Portrait: Sima Qian
Sima Qian writing in a book made from bamboo rods, Chinese 5-yuan coin (cultural series), 1986
Deutsches Buch- und Schriftmuseum der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek Leipzig
c. 145-86 BCE

Sima Qian

A Chinese Herodotus

…whereby Sima Qian possessed the “talent of an excellent scribe” – and that which he created was considered to be shilu (recordings of the entire truth).

Han Shu 62.2738

As the court astrologist of the Chinese imperial family, Sima Qian – over the course of many long journeys and largely thanks to his access to royal archives – was able to gather source material for the compilation of a history of China. Building on the basis of his father’s preparatory work in the field, he established himself, with the release of the work Shiji, as the founder of Chinese historical scholarship.

That work, which contains half a million written symbols, describes more than 2,000 years of Chinese history, right up to Sima Qian’s present day. His narrative style, his use of chronological tables, his biographical stories and his digressions into individual fields of scholarship influenced generations of historians in China, Japan and Korea. His impact on Oriental historicism is thus likened to Herodotus influence on the recording of western history.