Yuanxin Chen

Full Stack Software Developer
Deque Systems
Faculty Adviser: Martin Kern

Writing History Through the Biographical Genre in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE)


My dissertation focuses on one of the most prominent genres of historical writing in imperial China (221 BCE -1912 CE): biography. The life stories of figures from different social strata were compiled into the largest section of many Chinese dynastic histories: the “Arrayed Traditions” (liezhuan) or the “Traditions” (zhuan). As self-contained accounts devoted to individual lives, these biographies played a significant role in constructing Chinese imperial ideologies. My study traces back to the beginning of this biographical tradition. By focusing on the most important works of early imperial Chinese historiography, the Records of the Historian (Shiji) and the Documents of the Han Dynasty (Hanshu), I address how and why the biographical genre emerged as a prevalent form of narrative history over the course of the Han dynasty. My research shows that Han historiographers adopted the biographical genre to transform the ways in which historical knowledge was used in philosophical and sociopolitical debates; to provide balanced evaluations of people based on their qualities and deeds; and to develop diverse causes to explain the successes and failures in individual lives. Moreover, these purposes overlapped with the historiographers’ ambition to construct ideological “landscapes” for the Han dynasty. In particular, by compiling biographies of hundreds of individuals from different walks of life, the historiographers covered an unprecedentedly broad scope of sociopolitical issues. To address these issues, the historiographers evaluated individuals, who were often categorized into archetypes, to establish models of different social roles. They also provided moral justifications for individual successes and failures, which were intertwined with the rise and fall of clans and states, to prescribe ethical principles.