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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: July 2019

5 - Sima Qian’s Critical Past

  • Vincent S. Leung, Lingnan University, Hong Kong
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • pp 153-176


In this last chapter, I focus exclusively on the monumental work of history the Shiji, by Sima Qian, the Grand Archivist at the court of Emperor Wu of the Han empire. Out of the 130 chapters of the Shiji, I focus on the two, namely the “Huozhi Liezhuan” and the “Pingzhun shu,” that primarily deal with the economic history of the entire civilized world, up to the time of the Han empire. I argue that Sima Qian mobilized historical narratives to offer a sharp critique of what he perceived to be the problems with Han imperialism as it developed under Emperor Wu. The Shiji, in this sense, was a critical deployment of the field of the past; Sima Qian engaged with the past less to advance a new political order than to deconstruct an existing one. The Shiji was a critique all the way down.