Sima Qian’s Imperial Dilemma

While many of our blog posts focus on legacies of colonialism within Oxford itself, here Xinyan Yu, who recently completed a BA in Ancient and Modern History at the University of Oxford, shares some of his research on concepts of empire in ancient China.  This is a short excerpt from Xinyan Yu’s undergraduate thesis.  As Xinyan explains, ‘It is often through confrontation with others that people can better understand themselves; by discussing the way Sima Qian (c. 139 – c. 86 BC) presents the Xiongnu people --- the northern barbaric nomads who were arguably the most troublesome enemy of the Han by then --- in Shiji’s constituent chapter “The Account of the Xiongnu”, this work aims to reveal how the ancient historian reflects on his empire, while discovering a nuanced attitude towards imperialism underneath his writing.’



Song Dynasty copy of the Shiji transcribed in 1171 AD


        Generally acknowledged as the first historical writing of ancient China, Sima Qian’s (c. 139 – c. 86 BC) Shiji not only offer us invaluable information about contemporary realities of Han China, but also allow us to reconstruct his attitudes toward imperial expansion.  It is often through confrontation with others that people can better understand themselves; by discussing the way Sima Qian presents the Xiongnu people --- the northern barbaric nomads who were arguably the most troublesome enemy of the Han by then --- in Shiji’s constituent chapter “The Account of the Xiongnu”, this work aims to reveal how the ancient historian reflects on his empire, while discovering a nuanced attitude towards imperialism underneath his writing.


The Xiongnu Unveiled

      In Sima Qian’s view, the Xiongnu people constitute a not only ethnic but also political whole. His Xiongnu Account first briefly describes the Xiongnu customs and ancestry in a highly generalised manner, then writes extensively about the Xiongnu’s interaction with the Central Plain in history.[1] In his description the Xiongnu formed a political union just as the Han Empire did, with a well-organised socio-political hierarchy beginning from the Chanyu on its top.[2] Sima Qian’s generalised description of these foreigners shows a contemporary belief that the Han and Xiongnu ways of living were mutually exclusive.[3] A clear Han-Xiongnu dichotomy, a civilised-barbarous one, hence emerges in Sima Qian’s narrative.

        Yet such categorisations are by no means reliable. The Xiongnu administration was rather loose compared to its Han neighbour. Sima Qian himself notes that there were various barbarian tribes living in the north during the Spring and Autumn period, unable to achieve a unified rule: it was only under Modu Chanyu did the Xiongnu nobles all “consider him a truly worthy leader.”[4] As Di Cosmo points out, the Inner Asia society before the Xiongnu was essentially established upon “kin bonds, reliance on customary law, and segmentation of political power among clans and tribes”, therefore Chanyu served more like a leader who coordinates military resources during crisis and whose authority rests on consistent negotiation with other tribes.[5] The contemporary Han courtier Jia Yi’s Sanbiao Wuer (Three Models and Five Baits) strategy was based on his judgement that local Xiongnu leaders could be easily bribed and thereby turn against the Chanyu by bestowing gifts. Ban Gu, who composed Hanshu (the Book of Han) a century after Sima Qian’ Shiji, also comments: “As for the situation of the Chanyu, can (he) make certain his people do not violate the agreement?”[6] Culturally, different tribes also presented a collection of sub-regional differences.[7] Sima Qian’s imagined vast gap between the Han and Xiongnu ways of living is not valid under modern scholarship’s scrutiny either: archaeological findings have refuted his generalising claim that the Xiongnu did not “engage in any kind of agriculture”.[8]

