been contributing to Emperor Wu’s synthesis project in light of his compilation of historical thoughts and biographies. Similarly, and in all likelihood, composing the Shiji might have just been his way of clearing his shame and disgrace and, marking his own name and legacy along the way.

It is my hope to have provided in this paper three theories to understand Sima Qian’s possible motivation for writing the Shiji, through his apparent personal, “romantic” motive; filial, Confucian motives; or indeed, his potential desire to contribute to his era’s quest for unity and synthesis. Whichever motive one finds particularly convincing is not for me to decide.  In any case, it seems that it was the moment Sima Qian was castrated which marked the turning point in his life. Indeed, the fateful punishment may have been a tragedy for himself, but it was for this very same event which drove him to finish the Grand Historical Records, while enduring the humiliation of being “no more than a servant in the harem.” After all, when the emperor presented him with the two options for punishment, he chose castration over suicide, only to devote the remainder of his life to composing this influential text in which it is our priviledge to delve.


Bo Zhang is a second-year Joint Honours student reading history & politics. Raised in Asia, Europe and North America, Bo has attended six education systems (from Canada to Scotland), across a dozen institutions. At McGill, his passion for Chinese history was ignited when studying under Professor Robin D.S Yates. Beyond his academic pursuit, Bo is the founder of Vision Shapers Forum and Cognitio, a LinkedIn Campus Editor and an advisor to PETA; above all, he calls himself an animal rights advocate and global trotter!



[1] According to Yates, the Han did not recognize “China.” It is of the world as they knew it. And of course, Sima Qian himself did not consider Huangdi to be “legendary.”

[2] Yuri Pines, “Biases and Their Sources: Qin History in the Shiji.” Oriens Extremus 45 (2005/06), 11.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Some translate this title as Grand Historian (Burton Watson) and others including Hardy translates this as Grand Astrologer. Still, Shi really means “scribe.” According to Professor Robin Yates, this includes both recording history and astral phenomena: in those days, astronomy and astrology were not separated. Also, Sima Qian’s family allegedly had a tradition of writing history. According to the Shiji, Sima Tan claims that their “ancestors were Grand Historians for the house of Chou.” This will be expanded on later in my discussion about Sima Qian’s filial motive for writing the Shiji.

[5] Stephen Durrant, W. The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conflict in the Writings of Sima Qian. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1995, xi.

[6] Although we are unsure of whether Sima Qian did so as an intended preparation for writing the Historical Records. It is most likely that his ultimate decision to write was made after his father’s request. I will discuss this below.

[7] The Li Ling Affair: Sima Qian was punished castration when he attempted to defend Li Ling’s defeat and consequent surrender to Xiongnu. In the “Letter in Response to Ren An,” written years after Li Ling affairs, Sima Qian maintained his support for Li Ling. Rather than attributing this support for Li Ling as sympathy, instead, I argue Sima Qian was doing a passionate tribute for those who he considers as Junzi or Guoshi – a category of people he admired (as evident in Shiji). He challenged and insulted the emperor, he was condemned to the choice of suicide or castration – he chose the latter.

[8] Hardy, Grant. Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qians Conquest of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, 21.

[9] Michael Nylan. “Sima Qian: A True Historian?” Early China23 (1998): 205. According to Sima Qian, the Shiji was in “rough draft” at the time of the Li Ling affair. Nylan suggests that in Sima Qian’s post-traumatic period, Qian revised or inserted a small number of chapters, with the express aim of alerting readers to his own altered outlook.

[10] Ibid., 205.

[11] David Schaberg and Grant Hardy. “Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qians Conquest of History.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 61, no. 1 (2001): 253.

[12] Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, 3.

[13] Michael Puett and Stephen W. Durrant. “The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conflict in The Writings of Sima Qian.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 57, no. 1 (1997): 295.

[14] Nylan, “Sima Qian: A True Historian?” 205.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Schaberg, “Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo,” 254.

