[Book Review] Chen Zhenghong’s book series about the “Records of the Chroniclers”

Chen Zhenghong 陈正宏, Shikong: Shiji’ de benji, biao yu shu 时空:《史记》的本纪,表与书 (Time and Space: The Basic Annals, Tables and Treatises of the Records of the Chroniclers), Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 中华书局 2020. ISBN 978-7-1011-3965-5, 297 pages, 45 RMB.

Chen Zhenghong 陈正宏, Xueyuan: Shiji‘ de shijia 血缘:《史记》的世家 (Blood Lines: The Hereditary Houses of the Records of the Chroniclers), Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju 2021. ISBN 978-7-1011-5143-5, 278 pages, 42 RMB.

reviewed by Hans van Ess (Universität München)

There is no scarcity of scholarly books on the Records of the Chroniclers, the famous Shiji by Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145? BCE–87? BCE), the first comprehensive history of ancient China. Chen Zhenghong (b. 1962), who modestly says of himself that he is not a specialist of the Shiji but just a professor of wenxianxue 文獻學 (at Fudan University), meaning philology or – maybe better – textual research, has published the two books under review as the first in a series of four planned volumes in which he intends to describe the relevant information contained in all chapters of the Shiji for a non-specialist general readership. Chen’s book is the companion to a podcast series for the commercial Chinese “Himalaya” (喜马拉雅FM) company. This has to be considered when reading these books. Chen reassures his reader that a lack of knowledge of Classical Chinese will not be an impediment to understanding.

Chen’s book is also written in a very colloquial and easy-going style. The first volume is devoted to the annals’, tables, and treatises, the second to the hereditary houses. We have to wait for his treatment of the biographical section, which with seventy chapters makes up a little bit more than half of the Shiji, and will be the subject of the final two volumes in Chen’s proposed series.

Chen proceeds section by section through the Shiji, and each section gets a subtitle that announces what the author considers the main topic for the reader. Often Chen shows a page from Song block prints, presents images of historical figures from Ming sources, or includes stone rubbings from Han reliefs demonstrating how earlier generations imagined the people described in the Shiji. The reader may not always understand the intention behind the inclusion of these images in earlier editions of the Shiji, but they are frequently enlightening.

Chen begins, of course, with the Annals of the Five Emperors, subtitled: “Why You and I are all descendants of the Flame Emperor and the Yellow Emperor” (为什么说你我都是炎黄子孙). An important subject that recurs several times in this book is the question of Sima Qian’s sources. In this case, at least for some passages, it is the Shangshu 尚書. Chen also explains that Sima Qian could not yet include a description of Pan Gu 盤古, the mythical founder of mankind, since Pan Gu only appears in histories from the Later Han dynasty. In Chen’s chapter on the Annals of the Xia Dynasty, he asks where the nine regions of ancient China (Huaxia 華夏) lay and discusses the meaning of hua and xia. As a textual research scholar, Chen seems particularly interested in the Yugong 禹貢 text from the Shangshu, part of which is included in the Annals of the Xia Dynasty.

To the Annals of the Yin Dynasty, Chen devotes two chapters, one to speak about the early foundation legends and oracle bones that, according to Wang Guowei 王國維 (1877–1927), proved the reliability of ancient Chinese historical writing. In the other chapter on the Annals of the Yin Dynasty, Chen argues the concept geming 革命 for revolutions dates to the Shang dynasty. He stresses that the Annals of the Yin Dynasty make use of Shangshu sources and mentions realia such as the system of calendar changes that the Shang introduced at the beginning of their reign as well as the ganzhi 干支 system. The Zhou, too, are dealt with in two chapters. Here, he is interested in the origins of the Zhou who came from “barbarian” lands, although there was no term for barbarians in ancient China. Chen discusses the source for our knowledge of Houji 后稷, the founder of the Zhou, in the Shijing 詩經 and speaks about the term “king” (王). He is also interested in the gonghe 共和 period, likely because it is part of the state name of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国).

The two long sections on the Annals of the Qin and the Annals of Qin Shihuang are dealt with in one chapter entitled “The crushing of an old civilization and the creation of a new one” (文明的碾压与创造). This new civilization introduced new terminology such as “August Emperor” (皇帝) and zhen 朕 as a term for the self-address of a ruler. Later additions, including the famous essay on the “Faults of Qin” (過秦論) – or “On Surpassing the Qin” – by Jia Yi 賈誼, were, according to Chen, necessary for Sima Qian who did not want to directly state that the changes introduced by Qin Shihuang may have been too radical.

