Sima Qian

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Benefits of Unification of China

The Emperor on his Treatment of his People

Destruction of History and Free Speech

The Search for Immortality

The Scholarís Plot

The Execution of 460 Scholars

The First Emperorís Treatment of his People

The First Emperorís Rule






Sima Qian (about 145- 90 BCE), or Ssi-ma Chíien, inherited from his father the position of grand historian to the Emperor, which had been a position largely concerned with keeping astronomical records. However, Sima Qian also took on an ambitious project started by his fatheróproduction of the first full history of China. This broad ranging work extending over 130 chapters is not in historical sequence but divided into particular subjects, including annals, chronicles, treatisesóon music, ceremonies, calendars, religion, economicsóand extended biographies. In this way, the Shih chi, or Records of the Historian, covers the period from the Five Sages of prehistoric times, through the Xia, Shang, Zhou, and Qin dynasties to the Han dynasty of Sima Qianís own time. The Zhou dynasty, probably founded just before 1,000 BCE, represents the beginning of the historic period and has provided archeological evidence that confirms some of Sima Qianís history.


     The extracts give here are taken from the annals of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE) and from the biographical chapter on the First Emperor. This emperor unified China, built the Great Wall, ordered the burning of books, and was responsible for the army of life-size terracotta figures discovered near his mausoleum. Sima Qin presents us with historical facts, with the Emperorís own account of his reign, and with a commentary by a Han statesman, Jia Yi, in the Second Century BCE. In this way he shows how different views of history may emerge and how a rulerís claims should be viewed with some suspicion.


     Sima Qian made the political mistake of seeking to intercede for a general who had lost a battle when faced by overwhelming forces. This offended the Han Emperor Wu, who sentenced Sima Qian to castration. Such a sentence was calculated to cause an honorable suicide. Sima Qian, however, accepted the punishment and consequent disgrace in order to finish his history, as he explained in a letter to a friend. We are indebted to Sima Qian for most of the history we have of early China and for his demonstration that some things are more important than personal honor.



1   Benefits of Unification of China


Thus the empire was divided into thirty-six provinces, each province provided with a governor, a military commandant, and a superintendent. The common people were renamed "black-headed ones". There was great feasting. Weapons from all over the empire were confiscated, brought to Xianyang, and melted down to be used in casting bells, bell stands, and twelve men made of metal. These last weighed 60 metric tons each and were set up in the palace. All weights and measures were standardized, the gauge of wheeled vehicles was made uniform, and the writing system was standardized.

              Sima Qian, The Basic Annals of Qin



2   The Emperor on his Treatment of his People


The merit of the August Emperor lies in diligently fostering basic concerns,

exalting agriculture, abolishing lesser occupations, so the black-headed people may be rich.

All under heaven are of one mind, single in will.

Weights and measures have a single standard, words are written in a uniform way.

Wherever sun and moon shine, where ships and wheeled vehicles bear cargo,

all fulfill their allotted years, none do not attain their goal.

To initiate projects in seasonósuch is the August Emperor's way.

He rectifies diverse customs, crossing rivers, traversing the land.

He pities the black-headed people, morning and evening never neglectful.

He erases doubt and establishes laws, so all will know what to shun.

Local officials have their respective duties; order is achieved with ease.

Decisions are certain to be just, none not clear as a drawing.

The August Emperor in his enlightenment scrutinizes the four quarters.

       Sima Qian:The Emperor's Stone Inscription, Langya Terrace



3   Destruction of History and Free Speech


"Now the August Emperor has unified all under heaven, distinguishing black from white and establishing a single source of authority. Yet the adherents of private theories band together to criticize the laws and directives. Hearing that an order has been handed down, each one proceeds to discuss it in the light of his own theories. At court they disapprove in their hearts; outside they debate it in the streets. They hold it a mark of fame to defy the ruler, regard it as lofty to take a dissenting stance, and they lead the lesser officials in fabricating slander. If behavior such as this is not prohibited, then in upper circles the authority of the ruler will be compromised, and in lower ones cliques will form. Therefore it should be prohibited.

     "I therefore request that all records of the historians other than those of the state of Qin be burned. With the exception of the academicians whose duty it is to possess them, if there are persons anywhere in the empire who have in their possession copies of the Odes, the Documents, or the writings of the hundred schools of philosophy, they shall in all cases deliver them to the governor or his commandant for burning. Anyone who ventures to discuss the Odes or Documents shall be executed in the marketplace. Anyone who uses antiquity to criticize the present shall be executed along with his family. Any official who observes or knows of violations and fails to report them shall be equally guilty. Anyone who has failed to burn such books within thirty days of the promulgation of this order shall be subjected to tattoo and condemned to 'wall dawn' [convict] labor. The books that are to be exempted are those on medicine, divination, agriculture, and forestry. Anyone wishing to study the laws and ordinances should have a law official for his teacher." An imperial decree granted approval of the proposal.

            Sima Qian: Chancellor Li Si's Advice, Biography of the First Emperor



4   The Search for Immortality


Master Lu said to the First Emperor, "I and the others have searched for zhi fungus, rare herbs, and the immortals, but we can never seem to encounter them. There would appear to be some entity that is blocking us. The magic arts teach that the ruler of men should at times move about in secret so as to avoid evil spirits. If evil 'spirits are avoided, one can reach the status of True Man. If the whereabouts of the ruler of men are known to his ministers, this hinders his spiritual power. A True Man can enter water without getting wet, enter fire without getting burned, soar over the clouds and air, and endure as long as heaven and earth. But now Your Majesty, though ruling the whole world, has not yet been able to attain calm and quietude. When you are in the palace, do not let others know where you are. Once that is done, I believe that the herbs of immortality can be obtained."