       Though perceived as vastly different, these northern barbarians nevertheless occupied an important position for contemporary Han. The Xiongnu Empire as a political entity emerged in parallel with the Qin Dynasty’s unification of China in 221 BC, which for the first time created a unified empire with a distinct Chinese identity: to complete the puzzle, naturally, this newly established Chinese-ness needed something non-Chinese for consolidation. The Great Wall, in this effect, was then an objectified representation of a political as well as cultural division. As the successor of the Qin, the Han’s understanding of the Xiongnu was largely inherited from this mentality.[9] Furthermore, the Xiongnu were economically significant. The “Account of the Xiongnu” more than once mentions about trading activities on the frontier. The Han Empire was also in urgent need of some Xiongnu products, particularly horses: a passage in Yantie Lun (Discourses on Salt and Iron), a collection of contemporary debates revealing the Han socio-economic situation during Emperor Wu’s reign, comments that trading Chinese silks with the Xiongnu for fine horses was “using the non-essential to trade for the fundamental”.[10] Therefore, the stereotypical imagination that perceived the Xiongnu people as an ethnic group nonetheless fitted well into contemporary political and economic needs.


sima qian painted portrait

Ancient Chinese portrait of Sima Qian

Adopting the Imperial Ideology

        The ancient Chinese had long imagined a unified world rule.[11] The most typical representation of such imagination is the notion of All-Under-Heaven (tianxia). Heaven (tian) represents the religious existence that governs the worldly order; since the Zhou Dynasty, Chinese rulers were referred to as the Son of Heaven (tianzi). Therefore, we see expressions like Four Directions (sifang) and Numerous States (wanbang) in a Zhou text “Announcement Concerning Luoyang” in the Shangshu (Book of Documents), in which (people from) four directions and numerous states are all included in the Zhou ruling domain.[12] A contemporary poem states this idea rather explicitly: “Everywhere under Heaven is the King’s land; each of those who live on the land is the King’s servant.”[13] Confucius further promoted such thought in the Spring and Autumn period when the Zhou Dynasty started to decline: his political/philosophical ideal longs for “the Magnification of the Unified Rule” (dayitong).[14] This notion of a unified rule over tianxia inevitably brings in the problem of “others”. When praising Guan Zhong, the advisor of the Qi State who helped his lord to defeat barbarians, Confucius says: “Were it not for Guan Zhong, we would be wearing our hair loose and buttoning (our clothes) to the left”. Confucius is certainly aware of a different and “uncivilised” way of living; he identifies it as the potential danger of not achieving unified rule.[15] Hence the idea of world unification contains another layer of meaning: the acculturation of “others”. The Shangshu establishes a world model centring around the Son of Heaven, in which people further to him are less civilised. It is however interesting to note that Confucius believes that as part of tianxia, all people are civilisable as long as one brings civility to them, and on a grand scale, the ultimate form of this civilising process is the unification of All-Under-Heaven under a sage ruler.[16]

          The influence of the Confucian tianxia thoughts on Sima Qian is obvious.[17] One can see from Sima Qian’s autobiography that Confucius’ Spring and Autumn Annals has shed much light on the historiographical purpose of Shiji,[18] as he intends to record and praise the rule of the “enlightened emperor of our time” in his writings, because “(the emperor) has… received the Mandate in his majesty and purity; his goodness flows over our land without bound. The multitudinous tribes within the four seas… have come knocking at our borders in submission.”[19] In this sense, the Han legitimacy from the Mandate of Heaven ensures the empire’s absolute superiority over other people. Moreover, the Xiongnu people, though perceived as different from the Han Chinese, are nonetheless put into the Chinese cosmology by Sima Qian, who at the very beginning of his Xiongnu account identifies them as the offspring of ancient Xia Dynasty rulers, making Chinese emperors surely possess the right to claim dominance over them.[20] Similarly, Sima Qian’s words on the Han’s rights to “launch punitive expeditions” (zhengfa) against the Xiongnu is reminiscent of Confucius’ idea that the legitimate ruler of tianxia reserves the right to launch punitive wars.[21] As Sima Qian effectively incorporates the world into the Chinese ideological domain of tianxia, the Han ruler is then presented as the ultimate order preserver of the world.[22]