[17] Ibid., 254.

[18] Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, 24.

[19] Puett. “The Cloudy Mirror,” 296.

[20] Nylan, “Sima Qian: A True Historian?” 232.

[21] Ibid., 232.

[22] Either the legacy he was hoping to achieve himself, or what later readers ascribed to him.

[23] Puett. “The Cloudy Mirror,” 291. According to Puett, reading a work in terms of the biography of the author is “a dangerous method,” for it has the “the tendency to impose anachronistic psychological drives on an historical figure.”

[24] Nylan, “Sima Qian: A True Historian?” 232.

[25] Ibid., 204.

[26] Ibid., 204.

[27] Nylan, “Sima Qian: A True Historian?” 204. One might say Liu Xiang and Ban Gu’s defence is not entirely trustworthy, but we do not know for certain how much they knew about Sima Qian’s intention either.

[28] Ibid., 204. Of course, Ban Gu did not have a concept of “romanticism.”

[29] Sima, Qian, and Burton Watson. Records of the Grand Historian of China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961, 49.

[30] Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, 16.

[31] Ibid., 16.

[32] Ibid., 15.

[33] Puett, “The Cloudy Mirror,” 294.

[34] Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, 17.

[35] Nylan, “Sima Qian: A True Historian?” 211.

[36] Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, 17. Grant Hardy states in his work “” that in his letter to Ren An, “there is a strong suggestion that he himself has no male heirs [to carry on their ancestor’s line.”

[37] Yates, Robin, “Confucianism,” HIST308, 11 October 2018. I (together with Yates’s response) estimate that Sima Qian may have been aware of Dong (they were contemporaries) and perhaps was “influenced” (however that is to be defined) by him. Note Loewe in his Biographical Dictionary cites the evidence that Sima Qian says he was not doing what Dong did. So, it may have been a negative “influence.”

[38] Even though being filial is often attributed to Confucianism, but here, the two motives are different.

[39] According to Yates: “Confucius is most likely to have edited the CQ, but not written it himself. But what that editing process involved we do not know. The later Gongyang and Guliang scholars thought that Confucius had concealed hidden meanings in the text, which they then tried to discover.”

[40] Durrant, The Cloudy Mirror, 31.

[41] Puett, “The Cloudy Mirror,” 296.

[42] Ibid., 298.

[43] Ibid., 300.

[44] Puett, Michael J. The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001, 177.

[45] Puett, “The Cloudy Mirror,” 298.

[46] Ibid., 296.

[47] Puett, Michael J. The Ambivalence of Creation, 178.

[48] Ibid., 178. Puett asserts that the Annals were generally – though erroneously – ascribed to Confucius. (also see Yates’s response on the matter in citation above) Also, while Sima Qian may be influenced by the Confucian Classics, he also stated that his work could not be compared with the Spring and Autumn Annals, because he claimed that, he unlike Confucius, was simply transmitting, not creating.

[49] Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, 23.

[50] Ibid., 21. It is noteworthy here that even these so-called “Classics” were a term constructed by Confucians.

[51] Nylan, “Sima Qian: A True Historian?” 210.

[52] Ibid., 210.

[53] Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, 17.

[54] Ibid., 17.

[55] Nylan, “Sima Qian: A True Historian?”

[56] Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, 24.

[57] Ibid., 24.

[58] Ibid., 24.



Durrant, Stephen. The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conflict in the Writings of Sima Qian. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1995.

Hardy, Grant. Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qians Conquest of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Nylan, Michael. “Sima Qian: A True Historian?” Early China 23, 1998.

Pines, Yuri. “Biases and Their Sources: Qin History in the Shiji.” Oriens Extremus 45, 2005/06.

Puett, Michael and Stephen W. Durrant. “The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conflict in The Writings of Sima Qian.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 57, no. 1, 1997.

Puett, Michael. The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001

Schaberg, David and Grant Hardy. “Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qians Conquest of History.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 61, no. 1, 2001.

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