How Was History Recorded in Ancient China?

In a nation with a long history and ready to draw lessons from the past, Chinese governments of all generations have paid close attention to the history compilation since ancient times. From the pre-history age, there were historians and scribes supported by the government in China. Written records indicated that the post of historian was officially established in the Shang Dynasty at the latest to record current events and participate in national rituals. By the Western Zhou Dynasty, it was already a relatively fixed and complete official position.

A lifelong and hereditary historian

In order to preserve the massive information and record historical events that were getting richer, a lifelong and hereditary system of Grand Historian (史官shi guan) was implemented in the pre-Qin period. In terms of historiography during the period, there was the annalistic style and a state-thematic style. The Spring and Autumn Annals compiled by Confucius was the first official chronological history book in China, which arranged historical events in chronological order, with historical materials from official records of Lu and other vassal states. The state-thematic historical book included the Discourses of the States and the Stratagems of the Warring States, which sorted historical events by vassal state. Another biographic-thematic type that dominated later official history (正史zheng shi)books was created by Sima Qian (145-90 BC), a historian of the Western Han Dynasty, who created biographies of people to recount historical events.

Inheriting his father’s position, Sima Qian served as a court historian called Grand Astrologer (tai shi ling) during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty and composed the first universal history in the chronicle style, Records of the Grand Historian, originally called the Book of the Master Grand Scribe. It records a history spanning more than 3,000 years, from the time of the Yellow Emperor in the ancient legend to the first year of Emperor Wu’s reign in the Han Dynasty (122 BC).

The history book in the biographic-thematic style recounted human history from all angles centering on the activities of the emperors and was therefore established by the rulers as the official style of history. In the Eastern Han Dynasty, Ban Gu and his sibling Ban Zhao among others wrote and revised the history of the Western Han Dynasty, The Book of Han, which pioneered the dynastic history by chronology with a focus on the history of the previous dynasty. It was advantageous to summarize the historical experience in a more direct manner, therefore welcomed by the rulers.

In the Eastern Han Dynasty, the function of the official historian was assumed by officials such as court librarians (兰台令史lan tai ling shi) and editors (校书郎官jiao shu lang guan). The work of history composition was initially set in Lantai, which was equivalent to the National Archives, but later moved to Dongguan, which was equivalent to the National Library. In the Three Kingdoms Period, Emperor Ming of Wei initially set up the position of Editorial Director in charge of recording the Imperial Diary(起居注qi ju zhu), the protocol of the emperor’s daily activities and compiling the national history, marking the beginning of the official in charge of the compilation of the national history by the imperial court in Chinese history. The system of compilation officials took shape in the Western Jin Dynasty. Such officials divided their work and duties to cooperate in the history compilation of the country: the assistant editorial directors(佐郎zuo lang) collected and organized the historical materials while the director (正郎zheng lang) did the writing and the director of the Palace Library (秘书监mi shu jian) coordinated and supervised. In the Western Jin Dynasty, Emperor Wu set up the Editorial Service (著作局zhu zuo ju) as a specialized agency for history compilation, and the later dynasties like Eastern Jin, the Northern and Southern Dynasties, and the early Tang Dynasty followed suit.

During the Northern and Southern dynasties, the official history agency of the Northern Wei Dynasty, Editorial Service, was attached to the Palace Library (秘书省mi shu sheng). The editorial director (著作郎zhu zuo lang) was not only to take the lead in the compilation of national history but also to supervise and check the quality of history compilation, which later developed into a system of ministers leading and supervising the compilation of the national history of the previous dynasties. Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei twice convened the courtiers to compose the national history, pioneering the emperor’s supervision of the national history compilation. Most of the ministers who engaged in the compiling work in Northern Qi were both talented and famous scholars. Starting from Wei Shou (507-572), Deputy Director in the Secretariat (中书侍郎zhong shu shi lang) and the writer of the Book of Wei, all the supervising ministers were no longer nominally responsible but had real obligations for the work, so that the system of ministers supervising the compilation of the official history of the previous dynasties was completely established.

The establishment of an official historiography system

The establishment of the system of history compilation by the government was mainly reflected in three aspects: firstly, the establishment of the historical compilation institution; secondly, the formation of the supervision system by high-ranking officials such as the prime minister; thirdly, the standardization and institutionalization of the sources of historical materials and the institutionalization of the content of the official history books.

The Sui Dynasty placed history compilation under strict official control, and private compilation was explicitly prohibited. From then on, the compilation of the national history was exclusive to the imperial court, thus consolidating the system where the court wrote the history of the previous dynasties in a biographic-thematic type.

The Sui Dynasty was a brilliant success in reunifying China, but it lasted only 28 years. From the beginning, the Tang Dynasty attached great importance to summing up the lessons of the fall of the Sui government. In 622, Li Yuan (566-635), Emperor Gaozu and the founder of Tang accepted the advice of his minister, Linghu Defen (583-666)to collect books and compile the history of the previous dynasties. Li Shimin, Emperor Taizong of Tang, attached even more importance to the historical lessons and closely linked history with the art of governance, thus further increasing the political function of the history compilation. In 629, in order to strengthen the organization and leadership, the Tang government set up the Inner Branch of the Palace Library (秘书内省mi shu nei sheng) in the Department of Secretariat, which was the decision-making body, to compile the history of the previous dynasties. By the time of Emperor Gaozong of Tang, histories of the previous six dynasties, namely, The Book of Jin, The Book of Liang, The Book of Chen, The Book of Northern Qi, The Book of Zhou, and The Book of Sui, had been completed, together with the History of the Southern Dynasties and the History of the Northern Dynasties, which were privately compiled by the historian Li Yanshou during this period and approved by the government as official histories. This was the peak of the official compilation of history in ancient times. As a result, not only the exclusive status of the biographic-thematic dynasty history was further consolidated, but also the compilation of the official history was made institutionalized, advancing to a new height the function of ancient Chinese history as a record of the administrative affairs and experiences to learn from.

