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The Logical Composition of the First Chinese Dynastic Histories and its Impact on their Reading

Hans Van Ess
p. 64

Notes de la rédaction

Source: La lettre, no. 35, December 2012

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1The Historical Records (Shiji) were written at the end of the second century BCE. They are a description of the history of the world as it was known in China, from its early days to the time of its authors Sima Tan and Sima Qian.

2Most of this book is devoted to the first century of the Han dynasty. Ban Gu’s Hanshu (the Book of the Han), written around 80 CE, is about the history of the first two centuries of the Han dynasty until the beginning of the Christian era.

3The Shiji and the Hanshu present a series of peculiar and striking structural similarities which reveal certain information on ancient Chinese historians’ way of thinking. The last ten chapters of the Shiji have a very particular significance which becomes apparent by comparing them to certain chapter sequences in the Hanshu. There is a strong sense that when writing Chapters 58 to 66 of the Hanshu, Ban Gu had the last ten chapters of the Shiji in front of him, which he partially drew on, only leaving out two chapters on divination (soon to be considered lost by Chinese tradition, and therefore not entirely reliable). The author of the Hanshu therefore read the Shiji and used it.

4There is a meaning to the order of these chapters. They narrate history in a logical order. Sima Qian, the author of the first of these two historical works, was gifted with an extremely critical mind: through his dynastic history he vehemently criticized the ruling dynasty and especially Emperor Wu, his contemporary.

5Sima Qian used these biographies to paint a picture throughout­ the chapter of the society of the time, including the proponents of Emperor Wu’s policy, its consequences in the country, opposition to it, and its effects on the economy. He ended his narrative in a climax with a decidedly critical tone.

6In Chapters 58 to 66 of the Hanshu, this same history is found in the biographies of individuals and groups of individuals, but told from the opposite perspective. Instead of discussing a rela­tively insignificant Confucian group from a low social ­ranking, as Sima Qian did, in Chapter 58 of the Hanshu, Ban Gu chose to talk about Gongsun Hong, the powerful Confucian first chancellor. In Chapters 59 and 60, which run in parallel with the “biographies of cruel officials” in the Shiji, he presented a bio­graphy of two ministers of justice and their family who acquired fame and prestige during the dynasty. In Chapter 61, instead of talking about Ferghana, as Sima Qian did, Ban Gu presented the two generals who led the military campaign against this country, to then include in Chapter 62 the biography of Sima Qian who perceived it very negatively. In Chapter 63, instead of presenting the “knights-errant” of Chapter 124 of the Shiji, he described the life of Emperor Wu’s sons, one of whom was to be the famous heir apparent who staged a rebellion in 91 BCE. Chapter 64 of the Hanshu includes the biographies of men who wielded significant political influence at the court, but who are presented as respectable people, unlike their chosen counterparts in Sima Qian’s Chapter 125. In Chapter 65 of the Hanshu, such positive influence on the emperor is attributed to the famous jester Dongfang Shuo. This chapter corresponds to Chapter 126 of the Shiji, on satirists, which nevertheless omits the Han satirists. Finally, Chapter 66 of the Hanshu is devoted to the biographies of the most important chancellors who made history from the end of Emperor Wu’s rule. It pays special attention to the biography of Sima Qian’s grandson, who was executed because of his rebellious behaviour. At the same time, this chapter also tackles the country’s economy, as does Chapter 129 of the Shiji.

7The narration of the events during Sima Qian’s time thus comes to a close in the Book of the Han. It is interesting to note that at the end of this cycle appears the description of the extermination of Sima Qian’s clan. This suggests that the author of the dynastic history of the Han must have carefully read the Shiji and understood it well, for he used the same structure and adapted it while also contradicting his prede­cessor’s work.

Prof. Hans van Ess was invited by the Faculty on the proposition of Prof. Anne Cheng

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Hans Van Ess, « The Logical Composition of the First Chinese Dynastic Histories and its Impact on their Reading », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2015, consulté le 21 février 2017. URL :

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Hans Van Ess

(PhD from the University of Hamburg, 1992) is Chair of Sinology and Mongolian Studies at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. His main areas of interest are the history of Confucianism and the historiography of the early Chinese imperial era.

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