Sima Qian and the Authorship of History

esther_kleinANU China Seminar Series – ANU China Institute

Sima Qian and the Authorship of History in Traditional China
Esther Klein, University of Sydney

16:00 to 17:30, Thursday, 29 September 2016
Seminar Room A, China in the World Building (188), Fellows Lane, ANU, Canberra

What did it mean to be the author of a history in traditional China? Readers’ responses to Sima Qian 司馬遷 (b.145 BCE), arguably the best-known historical author in the Chinese tradition, provide ample material for investigating this question. Sima Qian’s grand claim is well known: that his history would “bring to completion the tradition of an entire family” 成一家之言. This paper begins, however, by discussing doubts and difficulties that have been raised over the text of Shiji 史記 and Sima Qian’s authorship of it. It then traces the development of two different ways of interpreting Sima Qian’s authorial project. The first, an “autobiographical reading”, is the practice of reading parts of Shiji in the light of Sima Qian’s life story. Though well-known today as a positive, even lyrical, view—Lu Xun called Shiji “a Li Sao without rhyme”—this interpretation actually began as a way of condemning Shiji as subversive and inappropriate. The second interpretation stems from Yang Xiong’s claim that Shiji was “a true record” 實錄. Truth—shi 實—is a quality generally expected of historical writing. Yet readers’ remarks on Shiji, as well as other discussions of the term, show it to be a fraught and disputed category. Examining ways in which Shiji was judged to be “true” (or not) reveals underlying standards for historical writing and how they changed over time.

Esther Klein (PhD East Asian Studies, Princeton University) is a lecturer in the Department of Chinese Studies, University of Sydney. Her book on Sima Qian is in the final stages of revision. Her other research interests currently include issues of authorship and epistemology in relation to early Chinese philosophical texts, medieval and early modern Chinese historical theory, and how the ancient Chinese past is represented in contemporary museums.