B. 145 B.C.E., d. after 86 B.C.E. Active in the reign of Emperor Wu
of the Han dynasty
. The author of the Shiji
of the Historian
, China's greatest historical work. Also spelled Symaa Chian, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Si1-ma3 Qian1, etc. Sima is his surname.
In a letter appended to Sima Qian’s biography in Han shu, he describes how, as an inexperienced court official, he allowed his career to be overtaken by slander, culminating in the punishment of castration. A man of his rank was expected to commit suicide rather than undergo a humiliating punishment, yet Sima chose to live in disgrace, so as to complete his history. This letter is one of the greatest prose masterworks in all of Classical Chinese, and something which no reading, thinking person should die without having read. It is, unfortunately, too long to fit easily into E2’s current node structure, but I can make a copy available to the interested reader. As to the central facts of Sima Qian’s life - his crime, his punishment, and his response to them - it is best to let him set these out in his own words. But let the reader consider how drawn Sima Qian seems to be to other people who chose to survive some great dishonor in order to keep open the option of restoring their good names - Li Ling in this letter, the strategist Li Si, the assassin Jing Ke, and many others.