   The emperor said, "I long to become a True Man. From now on I will refer to myself as True Man and will not call myself zhen."

    He then had elevated walks and walled roads built to connect all the 270 palaces and scenic towers situated within the 70 mile environs of Xianyang. He filled the palaces with curtains and hangings, bells and drums, and beautiful women, each assigned to a particular post and forbidden to move about. Anyone revealing where the emperor was visiting at any particular moment was put to death.

   The First Emperor visited the palace at Mt. Liang and happened to look down from the mountain and observe the carriages, outriders, and attendants of the chancellor. He was not pleased. One of the eunuchs reported this to the chancellor, who thereafter reduced the number of his carriages and outriders. The First Emperor was furious, saying, "Someone among the eunuchs is leaking word of what I say!" He examined the eunuchs, but none would confess to the crime. He then ordered the arrest of all those who had been in attendance, and had every one put to death. From that time on, no one knew where he was when he was absent from the palace. Whenever he listened to reports or passed on decisions to his officials, it was always done at the palace in Xianyang.

            Sima Qian, Biography of the First Emperor



5   The Scholarís Plot


Master Hou and Master Lu plotted together, saying, "The First Emperor is by nature obstinate, cruel, and self-willed. He rose up from among the feudal rulers to unite the entire empire, and now that he has achieved his ends and fulfilled his desires, he believes that there has never been anyone like him since remote antiquity.

   "He entrusts everything to the law officials, and the law officials alone are allowed into his presence. Although seventy men have been appointed as academicians, they are mere figureheads and are never consulted. The chancellor and the other major officials are all handed decisions that have already been made, and they simply second the emperor's opinion. The emperor delights in showing his authority by punishing and killing, and everyone throughout the empire dreads punishment and tries merely to maintain his position, none daring to exert true loyalty. The emperor never learns of his mistakes and hence grows daily more arrogant, while his underlings, prostrate with fear, flatter and deceive him in order to curry favor."

            Sima Qian, Biography of the First Emperor



6 The Execution of 460 Scholars


He [the Emperor] then ordered the imperial secretary to subject all the scholars to investigation. The scholars reported on one another in an attempt to exonerate themselves. Over 460 persons were convicted of violating the prohibitions, and were executed at Xianyang,word of it being publicized throughout the empire so as to act as a warning to later ages. In addition, increasing numbers of convicts were transported to the border regions.

            Sima Qian, Biography of the First Emperor



7   The First Emperorís Treatment of his People


The First Emperor trusted his own judgment, never consulting others, and hence his errors went uncorrected. The Second Emperor carried on in the same manner, never reforming, compounding his misfortune through violence and cruelty. . .

   At that time the world was not without men of deep insight and an understanding of change. The reason they did not dare exert their loyalty and correct the errors of the ruler was that Qin's customs forbade the mentioning of inauspicious matters. Before their words of loyal advice were even out of their mouths, they would have been condemned to execution. This insured that the men of the empire would incline their ears to listen, stand in an attitude of solemn attention, but clamp their mouths shut and never speak out. Therefore when the three rulers strayed from the Way, the loyal ministers did not dare remonstrate, and the men of wisdom did not dare offer counsel. The empire was already in rebellion, but the ruler was never informed of the villainyóhow pitiful!. . .

   In the south he seized the land of the hundred tribes of Yue and made of it Guilin and Xiang provinces, and the lords of the hundred Yue bowed their heads, hung halters from their necks, and pleaded for their lives with the lowest officials of Qin. Then he sent Meng Tian north to build the Great Wall and defend the borders, driving back the Xiongnu over 230 miles, so that the barbarians no longer ventured to come south to pasture their horses and their men dared not take up their bows to vent their hatred.

Thereupon he discarded the ways of the former kings and burned the books of the hundred schools of philosophy in order to make the black-headed people ignorant. He destroyed the walls of the great cities, put to death the powerful leaders, and collected all the arms of the empire, which he had brought to his capital at Xianyang, where the spears and arrowheads were melted down and cast to make twelve human statues. All this he did in order to weaken the black-headed people.

            Sima Qian: Li Jianís Commentary



8   The First Emperorís Rule


Then Qin faced south to call itself ruler of the empire, which meant that the world now had a Son of Heaven to head it. The masses hoped that they would be granted the peace and security to live out their lives, and there was not one of them who did not set aside selfish thoughts and look up to the sovereign in reverence. This was the moment for demonstrating authority and proving one's merit as a ruler, laying the foundation for lasting peace in the empire.

   But the First Emperor was greedy and short-sighted, confident in his own wisdom, never trusting his meritorious officials, never getting to know his people. He cast aside the kingly Way and relied on private procedures, outlawing books and writings, making the laws and penalties much harsher, putting deceit and force foremost and humanity and righteousness last, leading the whole world in violence and cruelty. In annexing the lands of others, one may place priority on deceit and force, but insuring peace and stability in the lands one has annexed calls for a respect for authority. Hence I say that seizing, and guarding what you have seized, do not depend upon the same techniques.

   Qin put an end to the Warring States period and made itself ruler of the empire, but it did not change its ways or reform its system of government, which shows that the means employed to seize an empire differ from those needed to guard it. Qin tried to guard it alone and single-handed, and therefore its downfall was merely a matter of time.

            Sima Qian: Li Jianís Commentary




Records of the Grand Historian: Quin Dynasty, by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. Research Center for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Columbia University Press, 1993. © 1993 The Chinese University of Hong Kong.