Reflecting on the Imperial Reality

        Sima Qian lived in an age where Emperor Wen’s appeasement policy (heqin) was just abolished. Emperor Wu adopted a more aggressive stance, actively sending the army outside the border in attempt to vanquish the Xiongnu. By the time Sima Qian wrote the Shiji, the war with the Xiongnu had already exhausted the financial and demographic reserves of the Han.[23] This is particularly clear in Zhufu Yan’s advice to Emperor Wu in Sima Qian’s “Biographies of the Marquis of Pinjin and Zhufu Yan”, which describes the emperor’s Xiongnu policy as an erroneous one.[24] We may notice that Zhufu Yan did not talk about the morality of waging war, but rather its potential damage to the Han rule. Therefore, the problem was not about the Han righteousness, but rather capability of military expansion.        

        Under this circumstance, the question Sima Qian presents therefore becomes “should they be civilised”. The most interesting part of Xiongnu account is arguably the conversation between the Han envoy to the Xiongnu and Zhonghang Yue, a Han defector. With a sense of superiority, the former mocked the Xiongnu people on their savage living style. Zhonghang Yue refuted the envoy by illustrating the reasons behind Xiongnu customs, then sneered at the Han practices for their inefficiency and hypocrisy. The conversation ends with Zhonghang Yue’s triumph. Moreover, Zhanghang Yue suggested the Chanyu not to value the Han goods but those Xiongnu ones and advised him to write to the Han emperor in an extravagant manner: he utterly denied Han superiority in cultural and moral as well as material and ideological aspects [25]. Surprisingly, the defector receives no criticism from Sima Qian: instead, Zhonghang Yue is depicted as an eloquent advisor who successfully embarrasses the arrogant and biased Han envoy. A sense of cultural relativism hence appears.[26]   

        According to Zhufu Yan, the Xiongnu are not worth to be civilised due to their “inborn nature” (tianxing).[27] The same word reappears in Sima Qian’s comments on the Xiongnu.[28] This view contrasts sharply with the Confucian idea that people are in nature (xing) the same and thus all civilisable. Combining this view with Zhonghang Yue’s words, seemingly Sima Qian believes that the Xiongnu should not be annexed into the Han Empire at all. Mittag and Mutschler attribute this to the Grand Historian’s anti-war ideas and focus on civil administration, as opposed to Tacitus’ aspiration to martial glory.[29] Yet one should not oversimplify Sima Qian as a peace-loving civil official either. His “Treatise of Bells”, another chapter in the Shiji, attests his attitude to military campaigns. Warfare in Sima Qian’s opinion is a means for sage rulers to overthrow tyranny, pacify the turbulent world, suppress rebellions and rescue people from suffering.[30] By the time of Emperor Wu, the Xiongnu had repeatedly breached peaceful treaty and raided the Han frontier, causing great suffering to civilians, then why should not Emperor Wu use warfare to “rescue his people from suffering”?[31] Nor does Sima Qian think civil administration is more important than military activities: “without military forces the state would not be strong; without virtuous rule the state would not be prosperous”: basically it emphasises the equal significance of civil administration and marital achievements.[32]

        Like Zhufu Yan, Sima Qian is concerning about the damage continuous expedition could bring to the sustainability of the Han rule: “…the pacification of tianxia is impossible without punitive wars. The problem is then only about the way they are carried out.”[33] Emperor Wu’s successive campaigns had not received decisive success by the time of Sima Qian, yet the resources consumed to support the warfare were appalling: it is certainly not “the right way”. Sima Qian eventually turns to “us” for reflection. The ending remark of his Xiongnu account is rather explicit in criticising the generals and court officials who blindly advocated military expansion without considering the practicability of subduing the Xiongnu.[34] It is hence better to consider Sima Qian as both an idealist and a realist when approaching his imperial mentality. As an idealist, he firmly supports Han’s imperial legitimacy to rule over tianxia, whereas as a realist, such ideal is too costly to achieve and therefore not worth promoting. What we see in Sima Qian’s attitude to the Xiongnu problem is then a struggle between these conflicting thoughts.



