Qian, also named Sima Zichang, was a native of present-day Hancheng
Province, and lived during Emperor Wudi's reign during the Western
(206BC-24AD). He was the son of an official historian called Sima Tan.
On his deathbed, the father asked the son to do what he had desired but failed
to do -- write a history dealing with all the past events of the whole nation.
The son gave his promise.
Three years after his father's death, Sima Qian was appointed the Grand
Historian of the Imperial Court, which had been held by his father. During the
three years, he had traveled far and wide in the country, collecting material
for the ambitious project he was to finish. After receiving his father's
position, he was able to read the books and documents stored in the court. He
began writing his book in 104 BC.
Unfortunately, five years later, Sima Qian made a political mistake by
seeking to intercede for a general who had lost a battle when faced by
overwhelming force. This offended Emperor Wudi, who made him suffer the
punishment of castration. Such a sentence was calculated to make Sima Qian
commit an honorable suicide. However, Sima Qian, determined to finish his great
work, accepted the punishment and consequent disgrace to finish his history, as
he explained in a letter to a friend. He finally finished the book in 92 BC, and
died soon after.
Shi Ji, namely, Records of the Grand Historian , which he wrote, recorded a comprehensive
history of the entire past of the nation, the first of its kind. This
broad-ranging work extending over 130 chapters is not in historical sequence but
divided into five particular subjects, including basic annals, chronological
tables, treatises -- on music, ceremonies, calendars, religion, and economics --
hereditary houses, and extended biographies.
In such a way, the book covers major personalities and
events in the nearly 3,000-year period from the Five Sages of prehistoric
times, including the Yellow Emperor, through the Xia (21-16th century BC),
Shang (16-11th century BC), Zhou (11th century-256BC), and Qin (221-206BC)
dynasties to the Han
Dynasty (206BC-220AD) of Sima Qian's own time. The Zhou
Dynasty represents the beginning of the historic period and has provided
archeological evidence that confirms some of Sima Qian's history.