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Sima Qian: the Han Dynasty

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Sima Qian and the Han Dynasty

Sima Qian was the official court historian of the Han Dynasty, and the one who recorded much of what we know today about the rise of Imperial China. The Han Dynasty, in which he lived, was officially Confucian; however, once one delves deeper into the essence of the Han Dynasty, it is apparent that there are some aspects of the Han Dynasty which were completely Legalistic, not Confucian at all. The Confucian values that the Han Empire supposedly embraced are very significant in the history of the Han Dynasty, as although sometimes they were followed, sometimes they were ignored, with hugely different consequences for the fortune of the Dynasty. For example, the Han Dynasty was by no means peaceful; it was, in fact, a very militaristic dynasty. Sima Qian’s role in all of this was immense: he was the one who recorded all of what was going on (not to mention what had happened in previous dynasties), and it was a huge deal when he, as a person with lots of influence, objected to the “Confucian” values of the Han Dynasty.

Sima Qian was born in 145 BCE and died in 86 BCE – he lived about fifty years after the rise of the Han Dynasty. His job was to be the official, Confucian court historian of the Han Dynasty (Spodek, 214). He claimed that he was completing the “historical work” that his father, Sima Tan, had begun earlier; however, this was in reality an properly filial way to say that he was continuing Confucius’ work: “the arrangement of the record of the past in proper form” (Fairbank, 75). Sima Qian recorded much of what we know about previous dynasties, criticizing and praising aspects of them that he disliked or approved of. “He arranges, he reflects, and he brings out meaning and significance” – in short, not only did Sima Qian record history; he also commented on it, interpreted it in his own way, and “set a standard for all subsequent Chinese historical writing” (Morton, 66-67). In 99 BCE, Sima Qian came to the defense of a very prominent general who had been forced to surrender to the Xiongnu. Defending this general and speaking out against the rule of the leader was a very dangerous thing to do under any circumstances, but Sima Qian was a brave and educated man (Fairbank, 75). The emperor, Wu Di, gave a choice of dying or being castrated, and Sima Qian chose the castration, showing how determined he actually was to finish his historical work.

However, even this attitude was to be preferred over that of the previous dynasty, the Qin Dynasty: one Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, decided to have every Confucian piece of literature burned, in keeping with Legalist values. When some of the Confucian Scholars resisted, Qin had 460 of them buried alive in 213 BCE (Spodek, 214). Indeed, the Qin Dynasty’s attitude about history in general was much worse from a Confucian point of view than the Han’s. Whereas Han emperors were willing to allow the Confucian scholars to record history as long as it did not interfere with anything, the Qin emperors were downright against history, as they felt like otherwise the past could be held up as an alternative to present policies (Spodek, 214).

However, it would be false to say that the Han Dynasty held up every Confucian Value: while the Han emperors did restore Confucianism, they also retained many “useful autocratic features of Legalism which suited their centralized rule” (Morton, 64). The Han Dynasty did emphasize many Confucian traditions: specialists on the Five Classics (regarded as Confucian) were appointed, and expertise in filial piety – a distinctive Confucian value – was necessary in order for somebody to be elected to a high position in government. On the other hand, Han emperors were no less militaristic than Qin emperors, and external trade flourished under the Han. For example, the Han Dynasty forced open a corridor through Gansu towards Xinjiang (Turkestan) in order to have access to markets for silk in the west, and it was on this trade route that traders carried their goods as far as Rome. Throughout the dynasty, multiple battles with Xiongnu and other tribes residing around the Great Wall were a constant reminder of some of the Legalistic aspects of the Han Dynasty (Spodek, 217). Another Legalist aspect of Confucianism under the Han Dynasty was the beheading of Confucian Officials. Later on, although these rituals did become less gruesome – victims were allowed to kill themselves – the emperor was still able to order the death of his ministers with a “minimum of legal procedure” (Fairbank, 68). Lastly, Sima Qian’s punishment – castration – for just defending one of the generals was extremely legalistic in intensity, as is the fact that he was punished at all. All of these different things that were put into practice went at least somewhat, if not completely, against Confucian values as they had been known before the Han Dynasty.

However, it is not clear whether or not Sima Qian really was all for the Confucian ideals; there is some evidence that he did not really care whether the Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism or Legalism. For example, in one of his letters to a friend, Ren Shaoqing, he says that he has “ventured not to be modest but [has] entrusted [him]self to [his] useless writings” (Morton, 67). This could be interpreted to go against the Confucian Philosophy of everybody contributing to society – if Sima Qian says that his writings are “useless,” it could be interpreted as him stating that he doesn’t have to contribute to society. Also, after getting castrated under this so called “Confucianism,” it is hard to believe that Sima Qian really thought that there would be a difference if the Han Dynasty switched to Legalism; therefore, he would not really care which one it said it was following. Like Confucius, his writings were more important after he died – he influenced choices about Confucianism that he himself had not made.

Spodek, Morton, and Fairbank all show contrasting viewpoints of the Han Dynasty. Spodek’s straight facts have almost no opinionated subject matter. Morton’s book was written before the reforms after the death of Mao Zedong, and as a result, the amount of information that he had access to was extremely limited. Even so, he is much more uncritical of the Han Dynasty and its supposed Confucianism than was Fairbank; Fairbank questions Han Confucianism, pointing out places where the dynasty was very legalist. Also, Morton focuses on how amazing Sima Qian’s work was – how broad, and how analytical – while Fairbank focuses on Qian’s brutal, Legalistic punishment, and how he dealt with life under a Legalist-Confucian system.

However, all three sources include facts that lead to the logical conclusion that scholarship and political power in China were related. In short, if one was a scholar, or was educated, one had power according to what type of dynasty one was living in: for example, in the Legalist Qin Dynasty, being a historian was not a good thing; however, in the Han Dynasty, it was a good thing, and would get power as long as the scholar did not get in the way of the emperor. In fact, in civilization in general, being educated usually gave one political power, whether it be the scholar officials of China or the priests of Mesopotamia and Egypt. I would say that scholars do not simply serve the interests of the rulers by justifying and consolidating authority: scholars actually do affect the behaviors of leaders and the course of history. It could be that the scholar points out something about the leader that is negative that the leader wants to change or it could be that the scholar encourages the people to revolt; in the case of Sima Qian, the emperor was driven to a harsh legalistic action, changing History – because of one scholar.

Sima Qian had enormous significance and enormous influence on the Han Dynasty, recording history in a way that would set the standard of historic literature for hundreds, if not thousands, of years to come – and he did it all in a period of tense conflict between Confucianism and Legalism. Although Confucianism was the religion that the Han Dynasty said they adopted, and although it is true that certain elements of Confucianism were upheld, it is also true that Legalism was definitely a part of the Han Dynasty.

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