[Review] 聂溦萌《中古官修史体制的运作与演进》(Nie Weimeng: On the Operations and Development of the System of Compiling Official Historiography During the Middle Ages)

Nie Weimeng 聂溦萌, Zhonggu guanxiushi tizhi de yunzuo yu yanjin 中古官修史体制的运作与演进 (On the Operations and Development of the System of Compiling Official Historiography During the Middle Ages), Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe 上海古籍出版社, 2021. ISBN 978–7–5325–9887–8, 388 pages, 108 RMB.

Reviewed by Paul Fahr (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

The study of medieval Chinese historiography seems to be a lively field of research in present-day Mainland China. In 2012, Xu Chong 徐冲 published his On the Writing of History and the Sources of Imperial Power During the Middle Ages, to name but one title.[1] With the publication under review, we are presented with another study on medieval historiography, which, like the study by Xu, is part of the monograph series from the “Joint Study Group on Medieval China” (中古中国共同研究班) edited by Professor Yu Xin 余欣 at Fudan University 复旦大学.

Nie Weimeng 聂溦萌, presently employed at the Capital Normal University 首都师范大学 in Beijing, has a strong interest in the textual history of early medieval Chinese historiography, in the editorial revision of which she actively participates. Nie is one of the scholars, in other words, who decide on the standard text in the editions with which other historians work. This alone makes her views on historiography noteworthy.

Unlike Xu Chong, who is interested in ideological tenets as they materialize in historiographical writings, Nie Weimeng looks at the processes by which these same texts were produced. According to a common understanding, early imperial historiography, beginning with Sima Qian’s 司馬遷 (c. 145–86 BCE) Shiji 史記 (Records of the Scribes), was a product of individual authorship, whereas, from the Tang 唐 Dynasty (618–907) onwards, it was merely compiled by bureaucrats in offices according to a fixed procedure. In other words, earlier histories sprang forth from creative imagination, while later ones arose from preexistent institutions. Nie Weimeng accepts this view in principle and sets out to study what happened in between. That is, she traces the development of the institutions ‘behind’ the making of the so-called “standard histories” (zhengshi 正史) of early medieval China, which eventually resulted in the advanced Tang apparatus. The greatest obstacle to this approach, according to Nie, is the dearth of extant direct evidence for the bureaucratic procedures in question. Therefore, she focuses on the material results of these procedures, viz. the textual surface of the histories themselves (p. 4).

The book is divided into a short introduction (pp. 1–4), the main part, which consists of nine case studies, a conclusion (pp. 293–301), two appendices, bibliographies of primary and secondary sources, and a finding list for all passages from primary sources mentioned. A former version of the study was submitted as Nie’s Ph.D. thesis at Peking University. As is common for publications based on dissertations, at least in China, most chapters were published beforehand in academic journals and revised again for the monograph (cf. the list on p. 4).

The first chapter (pp. 5–31), which introduces the reader to the overall topic of the book, traces the standardization of the annals (benji 本紀 or ji 紀) and – as I would prefer to call them – (arrayed) transmissions (liezhuan 列傳 or zhuan 傳)[2] in the early standard histories and their un-transmitted progenitors. According to Nie’s observation, Sima Qian did not yet organize the Shiji’s arrayed transmissions for chronological reasons or according to the offices of the persons included, but rather in order to highlight certain historical issues he deemed worth covering. From the histories of the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420–589 CE) onwards, on the other hand, historiographers mainly relied on the outlook of government and grouped people into shared “transmission” chapters according to their respective offices. Likewise, Sima Qian’s so-called “annals” are not yet annals for emperors in the strict sense but also focus on other subjects, including whole families and empresses. Further, they proceed in a narrative fashion, just like the “transmissions.” Later works, beginning with Ban Gu’s 班固 (32–92) Hanshu 漢書 (Documents of the Han), increasingly tend to assign annals to emperors only and record mostly official events of the state in an annalistic fashion. Again, the content of official historiography increasingly mirrored the workings of government.

