Sima Qian & the Author-Function


A review of The History of a Historian: Perspectives on the Authorial Roles of Sima Qian, by Esther Sunkyung Klein.

Sima Qian 司馬遷 (ca. 145 or 135 BCE-86 BCE) once famously declared that his monumental Shiji 史記 (ca. 91 BCE) is intended not for readers in his own time but for those in posterity. The reason for such an authorial gesture, unusual in the early Chinese corpus, is unclear, but in any event he would not have been disappointed had he been able to witness the tremendous reception of the Shiji in the last two millennia. It is fair to say that the Shiji is one of the most widely read texts in the entire Chinese literary tradition. This is easily attested by the staggering amount of commentaries on it throughout the imperial period as well as the numerous articles and monographs devoted to its study over the last century. This voluminous scholarship represents an expectedly diverse range of readings of the Shiji, with the nevertheless common goal of articulating the significance of the Shiji as intended by its compiler Sima Qian by reconstructing an accurate and relevant context for its composition. Readings that disagree on the significance of the Shiji are essentially disagreements over how it should be properly contextualized in relation to its author and/or the supposed historical condition of the early Han, and over the last two millennia as many contexts motivating Sima Qian have been imagined as there have been readers of the Shiji.

Against this background, Esther Klein’s dissertation, The History of a Historian: Perspectives on the Authorial Roles of Sima Qian, marks an important departure from all previous scholarship on the Shiji. Rather than offering yet another interpretation of the Shiji’s original meaning, or the critical intent of its supposed author, Klein sets out to historicize the various historical readings over more than a millennium in order to reveal how this text and its author became these self-evident discursive entities that demand our continual interpretation in the first place. In a vocabulary closer to that used by Klein in the dissertation, this is a project not yet again on the true author and true meaning of the Shiji, but rather on the historical construction of the authorial figure of Sima Qian and his text. It is not a study of the Shiji as it was but a study of how it came to be; it is an argument for the afterlife of a text as the site of its true origin.

This ambitious dissertation is divided into eight chapters, grouped into three parts, plus introduction and conclusion. Together, they cover many aspects of the reception history of the Shiji from the Han to the Song, with occasional references to the Ming-Qing period and the twentieth-century. In what follows, I will summarize the arguments in each of the chapters, followed by a note on the potential historiographical impact of this groundbreaking study.

In addition to stating the basic goals of the dissertation, the Introduction describes the key theoretical apparatus for the project. Most notably, Klein engages with the idea of “author-function,” as introduced by Michel Foucault in “What is an Author?,” to elaborate on the authorial figure of Sima Qian in the Chinese literary tradition. Sima Qian is an “author-function” in the sense that he is no more, and yet no less, than a function of the responses to his text by readers from one period to the next, subject (if at all) less to the objective facts of Sima Qian’s historical existence and whatever authorial intent he may have had than to the varying historical circumstances and idiosyncratic biases of the readers themselves. As such, there is really no such thing as the original author Sima Qian awaiting our discovery within the pages of the Shiji, but rather, there is only a historical succession of author-functions grouped together under the name of “Sima Qian.” This dissertation is therefore a study of the history of these different author-functions, an attempt to lay bare the historicity of this seemingly self-evident authorial figure that is all too familiar to us.

The Introduction also gives a systematic overview of major works of Western scholarship on Sima Qian and the Shiji, including the pioneer works by Édouard Chavannes and Burton Watson, as well as the more recent articles and monographs by Joseph Allen, Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li, Grant Hardy, William Nienhauser, and Michael Nylan. Klein argues that while many of these scholars might imagine that they have uncovered the true critical intent of Sima Qian, or the true meaning of the Shiji, they have in fact operated on a series of reified assumptions in order to fashion a Sima Qian and a version of the Shiji that resonate with their own ultimately arbitrary biases. In each case, no true Sima Qian had been uncovered, but only the creation of yet another new Sima Qian in his or her own image. More than just a review of major works of Western scholarship on Sima Qian and the Shiji, this part of the Introduction also demonstrates how the idea of Sima Qian continues to operate as an “author-function” even now among contemporary scholars.

