Monday, April 16, 2012


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After ages of endless war and strife, the Han Dynasty took rest under the administrations of Han Wendi and Han Jingdi. Such solace soon disappeared after Liu Che, sixth sucessor of the Western Han Dynasty, ascended the throne at age 15. This boy became Emperor Wudi, the Martial Emperor.

As fierce and as bold as the warrior Hsiang Yu, Wudi dedicated his reign to the suppression of the Huns. The Emperor unleashed three waves of attack on the tribe, driving them far north at Gobi. To hold the enemy at bay, Wudi ordered the construction of a new Great Wall, much more imposing than that of the Qin Dynasty. And the former barrier was renovated still.

Before the victory, Han Wudi sent out his trusted general Zhang Qian to propose an allegiance with the Yuezhi Tribe against the Huns. After a thirteen year odyssey of capture and escape, exploration and discovery, Zhang Qian finally returned. The trail that he blazed would become known as the Silk Road, a path which led to a Chinese cultural and economic flourishment.


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Emperor Wudi established the teachings of Confucius as law, and simultaneously banished all opposing literature. As a ruler, cunning strategies fulfilled his grand ambitions. Upon dying in 86 B.C., he was renamed Emperor Shizong. The Han Dynasty would fall less than 100 years later.


Li Ling lived noblely as a General to Emperor Wudi and as a son to his

parents. He was as fearless a warrior and as trustworthy a friend as the fabled Li Kuang.

The Sixth Emperor ordered Li Ling to lead an assault on the Huns. The

General pleaded with his majesty to reconsider his strategy, for the enemy

would greatly outnumber them. But Wudi refused to make concessions. Li Ling

bowed and prepared for sacrafice. The General gathered 5,000 troops and set out for Northern China.

When initial news of the battle returned, the Emperor’s men rejoiced. All Lords and Ministers praised Li Ling for his heroic plunge into the enemy’s forces. The General had driven his troops to the lion’s den and called out the beast. The Huns could not match such bold and fearless will. However, the struggle would last for 10 days, and the tides of fortune are always turning.

The second report did not bode well. General Li Ling and his soldiers found themselves encircled by the entire Hun tribe, and yet they continued to fight on in desparation. Only in the final moment, facing no other choice but death, did the General surrender.

As the Emperor scowled at this account, the same Lords and Ministers who applauded Li Ling only days before, now changed their tune. To appease their ruler, the men placed blame solely on the General, calling him Traitor. Is this justice? The moon may eclipse the sun for a moment, but only blocking its radiance, never really dimming it. It is true that other men of honor may have chosen exile or suicide, but should that be the fate of a man of such worth as Li Ling?


When General Li Ling surrendered to the Huns, many men were quick to

condemn him. It was only when Emperor Wudi called for the counsel of Sima

Qian that a voice of reason emerged. Although they had never shared company,

the Historian long admired the selfless will of Li Ling. While the others took

advantage of fueling the Emperor’s anger, Sima Qian tried to broaden the ruler’s

perspective. Li Ling was not a coward or a traitor, he was a sublime warrior and

leader of men who found himself backed up against the Great Wall. This was not

been what Han Wudi wanted to hear, but it was the truth. The

Historian is quoted

“Though bitter, good medicine cures illness. Though it may hurt, loyal criticism will have beneficial effects.”

But this time, Sima Qian’s ideals would not yeild any such benefits. The Lords and Ministers twisted the meaning of his plea, and he was soon imprisoned for “treason and conspiracy”. The Historian was lead into the Silkworm Chamber to face the palace punishment Castration.

This sentence was meant to inspire suicide; Sima Qian was expected to choose death rather than exist as a disgraced eunuch. But his will was strong and the Historian had a legacy to carry out . And so he made the sacrafice.

Several lonely years later, Sima Qian explains his choice in a letter to fellow government official Ren An

“I have heard it said that to devote oneself to moral training is the sign of wisdom; to delight in giving to others is the beginning of humanity; that proper giving and taking are the marks of a person’s sense of duty; that times of shame and disgrace determine one’s courage; and that making a name for oneself is the end of all action.”

Though Sima Qian would no longer be able to further his father’s name in heritage, he meant to continue his work. Sima Tan was a Historian as well, the Prefect of the Grand Scribes, a reader of the stars and supervisor of the Imperial Library. On his deathbed, Sima Tan passed that post onto his son and passionatley requested that he continue the Shiji, or Historical Records, which would recount the lineage of Chinese heros back to the Yellow Emperor. Sima Qian was willing to fulfill that wish at any cost.

For three years after his fathers death, the Historian traveled far and wide, collecting materials for the project. Once he officially inherited the office of his father, Sima Qian used the imperial resources to authenticate his findings. The Historian strayed from his friends and family so that he could devote himself entirely to his mission. Over 1 years, Sima Qian composed more than 10 chapters. Today, he is recognized as the first biographer.

The theme of filial piety so dear to Sima Qian would appear time and again in his biographies. We find heros fighting in the name of the father throughout the ages of the Shiji. To the Historian, the family was the basic root of the Great Will which all heros possessed. This motivation gave him the strength to endure the pain and humiliation of castration.

Forbearance. The art of restraint and tolerance. Sima Qian wrote of the

Marquis of Huai-yin, Han Hsin, with whom he shared this virtue. This Marquis starts off as a begger with a reputation for cowardice. Instead of giving into pride after he achieves sudden success, Han Hsin actually uses this negative image to put his enemies off guard. Later in life, he even returns home to reward his early tormentors for inadvertantly guiding him to greatness.

Still, like most of Sima Qian’s heros, Han Hsin comes to an unfortunate end. Yet, the Historian’s goal is not to present a series of tragedies (or victories for that matter), but to pay respects to the unsung mercenaries and martyrs, the obscure warriors and philosophers. He also branches out to chronicle the lives of wanderers, jesters, and poets. All gain greater significance and character as the Historian compares and contrasts their lives. Sima Qian judged his subjects by their life-long virtues, not by the sum of their triumphs or by desperate final acts. This point of view is radically different from the “might is right” attitude taken by many who felt that the victor’s story was the only one worth telling. For after all, Sima Qian himself was misunderstood and dismissed by his peers, it is only natural that he would sympathize with the underdogs of yesteryear. This approach signaled a turning point in the Chinese concepts of heroism.

Discernment is yet another quality both practiced and praised by Sima

Qian. The accounts of the Assassins express that the ability to read people is often necessary for survival. Besides saving ones neck, this skill also enlightens someone with a greater perspective on the world. To recognize the greatness in others is often proven to be a virtue onto itself. This kind of positive discernment found in the Shiji lends to heighten ones own morality; the ability to see through anothers eyes, to walk in their shoes provides a greater understanding of humanity and deepens ones sympathy. And this may be the grand objective of the Historians biographies, to open the mind of the reader.

The Grand Historian comments I have gathered up and brought together all the old traditions of the world that were scattered and lost. I have examined the events of the past and investigated the principles behind their success and failure, their rise and decay, in 10 chapters. I wished to examine into all that concerns heaven and humankind, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, putting forth my views as one school of interpretation...If it may be handed down to those who will appreciate it and penetrate to the villages and great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regreat would I have?

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