So far, there is little in the first volume dealing with the Shiji as a text. Instead, Chen Zhenghong presents topics that are dealt with in the Shiji and are relevant as far as the education of the general public in China today is concerned even though these topics are not in the main focus of Sima Qian’s narrative. This changes in chapter eight, which looks at Xiang Yu 項羽 and Han Gaozu 漢高祖. Chen notes that Sima Qian often was criticized for having assigned an Annals’ section to Xiang Yu even though the section in question does not really resemble an Annals chapter. Chen refers to Takigawa Kametarô 瀧川龜太郎 (1865–1945), a Japanese scholar who said that Han Gaozu must have been much older than Xiang Yu and that this may explain the differences in behaviour of these two leaders as well as a reason for the ultimate success of Gaozu. This is an interesting piece of information as far as this reviewer is concerned, although it took the reviewer some time to find the relevant passage in Takigawa’s edition of the Shiji. (As seems to be necessary when addressing a general public, there are very few endnotes in the book.) One would have also liked to know how Takigawa came to his speculation. Chen further suggests that many of the best stories in these sections of the Shiji, such as those describing the Hongmen banquet 鴻門宴 – a tale familiar to every Chinese schoolchild – were originally sourced from the Chu Han chunqiu 楚漢春秋. Stephen Durrant made the same point in English some years ago, but Western literature on the subject is not cited in Chen’s book.

Another interesting finding of Chen Zhenghong is that the given names of the Liu clan do not seem to be very cultured. He suggests that the name of Liu Ao 劉媼, Gaozu’s mother, actually should be translated as Liu Laotai 劉老太 in modern Chinese. Chen also points out that in the Annals, Gaozu is only called Liu Ji 劉季, probably just meaning “Liu, the Youngest Child”, but never Liu Bang 劉邦, the name that later was to be tabooed and which probably just translates as Liu “State”. Thus, the name by which the Han founder is best remembered was unlikely to have been his actual given name. These points are very well taken, although the specialist will know that Qian Zhongshu 錢鐘書 (1910–1998) has covered them in his writings.

Chapter nine is devoted to Empress Lü. Here, Chen Zhenghong first shows that it is not clear whether Empress Lü was always called Empress-Dowager Lü 呂太后. The word tai 太 that makes a “dowager” out of the “empress” was restored by Zhang Wenhu 張文虎 (1808–1885), and it is not easy to know what Sima Qian actually wrote. This affects, of course, how historians regarded the empress: Was she just the wife of Gaozu, or did she rule on her own? The tabooed personal name (諱) “pheasant” (雉) of the empress, according to Chen, may be seen as proof of the existence of the Chinese animal cycle already at that time.[1] This gives Chen the opportunity to show that according to archeological findings from Fangmatan 放馬灘 and Shuihudi 睡虎地, this cycle must be much older than has for a long time been assumed in China. Ulrich Unger (1930–2006) has said the same in German some decades ago (without referring to Fangmatan, but based on evidence taken from texts such as the Zuozhuan 左傳). Chen also refers to the famous “ordinances from the second year” (二年律令) that have been found at Zhangjiashan 張家山, and he shows that it remains unclear whether the “second year” really refers to Empress Lü. This is a very valuable comment that scholars focusing on recently unearthed texts should consider. Chen quotes traditional authorities who suggested that Empress Lü never wanted to usurp power but that her family was removed from power because the ministers thought the reins of power should remain in the hands of the male line of the dynasty. This reviewer cannot agree more since this is what he has also said in an article published in English and a book on Sima Qian and Ban Gu published in 2014.[2]

Finally, in chapter ten, Chen comments on the Annals of Emperor Wen, who according to Chen, was seen by Sima Qian as the best emperor of the Han. Emperor Wen was not just a benevolent ruler (Sima Qian cites the abolition of corporal punishments) but was also able to use tricks in politics. The reason why Sima Qian praised Emperor Wen, according to Chen, were the circumstances of Sima Qian’s own castration. Nevertheless, the reader wonders what to do with comments by Sima Qian on Wendi’s reign before his final appraisal of him. These comments are not as positive as one might expect, assuming Sima Qian admired Wendi.