Part One of the dissertation consists of Chapters 1 to 3, and they survey the different contexts in which the Shiji was situated from the Han to the Song dynasty. Chapter 1 begins with the Shiji and how the text speaks of itself. Even here, one does not have the comfort of a single, stable context for the Shiji. Klein finds that the Shiji situates itself in at least four different contexts, namely the tradition of Confucian classics, the ancient scribal tradition, the creation of a new intellectual school, and a genealogy of the literature of suffering. The Chapter then considers accounts of some of the earliest readers of the Shiji from the Han dynasty, such as the influential accounts by Yang Xiong 揚雄 (53 BCE-18 CE) and Wang Chong 王充 (27-c.100 CE). Klein argues that in this early period, Sima Qian was primarily considered a good archivist and compiler of materials but the eclectic quality of his compilation makes it a decidedly frivolous, and potentially dangerous, work in comparison with the morally superior Confucian classics. Chapter 1 concludes with a discussion of how the Shiji was thought to have initiated a new tradition in historical writing between the Han and the Tang.

Chapter 2 studies how the Shiji was situated within the tradition of literary prose, especially under the Ancient-style Prose (guwen 古文) movements of the Tang and the Northern Song. Beginning with Tang dynasty writers Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824) and Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元 (773-819) in the eighth-century, the Shiji was quickly established as a canonical text for the Ancient-style Prose movement, despite the reservation that some later proponents such as Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (1007-1072) and Su Zhe 蘇轍 (1039-1112) of the Song dynasty had regarding the soundness of his historical judgment. Chapter 3 studies the discussion during the Han, Tang and Ming dynasties on the significance of the formal structure of the Shiji and, by extension, the status of Sima Qian as the innovator of this new annals-and-traditions form (jizhuanti 紀傳體) of historical writing. Klein reveals a lively debate on the form of the Shiji, such as its relation to the older genre of Spring-and-Autumn chronicles (chunqiu 春秋) as well as the many adventurous speculations on the numerological significance of the number of its chapters. Klein concludes this Chapter with a detailed discussion of the history of the form of each of the five parts of the Shiji, namely the annals, treatises, tables, hereditary houses, and traditions.

Part Two consists of Chapters 4 to 6, which focus on the history of the two major interpretive paradigms of the Shiji. One reads the Shiji as a romantic artifact of the tragic life story of Sima Qian, while the other sees the Shiji as a “true record” (shilu 實錄) whose objectivity indicates a suppression of the subjective towards a universally reliable work of history. Chapter 4 studies the emergence of the romantic reading from the Han to the Tang, while Chapter 5 studies the radical transformation of the romantic reading in the Song. Klein argues that there is in fact very little evidence for this romantic reading of the Shiji in the Han, and while we do see an increasing effort to integrate the tragedies of Sima Qian’s life, as related in the autobiographical epistle “Letter in Reply to Ren An” 報任安書 into the reading of the Shiji from the Six Dynasties to the Tang, their sympathies were divergent. Some thought that his bitter resentment towards Emperor Wu 武帝 made the Shiji a hopelessly defamatory text (bangshu 謗書) against the Han, while others were more sympathetic towards his courageous protest against the injustice committed by the Emperor. In Chapter 5, Klein observes a radical shift in attitude among literati readers of the Shiji during the Song dynasty; now their sympathy fully lies with Sima Qian, thought to be justified in having written such a defamatory text, while Emperor Wu of Han was thought to have acted unjustly. Klein suggests that this full-blown romanticization of the tragic life story of Sima Qian was motivated by the changing political environment in the Song. With troubling development such as the Crow Terrace Poetry Trial (Wu Tai shi an 烏臺詩案 of 1079 and Emperor Gaozong’s 高宗 punitive reign, many Song literati saw in Sima Qian a sympathetic figure unjustly wronged by an unenlightened ruler. By the end of the Song, the idea that the tragic life story of Sima Qian should serve as an interpretive key to the Shiji, still familiar to readers today, was firmly established.

