Esther Sunkyung Klein

Lecturer in Chinese Studies, The University of Sydney
Faculty Advisor: Martin Kern
Title: The history of a historian: Perspectives on the authorial roles of Sima Qian


In the first century BCE, Sima Qian compiled the Shiji, a history of China from mythological beginnings to his own day. Soon after, readers of the Shiji began producing both continuations and extensive comments. This dissertation examines the changing ways in which pre-modern Chinese readers understood authorship through an analysis of their perspectives on Sima Qian. I argue that we cannot know the “real” Sima Qian: the tragic authorial figure of Sima Qian is a construction by later readers. I trace the development of this authorial construction from the Han through Song dynasties, examining readers' comments within their historical contexts. The dissertation has three parts. The first outlines Sima Qian's fortunes in the textual world of traditional China, exploring how his authorial role was seen in relation to the Classics and to historical texts (in chapter 1), as well as to literary theory and composition (in chapter 2). Chapter 3 discusses formal aspects of the Shiji and how they were considered an aspect of Sima Qian's creative authorship.

The second part juxtaposes two competing interpretations of the Shiji. Chapters 4 and 5 analyze how Sima Qian's personal tragedy was thought to relate to his work on the Shiji. Initially such motivations were viewed in a primarily negative light. It was not until the Song that the autobiographical connection came to be valorized. In chapter 6, I consider an alternative position, that the Shiji was a “true record” and how the meaning of that term changed over time. I show how this aspect of Shiji interpretation reflected and influenced traditional Chinese attitudes toward history.

The third part explores textual issues. In chapter 7, I consider three problems related to Shiji authorship that go beyond Sima Qian: the question of Sima Tan, the work of Chu Shaosun, and the idea of a damaged Shiji text. In chapter 8, I discuss issues related to the authenticity of the “Letter in Reply to Ren An,” which is often read as Sima Qian's finest autobiographical statement and a crucial interpretive key to the Shiji.