For the Annals of Emperor Jing, Chen quotes Yu Jiaxi 余嘉錫 (1884–1955) who argued Sima Qian could not have written this chapter, and as far as Emperor Wu’s annals are concerned, Chen himself is also convinced that Sima Qian was not the author. Chen does not discuss the opinion of scholars such as Li Changzhi 李長之 (1910–1978), who still maintain the authenticity of that chapter. Many scholars dispute Li Changzhi’s theories, but it would still have been interesting to know why Chen rejected them.

Chen devotes the first 122 pages of this book, pages 123 to 191, to the tables’ section of the Shiji, which he calls the first “family genealogy” (家譜) of China. Here, Chen is mainly interested in stressing that this chapter was not written in a haphazard manner. As far as the second table of the “twelve feudal lords” (十二諸侯) is concerned, Chen again quotes Wang Guowei, according to whom some of the table’s contents were taken from the Chunqiu 春秋 and the Guoyu 國語. Chen then discusses the issue that the table actually deals with thirteen feudal states, not twelve, a problem that the reader also encounters in the third table of the “six states” (六國) that lists seven states. Chen suggests that the significant events of the six states were compiled out of the records of the seventh state, namely Qin. At the end of the chapter, Chen Zhenghong briefly discusses the preface in which Sima Qian points to the fact that never before the Han had a dynasty changed so quickly, and that this change of a dynasty was also the most difficult. Sima Qian highlights that in the situation created by the Qin, it was not necessary to possess land to become emperor, and then asks whether the winner was a great sage or whether Heaven helped him. Chen admires Sima Qian for creating a narrative tension here and the passage is indeed essential for understanding the Shiji. One wonders what Sima Qian believed: Was Gaozu a sage or not? This reviewer posits, and has argued in other writings, that Sima Qian ultimately doubted Gaozu’s sagehood.

One chapter is devoted to the three tables on enfeoffments of the Han. It explains the system of enfeoffments of the Han and the problem in finding the right size of fiefs: Neither too large nor too small. At one point, Chen quotes from Sima Qian’s prefaces a sentence in which the historian seems to call for war against the Xiongnu. Chen then asks whether Sima Qian truly argued for war and answers: “Of course not!” adding that such words are just “smoke bombs” (烟幕弹, p. 177) and that the crucial points are to be found in the main text of the table where the reader learns that almost all fiefs given out under Emperor Wu were for military merits in attacking the Xiongnu.

As far as the last table, the “Table on Generals, Chancellors, and Famous State-Servants since the Rise of the Han” (漢興以來諸侯王年表) is concerned, Chen Zhenghong points out that a preface is missing and that while starting with Gaozu it ends in 20 BCE, long after the death of Sima Qian. He tells his reader that many scholars have thought that the original table was lost and replaced by one compiled by a person who lived much later. However, Chen agrees with the 5th-century commentator Pei Yin 裴駰, who believed that Sima Qian must have written the first part of this table. Chen does so because of a nice story found in this table about an encounter between Gaozu and his father in 198 BCE. While this reviewer also thinks it is entirely plausible that Sima Qian may have begun the table, the argument seems weak since the same story is also found in the Annals of Gaozu, and a later author could just have copied it from there. Chen discusses the implicit criticism, which the reader may deduce from the fact that inauspicious events were written upside down and that one can easily see that most chancellors installed by Emperor Wu were later executed.

The last section of Chen’s first volume is devoted to the treatises. As is the case with the last table and the annals of emperors Jing and Wu, the reader here encounters the well-known problem that several treatises are said to have been added by later persons. This is true for the first treatise, on Rites. Chen Zhenghong is convinced that Sima Qian wrote only the short preface to this treatise. The rest, he thinks, was taken by some person from the Xunzi 荀子 text. After making this statement, Chen asks: “So can we then throw away this treatise on the rites?” He answers, “no, we certainly cannot since there are still these eight hundred characters at the beginning.” This reviewer was struck by Chen’s assertion. Why should we disregard a long piece of literature contained in the Shiji only because some people think that it originates from the Xunzi? It may also contain some wisdom that belongs genuinely to the Shiji. The second treatise on music is treated by Chen the same way. He discusses several vital points from the contents of the preface, which are critical of Emperor Wu, but he is not interested in the long second part with its differently arranged parallel in the Liji 禮記. The treatise on the pitchpipes is not discussed, probably because it is also suspected of being inserted by a later person, while Chen deals with the fourth treatise on the calendar at length.