After the reign of Emperor Gaozong of Tang, the focus of history compilation shifted to contemporary history. The Historiography Institute (史馆shi guan) was mainly responsible for the compilation of Tang’s history, which had existed for a long time. In 629, it was initially instituted by Emperor Taizong of Tang while the Editorial Service of Palace Library took charge of the composition of the inscription on an epitaph (碑志bei zhi), sacrificial prayers (祝文zhu wen), and oration for use at worship and sacrifices (祭文ji wen). Besides, the Institute also assumed the compilation responsibility of previous dynasties, which was designated by later generations and a landmark showing the better-establishment of official history agencies in the wake of the Wei and Jin dynasties. Since then, the Institute, as the main official history institution, had been adopted by the Song, Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties with slight changes.

In the Tang Dynasty, the system of the Prime Minister Supervising the History Compilation was formed. In 630, Fang Xuanling (579-648)became the prime minister and then exemplified the supervision work of the compilation of the history of the previous dynasties. In the early Tang Dynasty, one or several other important ministers were appointed to embark on this work. During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (685-762), it became a customary practice to have the prime minister oversee the history compilation. This system made it possible to embody the emperor’s will in history compilation. With the imperial edict of the emperor, the supervision of the prime minister and the collective compilation of the national history at contemporary times of the previous dynasties by famous historians became a common practice, which was followed by all subsequent dynasties and formed the tradition where “the history of the nation survived its fall.” The Song, Liao, and Jin dynasties all set up the Historiography Academy to specialize in history compilation. Specifically, the Song dynasty also retained the Academy together with the Memoir Institute (实录院shi lu yuan), the Court Calendar Office (日历所ri li suo), the Imperial Diary Office (起居院qi ju yuan), the Office of Collected Regulations (会要所hui yao suo), the Imperial Genealogy Office (玉牒所yu die suo), the Emperor’s Office (圣政所sheng zheng suo), Current Political Affairs Office (时政记房shi zheng ji fang) among other institutes. In addition to the Historiography Institute, the Qing Dynasty also had the Memoir Institute (实录馆shi lu guan), similar to that of the Tang system. In the Yuan and Ming dynasties, the function of history compilation was subject to the Hanlin Academy, but ministers were appointed for supervision as in the previous dynasties.

In the history of Chinese historiography, there are two ways to compile history books. The work was either led by the government, which was dominant or done privately. From a theoretical point of view, there are advantages and disadvantages to official compilation. Liu Zhiji (661-721), a historian of the Tang dynasty, pointed out in his book, Generality of Historiography, that the Institute mostly adhered to the will of its supervisors with the historians not dedicated to their responsibilities, which decreased the efficiency of the compilation. However, the merits of the official compilation of history should not be ignored. First of all, the government-dominant system has ensured the preservation of historical materials for thousands of years so that history can be recorded in time. More importantly, in the political sense, the rulers of successive dynasties attached importance to the history compilation with several purposes:

  • To learn from the experience of the previous dynasties;
  • To justify the new dynasty;
  • To attract scholars to record the national prosperity;
  • To monopolize the compilation to control the power of praise and criticism;
  • To beautify the image of the great dynasty;
  • To improve the status of history compilation and constrain the officials in power to achieve a clean government.

In the history of ancient Chinese official history compilation, when it comes to representative figures and their classic works, two Simas must be mentioned. The first is Sima Qian, known as “the true father of the history compilation.” He wrote Records of the Grand Historian, the first history book in the biographic-thematic type, which was passed on to the compilation of official history in subsequent generations and is considered as an outstanding achievement in Chinese historiography.

Another famous figure is Sima Guang (1019-1086), a renowned minister of the Song Dynasty. He devoted nearly 19 years to compiling the general Chinese history, recording a total of 1362 years of history in 16 dynasties. After receiving the finished book, the then Emperor Shenzong of Song praised that this book gave the imperial court lessons to learn from by providing the historical gains and losses and helped strengthen the rule, naming the book History as a Mirror.

The system of official compilation of history had a unique role in cultivating and shaping the ancient Chinese officials, who not only gained experience in governance from history books but also developed a great awareness of history under specific political norms. They knew and understood the big picture, and memorized and honored their predecessors, who were so cautious that they did not dare to slacken off. They cultivated themselves in character and study to keep moving on and valued their honor and moral behaviors.

When the Yuan Dynasty conquered the Southern Song Dynasty, Song’s Prime Minister, Wen Tianxiang (1236-1283), and Emperor Gongzong (1271-1323) were captured. Later on, even though the emperor surrendered, Wen remained unyielding. Kublai Khan (1216-1294) promised him the same official position as that in the Song government but was flatly refused. Loyal and dedicated, he wrote down the famous poem: “Since olded days there’s never been a man but dies, I’d leave the loyalist’s name in hanqing (history) only.” In the Chinese original, Wen used the image of hanqing, meaning bamboo and wooden slips, to refer to the history book.

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