Chapter 6, the last chapter of Part Two, studies the changing status of the Shiji as a “true record” (shilu 實錄). Wary of our own unexamined preconceptions of what constitutes an objective work of history, Klein begins the discussion of this rhetoric of reliability with an examination of the changing definitions of the term shilu from Han to Song. A term first used by Yang Xiong in the Han to refer to the Shiji, despite its apparently straightforward meaning it turns out to have acquired a wide range of implications in the following centuries. The considerable multivalence of the term, as convincingly demonstrated by Klein, reveals the historicity of the idea of a “true record” itself.

Part 3 consists of Chapters 7 and 8, the last two chapters before the Conclusion, concerned with the historical debate on the textual problems of the Shiji and “Letter in Reply to Ren An” as yet another aspect of the construction of Sima Qian the author-function. Chapter 7 begins with a discussion of the longstanding debate over the supposed contribution by Sima Tan 司馬談 (?-110 BCE), father of Sima Qian, to the Shiji. This is followed by another survey on the various evaluations of the addenda to the Shiji made by Chu Shaosun 禇少孫 (fl. 1st century BCE) towards the end of the Western Han. In both cases, these alternate authors of the Shiji turn out to be receptacles to which the parts of the Shiji deemed incongruent and unworthy of Sima Qian can be conveniently assigned. Chapter 7 concludes with a survey of what Klein calls the “drastically damaged Shiji” hypothesis, first advanced by Kang Youwei 康有為 (1859-1927) in the early twentieth century. It questions the authorship of most of the Shiji as we have it today, and this in turn has led to more specific debates in the last century over the authenticity of individual chapters such as the “Traditions of Da Yuan” 大宛列傳 and the “Traditions of Xiongnu” 匈奴列傳. In the lively debates on the authenticity of one or another chapter, Klein sees a more fundamental debate over the proper relationship between the Shiji and Sima Qian the author-function. To argue for the inauthenticity of a chapter is to preclude the intrusion of the author-function in its reading and to circumscribe the meaningfulness of the constructed figure of Sima Qian in the reading of the Shiji at large. The last chapter, Chapter 8, elaborates on the vicissitudes of the idea of Sima Qian with an overview of the debates about the authenticity of the “Letter in Reply to Ren An.”

The Conclusion not only summarizes the previous chapters but also introduces new conceptual framework, in reference to works on the idea of authorship by Alexander Nehamas, Wayne Booth, and Michel Fouacult, integrating the many findings in this dissertation. It reiterates the dissertation’s central aim in separating Sima Qian the historical figure from Sima Qian the author, or author-function, of the Shiji. Moreover, as Klein argues, this history of the construction of Sima Qian also makes a contribution to the study of the idea of authorship in the Chinese literary tradition. The case of Sima Qian invites further comparative work that juxtaposes similar cases of author construction from other literary traditions.

In sum, this dissertation studies the Shiji not as a thing but as a relation. It is not a thing in itself with an intrinsic meaning that awaits our patient discovery but rather becomes meaningful only when it enters into a relationship with a reader. By historicizing the many long-standing, cherished assumptions about Sima Qian and the Shiji, this work clears the ground for a radical rethinking of the field of Shiji scholarship at large. This dissertation, however, should not only interest those who work on Sima Qian and the Shiji. For its engagement with the idea of authorship, and its wide-ranging discussion of literary texts drawn from the entire tradition from the Han to late imperial times, all scholars with an interest in the Chinese literary tradition should find it a very rewarding work.

Vincent S. Leung
Assistant Professor
History Department
University of Pittsburgh

Primary Sources

Sima Qian 司馬遷, Shiji 史記 (“Archivist’s Records”)
Sima Qian 司馬遷, “Bao Ren An shu” 報任安書 (“Letter in Reply to Ren An”)
Ban Gu 班固, Hanshu 漢書 (“History of the Han”)

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2010. 512 pp. Primary Advisor: Martin Kern.


Image: Portrait of Sima Qian. Wikimedia Commons.

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