Chapters two (pp. 32–53) and three (pp. 54–75) deal with two common types of chapters in the “transmissions” section respectively, that is chapters concerning groups of foreign countries and chapters for (mostly common) persons excelling in some type of moral behavior. In the first case, Han historiographers primarily relied on reports of envoys and military men who happened to take notes of foreign lands and people. Under the Tang, on the other hand, officials who came into contact with foreigners were obliged to report to the Office of Historiography (shiguan 史館) to provide relevant information. For the period between these two stages of development, Nie Weimeng identifies certain preliminary attempts to standardize the procedure: The authors of the Songshu 宋書 (Documents of the Song) made exclusive use of official documents, which were available to them; the respective chapters in the Liangshu 梁書 (Documents of the Liang) and the Suishu 隋書 (Documents of the Sui) derived from picture scrolls containing verbal descriptions of foreign people, their customs, etc., which had been prepared by officials serving in the empire’s periphery. This system of picturing foreigners was later institutionalized under the Tang. Once again, the compilation of official historiography became increasingly automatized in the Chinese Middle Ages. Likewise, from the Eastern Han東漢 (25–220 CE) onwards, historiographers made use of letters of recommendation and other official documents concerning cases of exemplary conduct when staffing specific chapters of their works, such as the “Transmissions concerning the Filial and Righteous” (孝義傳). This, according to Nie, explains certain narrative features of these chapters, such as the use of short topical stories to which many people’s lives are reduced.

The fourth chapter (pp. 76–185) is by far the longest of the whole book. Nie studies the relation between single “transmissions” for certain individuals and other documents covering these people’s lives, which were prepared after their death: accounts of conduct (xingzhuang 行狀), tomb inscriptions or grave memoirs (muzhi 墓誌), and epitaphs (beiwen 碑文). The fact that these three types of texts bear strong resemblance to their respective historiographic counterparts suggests, according to Nie, that they derive from a common source. These textual ancestors were probably compiled by certain officials and may have been used first to bestow posthumous titles on eminent officials (zeng guan 贈官). Subsequently other officials may have utilized these documents to compose an account of conduct in parallel prose style (pianwen 駢文) or eventually a section in one of the dynastic histories. Unfortunately, this assumption remains a hypothesis unsubstantiated by direct evidence. Therefore, as a reader, one feels somewhat disappointed after working through the whole chapter, even though the material is interesting on its own merits and is conveniently presented in an appendix (pp. 126–185).

Chapters five to seven (pp. 186–247) form another coherent group of rather detailed inquiries concerning a common topic. In this case, Nie Weimeng studies the official historiographic tradition of the Eastern Jin Dynasty 東晉 (317–420). She proceeds from the curious fact that, beginning with Gan Bao 干寶 (d. 336), historiographers at the newly established court in Jiankang 建康 documented their own dynasty’s history by using the then rather outdated annals format (biannianti 編年體) and not, as Sima Qian had established it, by combining annals, “transmissions,” etc. Even though the resulting works were later at least partly reworked to fit the traditional format and did not happen to be transmitted by themselves, still these revisions left narrative traces in the Songshu and certain chapters of Fang Xuanling’s 房玄齡 (578–648) Jinshu 晉書 (Documents of the Jin). Nie retrieves these traces and argues that said Eastern Jin works anticipated the function of the so-called “veritable records” (shilu 實錄), that is of annalistic sources prepared by assigned officials, which formed the basis of the standard histories of later periods.

In chapters eight and nine (pp. 248–292), Nie directs her attention to the writing of history in northern China during the age of division. First, in chapter eight, she studies historiographic activities commissioned by the so-called Sixteen Kingdoms 十六國 (304–439). Much of this chapter, as with large sections of the book in general, consists of detailed improvements on the relevant Chinese and Japanese secondary literature in the style of traditional kaozheng 考證 (literally “to investigate and adduce proof”) scholarship. Still, the author also argues for a general point concerning the format of these works. While most of them were written in the annals format (cf. above), some regimes ordered their historiographers to make use of the traditional ‘standard history format’ (jizhuanti 紀傳體, literally “annals and transmissions format”). They did so, Nie proposes, because they wished to pose as legitimate successors to the Han dynasty, under which this way of documenting history had been invented in the first place.