        We can observe several points in Sima Qian’s attitudes toward imperialism through his ethnographical writing. First, the Xiongnu as a perceptual ethno-cultural entity for Sima Qian is a societal creation: the term “Xiongnu” was more of a political one, unable to carry much of an ethnical or unified cultural meaning. Yet by the time of Sima Qian, the Han Chinese still imagined the Xiongnu as a collective ethnic group with a completely different way of living. This was due largely to contemporary political need to distinguish civilised “us” from uncivilised “them”, and economic needs to trade with the outside world. For Sima Qian, writing in and inevitably influenced by such historical contexts, the concept of ‘barbarian’ therefore appeared more in imperial imagination than in the cultures of the remote north.

        Second, by writing about others, Sima Qian reflected upon his own side. The Xiongnu problem presented in his account serves to urges Emperor Wu and some other courtiers to reconsider their hard-line policy. It was exactly the existence of “them” that spurred the Grand Historian to question “us” by questioning the costs of war.

        Finally, Sima Qian’s attitude toward imperialism was far more complex than what a single word like “imperialist” or “anti-war” would otherwise suggest. Indeed, Sima Qian conveyed an imperial loyalty heavily influenced by the traditional Chinese tianxia ideology of a unified world rule. However, he was deeply disappointed by contemporary situation. Sima Qian’s other writings show that he was not as against war and expedition as scholars like Mutschler and Mittag suggest, yet the appalling cost of fighting the Xiongnu was still not to be ignored: to ensure the prosperity of the Han Empire, Sima Qian chose to speak against the imperial agenda of Emperor Wu.

        A history student is often compelled to answer questions like “Was Sima Qian an imperialist or not?” While such questions encourage students to take a strong stance, a danger may lurk in oversimplification. As a result, we might see inflexible labels attached to historical figures without discovering a more nuanced layer of attitude underneath. Therefore, this thesis aims to not only discuss a topic of ancient history, but also to provide an alternative methodology, to not presume an absolute stance when exploring a historical figure’s opinion.



Primary Sources

  1. Ban Gu 班固, Hanshu 汉书 12 vols., ed. Yan Shigu 颜师古, Zhonghua, 1962
  2. Confucius, Lunyu 论语, ed. Zhang Yanying 张燕婴, Zhonghua, 2006
  3. Confucius, The Analects, tr. D. C. Lau, Hong Kong Chinese University Press, 1992
  4. Huan Kuan 桓宽, Yantie Lun 盐铁论, ed. Wang Liqi 王利器, Zhonghua, 1992
  5. Jia Yi 贾谊, Xinshu Jiaozhu 新书校注, ed. Yan Zhenyi 阎振益and Zhong Xia 钟夏, Zhonghua, 2000
  6. The Shu King, or, The Chinese Historical Classic: Being an Authentic Record of the Religion, Philosophy, Customs and Government of the Chinese from the Earliest Times, tr. Sepharial, The Theosophical Publishing Society, 1904
  7. Shangshu 尚书, ed. Wang Shishun 王世舜, Zhonghua, 2011
  8. Sima Qian, Records of the grand historian of China 2 vols., tr. B. Watson, Columbia University Press, 1971
  9. Sima Qian 司马迁, Shiji 史记 9 vols., ed. Han Zhaoqi 韩兆琦, Zhonghua, 2010
  10. Shijing 诗经 2 vols., ed. Liu Yuqing 刘毓庆and Li Qi 李蹊, Zhonghua, 2011

