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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


Herodotus and Sima Qian: The First Great Historians of Greece and China

Herodotus and Sima Qian: The First Great Historians of Greece and China: A Brief History with Documents - Thomas Martin

I came to this much more interested in Sima Qian than Herodotus. Hence, I was very surprised while reading their excerpts that the style and tone of both historians were actually quite similar; content-wise, the basis for comparison was much stronger than I'd expected. In the introduction, Martin pinpoints their importance on the investigative nature of their writing--away from poetry and myth towards a more rational documentation of events--which paved the way for future historians of Herodotus's and Sima Qian's respective cultures to come.

This book is split into three parts: an introduction in which Martin explains most of his comparative analysis, a section of documents from Herodotus's The Histories, and a section of documents from Sima Qian's The Records of the Grand Historian, or Shiji. (By "document," I mean 10-on-average-page excerpts.) Each one is preceded by a short preface introducing the context, the people, and a remark on Herodotus/Sima Qian's approach. This piecemeal method of presentation--and the readable translation--worked well for me, since I find the idea of reading either historian's work at the moment a little terrifying, although I would like to do so someday.

Some of the most helpful information in the introduction were the notes on structure. Apparently, the exact method of organization for Herodotus's work is widely debated, but was groundbreaking in length and complexity, a factor that allowed for multiple digressions. Sima Qian's is divided into five parts: "Basic Annals," "Chronological Tables," "Treatises," Hereditary Houses," and "Biographies," presenting different pieces of information on the same people and events. This combined the approaches of the historians who preceded him: chronology, region by region, themes and cyclical patterns.

Excerpts included from Herodotus are mainly on the second Persian invasion of Greece (Thermopylae, Salamis, Queen Artemisia). Excerpts from Sima Qian are on the founding of the Qin dynasty, the early Han dynasty up to the death of Empress Lü, and stories on certain famous pre-imperial figures.

Since the rest of the book is made up of basically annotated excerpts, I won't get into them, except for one particular document that caught my attention.

While little is known about Herodotus's personal life, the comparatively more information we have about Sima Qian comes from the person himself. There is one document included that is not part of Shiji: a letter to a friend who would eventually be executed by Emperor Wu. In it Sima Qian describes how he endured imperial punishment so he could complete the historical work he had set out to do. When Sima Qian dared to criticize Emperor Wu for punishing one of his generals, he was thrown into prison and castrated--something considered even more shameful than death. Between the pain of having to choose between the honor of suicide and his life's dedication, the thought that his work would survive for future generations motivated him to struggle to the end.

I may have been fearful and weak in choosing life at any cost, but I also recognize the proper measure in how to act. How then could I endure the dishonor of sinking into prison bonds? If a captive slave girl can even take her own life, certainly someone like me could do the same when nothing else could be done. The reason I endured it in silence and did not refuse to be covered in filthy muck was because I could not bear the thought of leaving behind unfinished something of personal importance to me. I could not accept dying, if that meant that the high points of my writing were going to be lost to posterity.

And today, we have Shiji.