Further, Nie speculates that the use of the annals format, which most of the Sixteen Kingdoms shared with the Eastern Jin (see above), was, in fact, inspired by historiographic procedures not at the court in Jiankang but Luoyang 洛陽 during the Western Jin西晉 (265–317). Chapter nine treats Northern Wei北魏 (386–534) historiography up to Wei Shou’s 魏收 (506–572) Weishu 魏書 (Documents of the Wei). Here, Nie’s most important finding is that Wei Shou reorganized a former version of the Wei dynasty’s history by preparing chapters for whole clans. In this way, Nie successfully explains the partly illogical arrangement of the transmission chapters in the transmitted Weishu.

The conclusion (pp. 292–301) recapitulates the book’s main threads with reference to the preceding case studies. Furthermore, Nie draws attention to the fact that official compilation projects like the standard histories, but also legal or ritual compendia, were ultimately guided by the needs of government. Accordingly, in the case of historiography, the annals format (biannianti) would historically remain a preliminary stage of the dominant annals and transmissions format (jizhuanti) since only works of the later type were arranged according to concrete “types of affairs” (事類, cf. the quotation on p. 300) and therefore could function as reference works.

The first appendix (pp. 302–337) consists of a study of a manuscript, which was unearthed in Turfan in 1972, containing a fragment of an unknown Jin history. Nie presents and argues for a revised transcription and reconstruction of the text and analyses its narrative features. The second appendix (pp. 338–349) consists of an essay on Pei Songzhi’s 裴松之 (372–451) commentary (zhu 注) on Chen Shou’s 陳壽 (233–297) Sanguo zhi 三國志 (Records of the Three Kingdoms). Nie argues that this work is not a commentary in a common sense at all but a historiographic compilation of its own. Further, she explains that the early years of the Liu-Song 劉宋dynasty (420–479) witnessed the emergence of the official compilation of the history of preceding dynasties, just as evidenced by Pei’s work.

Nie Weimeng has written a very learned book. She knows her primary sources and the relevant Chinese and Japanese secondary literature admirably well and engages them most carefully and attentively. I have great sympathies for Nie’s overall approach to the subject in question. She is fully justified, in my opinion, in treating the official historiography of premodern China first of all as the output of the imperial institutions and their bureaucratic organization and only in a second step as testimony of individual authorship and certain people’s views.[3] However, this “link” (联结) (p. 293) between the workings of government on the one hand and the production of the historiographic texts on the other appears somewhat loose at times, especially in the second part of the book (chapters five to nine). While the author studies the format of her sources, their narrative details, etc. in great detail, one occasionally wonders in what particular way her findings relate to the “institutionalized factors” (制度化因素) (p. 2) or the “operations of government” (政务运作) (p. 293). This impression may be the result also of an all-too-brief introduction, which would have profited from systematic references to comparable studies such as that done by Niu Runzhen 牛润珍.[4] This does not, of course, in any way diminish the value of her case studies. Still, Nie could have spent a few more pages on the theoretical framework itself or chosen a framework that operates solely on the level of the text since this is where she, as a philologist, thrives.

In sum, this is not so much a book for the general reader, who looks for an introduction to the subject, the overall picture, definite statements, and the like. Instead, it is a valuable collection of advanced case studies for specialists who wish to enhance their knowledge and detect new pathways for future research.


[1] Xu Chong 徐冲, Zhonggu shidai de lishi shuxie yu huangdi quanli qiyuan 中古时代的历史书写与皇帝权力起源, Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe 上海古籍出版社, 2012.

[2] I have recently argued that the term “biography” is a misleading designation of these parts of the standard histories and should be avoided, see Paul Fahr, Remonstration als Institution. Ein Beitrag zum Herrschaftsverständnis im frühen chinesischen Kaiserreich [Remonstrance as an institution: On the concept of rule in the Early Chinese empire], Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2021, pp. 240–249 and passim in the same chapter.

[3] In fact, I have argued that this applies already to Shiji and Hanshu, cf. Remonstration als Institution, chapter four.

[4] Niu Runzhen 牛润珍, Han zhi Tang chu shiguan zhidu de yanbian 汉至唐初史官制度的演变 [On the transformation of the system of court historians from Han to early Tang], Hebei Jiaoyu Chubanshe 河北教育出版社, 1999.


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