Secondary Sources

  1. Brindley, E., “Barbarians or Not? Ethnicity and Changing Conceptions of the Ancient Yue (Viet) Peoples, ca. 400-50 BC”, Asia Major 16 No.1, 2003
  2. Chin, T. T., “Defamiliarizing the Foreigner: Sima Qian’s Ethnography and Han-Xiongnu Marriage Diplomacy”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies Vol. 70 No. 2, 2010
  3. Di Cosmo, N., Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History, Cambridge University Press, 2002
  4. Di Cosmo, N., “Ancient Inner Asian Nomads: Their Economic Basis and Its Significance in Chinese History”, The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 53 No. 4, 1994
  5. Goldin, P. R., “Steppe Nomads as a Philosophical Problem in Classical China”, in P. L. F. Sabloff (eds.), Mapping Mongolia: Situating Mongolia in the World from Geologic Time to the Present, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Publications, 2011
  6. Miller, B. K., “Xiongnu ‘Kings’ and the Political Order of the Steppe Empire”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 57 No. 1, 2014
  7. Mittag, A., “Forging Legacy: The Pact between Empire and Historiography in Ancient China”, Conceiving the Empire: China and Rome Compared, Oxford University Press, 2008
  8. Nienhauser, W. H., “Sima Qian and the Shiji”, in A. Feldherr and G. Hardy (eds.), The Oxford History of Historical Writing: Volume 1: Beginnings to AD 600, Oxford University Press, 2015
  9. Pines, Y., “Imagining the Empire: Concepts of ‘Primeval Unity’ in Pre-Imperial Historiographic History”, Conceiving the Empire: China and Rome Compared, Oxford University Press, 2008
  10. Stuurman, S., “Herodotus and Sima Qian: History and the Anthropological Turn in Ancient Greece and Han China”, Journal of World History Vol. 19 No. 1, 2008
  11. Watson, B., Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Grand Historian of China, Columbia University Press, 1958

[1] Shiji 110: 6529

[2] Ibid. 110: 6554

[3] Ibid. 110: 6561: “Even if you (Modu Chanyu) gained possession of the Han lands, you could never occupy them.” Also 6567: “If we (the Han) were to seize the Xiongnu lands, they are all swamp and saline wastes, not fit for habitation.”

[4] Ibid. 110: 6539, 6559

[5] Di Cosmo, Ancient China and its Enemies, p. 221; also see B. K. Miller, “Xiongnu ‘Kings’ and the Political Order of the Steppe Empire”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 57 No. 1, 2014, pp. 1-43 for a discussion of Xiongnu local elites’ political agency.

[6] Jia Yi 贾谊, Xinshu Jiaozhu 新书校注, ed. Yan Zhenyi 阎振益 and Zhong Xia 钟夏 (Beijing 2000), pp. 136-138; Ban Gu 班固, Hanshu 汉书, ed. Yan Shigu 颜师古 (12 vols, Beiijing, 1962), xi, p. 3804; ibid., p. 22.

[7] Miller, “Xiongnu ‘Kings’”, p. 25

[8]Shiji, 110: 6561; N. Di Cosmo, “Ancient Inner Asian Nomads: Their Economic Basis and Its Significance in Chinese History”, The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 53 No. 4, 1994, pp. 1092-1126

[9] P. R. Goldin, ‘Steppe Nomads as a Philosophical Problem in Classical China’, in P. L. F. Sabloff (eds.), Mapping Mongolia: Situating Mongolia in the World from Geologic Time to the Present (Philadelphia, 2011), p. 234-235

[10] Huan Kuan 桓宽, Yantielun Jiaozhu (Dingben) 盐铁论校注 (定本), ed. Wang Liqi 王利器 (Beijing 1992), p. 190. Interestingly, it also informs us that Emperor Wu’s stable was full of precious horses, the names of which were both mentioned in the “Account of the Xiongnu” (Yantielun, p. 28; Shiji, 110: 6529); H. G. Creel, “The Role of the Horse in Chinese History”, The American Historical Review Vol. 70 No. 3, 1965, pp. 657, 666.

[11] Although there had not been an empire in Chinese history before the Qin Dynasty, such thought was still very much imperial in nature, and indeed heavily influenced later Chinese empires’ imperial thinking from the Han to the Qing (16441911 AD) Dynasty.