The reader does not learn much about the calendar, which makes up the bulk of this chapter, but instead about the section preface, which tells the story that preceded its compilation. Chen thinks that almost all research demonstrates the appended calendar was not the famous taichu-calendar 太初曆 adopted in 104 BCE. Between the lines, one can guess he speculates Sima Qian was not content with the taichu-calendar. However, one wonders how researchers concluded the text was not the taichu-calendar. If this were not the taichu-calendar, then we do not know what is the taichu-calendar. The reason for this opinion is that the title “jiazi pian-calendar” 甲子篇曆 is not the same as “taichu-calendar” – and this is a weak argument. The jiazi-calendar is very interesting because, for unknown reasons, it uses terminology for the jiazi that does not sound Chinese. Chen does not address this point, but it nevertheless is essential for research into the culture of Han China and foreign influences on that culture.

Some space is devoted to the treatise on astronomy in which we, among many other things, learn that the stars were related to war. This chapter was, of course, necessary for Sima Qian, who after all was the court astronomer and whose aim, as Chen rightly points out, was to understand the liminal space between Heaven and man. Chen explains that Sima Qian’s explanations of star constellations may also have been related to his criticism of emperor Wu. After having quoted an especially trenchant remark at the end of this chapter, Chen asks: “Did Sima Qian eat panther’s gall?” (这司马迁是吃了豹子胆了?), meaning: “how could he be so daring?” He promises to give the answer in his next two chapters on the famous treatises on the feng and shan sacrifices (封禪書), which are first devoted to the more factual veneration of the Taishan 泰山 and other regional sacrifices and then to the magicians and the emperor’s search for immortality criticized by Sima Qian. Two chapters are needed to discuss the rather short treatise on channels and waterways, with the first one being more factual and the second discussing Sima Qian’s criticism of emperor Wu. This is also, and rightly so, the main topic of the last chapter looking at the treatise on the economy.

Overall, Chen Zhenghong has achieved his goal of producing for the non-specialist Chinese reader, particularly one who shies from the original text or lengthy translations into modern Chinese, a readable introduction to the chapters in the first three sections. At many points, one may see that this book is written for a Chinese public, as expositions on “revolution” or the “gonghe” period are not very meaningful to readers outside mainland China. There are, however, pertinent observations that may be of interest to the specialist, who will want to know at a glance what is essential in a given chapter of the Shiji. This is certainly not a book that specialist readers should read from the beginning to end. Instead, it will probably be helpful as a reference tool for those who encounter an interesting sentence from the Shiji and want to know something about the context.

The second volume in this series which has come out only recently, will not be discussed in detail in this review. The reader must appreciate how acquainted Chen Zhenghong is with the original text of the Shiji. Chen is remarkable in his ability to make this text attractive for non-specialist readers in mainland China. What is especially valuable to Western readers not acquainted with the findings of modern Chinese archeology, is that he not only explains the text for all chapters on the hereditary houses of the Shiji, he also highlights details that may ring a bell for Chinese readers.

Moreover, Chen discusses problems such as why Sima Qian included the biographies of Confucius and Chen She in this section of the Shiji. Especially important is that he also references the most important findings of archaeological findings for every individual state discussed in the Shiji.

While certainly not written for a scholarly readership, this book is still very useful to scholars who want to know at a glance what modern Chinese readers will discover in any given chapter of the Shiji. This reviewer is looking forward to adding the remaining two volumes of this series to his bookshelf.

[1] Unger, Ulrich, „Zum Alter des chinesischen Tierkreises“, Hao-ku – Sinologische Rundbriefe 66 (2000); also in Hans Stumpfeldt & Martin Hanke (eds.), Ulrich Unger – Kleine Schriften, Gossenberg, Ostasienverlag 2009 (Deutsche Ostasienstudien, 3), pp. 255–266.

[2] Hans van Ess, Politik und Geschichtsschreibung im alten China [Politics and Historiography in Ancient China]. Pan-ma i-t’ung 班馬異同, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2014, 2 vols., 830 pp, here pp. 115–130. See also Hans van Ess, “Praise and Slander: The Evocation of Empress Lü in the Shiji and the Hanshu”, Nan Nü, Vol. 8, No. 2 (2006), pp. 221–254.


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