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Sima Qian and Herodotus
March 20, 2012

1. In terms of research and scholarship, Sima Qian is quite closer to Herodotus, as he had an inclination to trust in anecdotes and word-of-mouth without confirming them with concrete historical evidence (Manning 33). In terms of style, Qian seems to be more terse and practical in comparison to Herodotus, as the Greeks already had the great Homeric epics as a model of narration (Manning 33), and they able to describe group and collective scenes as well as individuals, whereas Qian’s narrations seems to concentrate on the latter (Manning 34).

Grant Hardy (xiii) suggests that Qian could escape strict chronology in the fifth, biographical section, allowing him to give primacy to the character types and patterns which he believed were played out in individual lives at various times. In contrast, there being no index, the reader would be faced with looking for materials on a particular topic in several different places. Moreover, in some places the accounts may mutually contradict one another though it has been argued that this was a deliberate pluralism of interpretation of Qian’s either part or that, like Herodotus, he felt compelled to repeat even conflicting verbatim (Hardy xvi).

Qian saw historical writing as a process of a compilation from earlier sources, including the verbatim inclusion of another historian’s work. This is relatively foreign to Herodotus, who has reacted rather sharply to plagiarism, and generally sought to proclaim his independence from previous authors. As Daniel Wolf (54) notes, “Confucius declared himself not a maker but a transmitter of wisdom”, and the earliest Qian similarly envisaged his work as a primarily vehicle for the handing down of previous knowledge. In practice, they did much more, uncommonly adding the value of moral judgments to bring out the normative aspects of the past and its clues to the meaning of the universe.

2. Like the Chinese Historian Sima Qian, Laura Hostetler (84) suggests, Herodotus also wrote about the customs and practices of “others”. Herodotus learned about some of the peoples through his travels and others only secondhand. Qian included a variety of ethnographic information in his Shiji (Records of the Historian) (Hostetler 88). This work represented a new departure in Chinese historical writing both in scope and in the organization.

The amount of space that Herodotus devoted to “others” varied considerably depending on how much known about them, which was in turn largely determined by geographic proximity and amount of contact between the Greek world and others (Hostetler 85). Groups constituted, in Herodotus’ view, by such shared cultural characteristics as language, religion, customs, dress, and common descent. Many of the topics he explored still considered of ethnographic interest and value today (Hostetler 85). Yet the rigor with which he analyzed sources by another matter, and is difficult to ascertain with complete clarity.

Sima Qian approaches his sources with a critical attitude. Like Herodotus, he is like for his role as a recorder of information who consciously stood apart from what he recorded, commenting on it from aside, but not altering the contents of what he had heard by word-of-mouth or learned through written sources (Hostetler 89). Accounts of foreign lands and “others” found in the biographical section (liezhuhan) of the work (Hostetler 89).

3. Qian and Herodotus use various literary devices to create dramatic effects and even share a concern with the didactic import of the account. An emphasis on the importance of the individual, skepticism of and relative lack of interest in the divine power, and a heavy reliance on semi-fictitious – sometimes simply fictitious – conversations and speeches placed in the mouths of their historical figures like characters in fiction. As Steven Shankman and Stephen W. Durrant (94) suggest, Qian did not need to interrupt the narrative of an event in one section to explain who an individual was, since they probably discussed elsewhere in one of the other principal sections – there are no excursion of Herodotus to provide needed background or to explicate an event’s longer-term significance.

However, Jaroslav Prusek notes that in early Greek writing attention is centered upon the individual, upon “the specific and unrepeatable”, whereas in China the historian was concerned with “the general, the norm, the principle, the law”. In other words, the attention of Qian turned to a political or moral world against which his text had to be justified. While Prusek’s argument is a powerful one that captures and explains something of the difference in these historiographies, the contrast between the two traditions may not be quite as stark as Prusek would have it. For all the ‘fragmentation’ of his text, Qian pursues certain themes, and these do not seem always to be mere political or moral propaganda. Moreover, the individual does not always disappear in his text into some larger fabric of principles and norms.

Qian’s model for the compilation of facts about the past with its clearly worked-out format, a combination of yearly annals and individual biographical treatments, government the next two millennia of Chinese historical writing, though it did not provide an exact model for it (Wolf 55). Wolf found it difficult to over-state the degree of Qian’s impact, which in the world of history writing would come to exceed even that of Confucius and the post-Confucian commentaries (55). No ancient European historian like Herodotus can claim that kind of influence, not does he displayed the continuity of a systematic and eventually bureaucratized study of the past exemplified by Qian (Wolf 56).

4. Although neither Herodotus nor Sima Qian could lay claim to practicing full-fledged historical scholarship in the modern sense of systematic citation of sources and critical sifting of evidence, documentary or otherwise, the spirit of critical inquiry is manifest throughout their respect works. Theirs is an authority born first from “the authority of the historical narrative” which, as Hayden White points out, “is the authority of the reality itself” and, second, from the act of memory and writing in the recording, preservation, and transmission of that reality” (White 20). From such a perspective, it is the mutually constitutive constraint between narrative discourse and reality that separates the historian from the poet. “Where the traditional poet must confine himself to one version of his story”, as Scholes and Kellog (243) have commented on the Greek historians, “the history can present conflicting versions in his search for the truth or fact”. Way-yee Li found such a presentation is also present in Qian’s work.

Anthony C. Yu found Historical Records such detailed and vivid scenes as in the last few books of Herodotus, like the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae and the sea battles at Salamis between the Greek and the Persian navies, or the moving description of the ill-fated Sicilian expedition in Books 6 and 7 of Thucydides (Yu 29). John Stuart Mill as “the most powerful and affecting piece of narrative perhaps in all literature” (Mill 37) acclaimed this. However, Qian’s language is also vivid and fresh in his own way, demonstrating that the great historian was also insightful about the human psyche, as his monumental work is fully expressive of the spectrum of human emotions, to convey the gamut of “Seven Emotions” – in Buddhist terminology – of joy, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hate, and desire (Yu 29).

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