[12] Shangshu 尚书, ed. Mu Ping 慕平 (Beijing, 2011), p. 216, 218, 219: “your (the Son of Heaven’s) diligence is set forth to the four quarters of the world”, “you would centralise the government (here in Luo), the numerous States would all share in the blessing, and your Majesty would have completed your merit”

[13] Shijing Yizhu 诗经译注, ed. Zhou Zhenfu 周振甫, (Beijing, 2002), p. 335

[14] Y. Pines, ‘Imagining the Empire: Concepts of “Primeval Unity” in Pre-Imperial Historiographic History’, in F. Mutschler and A. Mittag (eds.), Conceiving the Empire: China and Rome Compared (Oxford 2008), p. 70

[15] Lunyu 14. 18; Goldin, “Steppe Nomads”, pp. 222-223

[16] Examples of Confucius’ “all civilisable” claim can be seen in Lunyu 17. 2 and 9.14; Pines, “Imagining the Empire”, p. 78

[17] It is unconvincing to call Sima Qian a Confucianist, yet he highly recognises Confucian philosophy. See his “Hereditary House of Confucius”, especially its ending remark in Shiji 47: 3845

[18] Ibid. 130: 7658; Watson, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, p. 50. Also, in Shiji 10: 1048 the ending remark of the “Basic Annals of Emperor Wen the Filial”, Sima Qian’s praise to the late emperor is apparently based on the Confucian model of sage king.

[19] Ibid. 130: 7668; Watson, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, pp. 50-51. Though we are not sure which emperor was Sima Qian referring to here. It could be Emperor Wen, given the fact that Sima Qian speaks highly of him in “The Basic Annals of Emperor Wen the Filial”, taking him as an ideal ruler, yet “the time of our enlightened emperor” infers Emperor Wu. However, Sima Qian does not seem to approve Emperor Wu’s rule and expansionist policy. It might be a rhetorical expression here to veil his true opinion. See Shiji 10: 979-1077 for Sima Qian’s comments on Emperor Wen.

[20] Shiji 110: 6529: “The ancestor of the Xiongnu was a descendant of the rulers of the Xia Dynasty by the name of Chunwei”; T. T. Chin, “Defamiliarizing the Foreigner: Sima Qian’s Ethnography and Han-Xiongnu Marriage Diplomacy”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies Vol. 70 No. 2, 2010, p. 326; Di Cosmo, Ancient China and its Enemies, pp. 297-304.

[21] Shiji 130: 7739, comparing to Lunyu, 16. 2: “When right prevails below Heaven, courtesy, music and punitive wars flow from the Son of Heaven.”

[22] The universal nature of Shiji is observable in Sima Qian’s attempt to letter in reply to his friend Ren An. See Watson, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, p. 66, also A. Mittag, ‘Forging Legacy: The Pact between Empire and Historiography in Ancient China’, Conceiving the Empire, p. 145

[23] S. Stuurman, ‘Herodotus and Sima Qian: History and the Anthropological Turn in Ancient Greece and Han China’, Journal of World History, vol. 19 no. 1 (2008), p. 27

[24] Shiji 112: 6740: “(the war against the Xiongnu) empties the treasuries and arsenals and exhausts the strength of the common people”.

[25] Ibid. 110: 6572-6577

[26] Chin, “Defamiliarizing the Foreigner”, p. 333; Stuurman, “Herodotus and Sima Qian”, p. 13

[27] Shiji 112: 6740

[28] Ibid. 110: 6529; Goldin, “Steppe Nomads”, p. 228; Stuurman, “Herodotus and Sima Qian”, p. 29

[29] F. Mutschler, ‘The Problem of “Imperial Historiography” in Rome’, Conceiving the Empire, pp. 126-130; Mittag, ‘Forging Legacy’, pp. 147-148

[30] Shiji 25: 1980

[31] Ibid. 110: 6563-6587 records numerous Xiongnu raids of the Han frontier.

[32] Ibid. 130: 7688

[33] Ibid. 25: 1982. It further reveals that Sima Qian was not stubbornly anti-war.

[34] Ibid. 110: 6632