The New Chinese Classics
First Historian of China:
Szma Tan and the Shr Ji
A Taeko Brooks, E Bruce Brooks, Stephen Durrant, Eric Henry, Barbara Meisterernst
This collaborative study, growing out of the WSWG 22 Conference in 2005, explores the long ignored but vital question of the authorship of the Shr Ji, the first (and for long, the only) comprehensive history of China. The answer to the authorship question turns out to require that the surface meaning and the underlying historical agenda of this widely used but little understood work be entirely reappraised, and that credit for its literary excellence be reassigned (it is praised more often as a work of literature than as a work of history). The sources of the Shr Ji, and the long process of its composition (including the working lives of Szma Tan his son Szma Chyen) and final completion (at the end of Han), are explored.
Szma Tan, whose official title was Grand Astrologer, and whose court function was to predict astral phenomena and to interpret terrestrial omens (such as a newly discovered ancient ritual vessel), had a strong interest in the ideological wars of his time. In those wars, he took part from what can best be called an eclectic Dauist position. On receiving his office as Astrologer in the early years of Emperor Wu, about 0139, Tan gained access to the Palace Library, where omen records were kept, and where also such texts as the government possessed were also stored. He conceived the notion of combining the narrative portions of that trove into a consecutive account of China from the beginning down to its present period of glory under Emperor Wu. He concocted a new genealogy of China, deriving all its ruler lines from a mythical Dauist ancestor, the Yellow Emperor. He interpreted the rise and fall of major historical figures in terms of a principle, drawn straight from the Dau/Dv Jing, of abandoning success before success abandons you: in this world, the only winners are the quitters. Tan conceived and designed on a broad scale, but his actual handling of historical materials leaves something to be desired. He was deceived by the career of the imaginary statesman Su Chin, and dislocated the chronology of the major 04th century rulers to make room for him, a decision producing vast confusion for the historians of later ages, and only recently corrected. It can be shown that Tan made elementary errors in copying one source text, and at one point even dropped it on the floor and picked it up again with its sections in the wrong order.
Tan died in 0209, and his son Chyen took over the project. In line with intellectual trends of the time, and wanting the best for his son, Tan had raised Chyen as a Confucian. That Confucian second author now played havoc with the writings of the first and Dauist author. Interpolations were made in earlier chapters, denigrating figures whom Tan had admired or (in his eclectic way) tolerated. The design of the work was enlarged to include chapters on specifically Confucian subjects, and to support the war policy of Emperor Wu (Tan had favored the peace and prosperity party) by including peoples on the margins of China, now considered as rightfully subject to the Chinese state. Tan had been personally discreet, and had elevated discretion into a rule of life. Chyen, on the contrary, had the Confucian's confidence of rectitude, and his propensity to speak truth to power. He defended a losing general at court, aroused the Emperor's ire, and was castrated for his pains. He finished his life, still in service to Emperor Wu, but now schooled in discretion. He worked at odd moments to complete the Shr Ji, now regarded as the basis for his standing with posterity (he had one daughter, but no sons), but died with ten chapters still partly or wholly lacking. Efforts, both private and governmental, to complete it finally succeeded in the last years of Han, leaving substantially the work we now possess. (Rumors that huge tracts of it were supplied from the later Han Shu are without foundation).
So much for the personal story. This book also includes considerations of the sources, the confused ideologies, and even the grammar of the Shr Ji, the last considered as an independent test of the two-generation authorship theories here propounded.
Tan's role in the Shr Ji has been one of Sinology's best-kept secrets. It has been swept under the rug by specialists, and happily left there by adoring readers, who are much moved by the personal tragedy of Chyen, and are fully willing to take Chyen's own claim of sole authorship at face value. Wang Gwo-wei, at the beginning of the 20th century, first put hints about Tan where other scholars would be likely to see them. Chavannes in his incomplete but magnificently annotated translation left a page or so on the question. Gu Jye-gang first faced it squarely, hailing Tan, not Chyen, as the true Grand Historian of China. None of these concessions has had the slightest effect on later scholarship, which continues to assume that Chyen wrote the work, and to analyze it (sometimes with exegetical difficulty) as reflecting his Confucian sensibilities. That long denial ends with this book, which puts the case for Tan and for an original underlying Dauist view of history in a complete and unignorable way.
Extracts from First Historian of China:
Chapter 1: Szma Tan
Chapter 2: The Original Shr Ji
Chapter 3: The Jan-gwo Tsv Source
Chapter 4: The Chu/Han Chun/Chyou Source
Chapter 5: Extensions
Chapter 6: Szma Chyen
Chapter 7: Szma Tan as a Historian
Chapter 8: The Completion of the Shr Ji
Even casual users of the Shr Ji will need to take account of these findings. The history of the Warring States, for which the Shr Ji has always been regarded as a primary source, will at many points require to be rewritten (or in many places, unwritten) as a result. The book is thus mandatory for all historians of China, and especially for students of the classical period, which among other things the Shr Ji purports to describe.
For a brief documentary history of classical Chinese thought through the Chin Dynasty, based on philological study of the source texts and not on the myths which, at many points, the Shr Ji transmits or elaborates, see the survey volume The Emergence of China in the Ancient China in Context series. A longer account will be found in a forthcoming work, The Hundred Voices. A principal source for the literarily more exciting parts of the Shr Ji was the now lost early Han work Chu/Han Chun/Chyou, which has been reconstructed in The Epic of Chu and Han, in the series Studies in Philology.
A TAEKO BROOKS is Research Associate, and E BRUCE BROOKS is Research Professor of Chinese, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. STEPHEN W DURRANT is Professor of History at the University of Oregon. ERIC HENRY is Senior Lecturer in Chinese at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. BARBARA MEISTERERNST is an Associate at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes des Sciences Sociales in Paris
First Historian of China: Szma Tan and the Shr Ji
Approxinately 320 pages
Tentative $49.95 cloth. ISBN 978-936166-34-3
Tentative $26.95 paper. ISBN 978-036166-74-9
Tentative Release Date: February 2015
When announced, this book may be ordered from the University of Massachusetts Press
14 August 2010 / Contact The Project / Exit to Publications Page