Sima Qian (145 or 135 B. C~90 B. C.), whose courtesy name was Zichang, was a native of Xiayang (now Hancheng, Shaanxi Province).
His father Sima Tan served as Taishiling, an official managing the imperial library and calendar. Sima Qian later succeeded his father's work and started compiling Shiji(Or Records of the Historian).
Unfortunately, Sima Qian was involved in the Li Ling Affair which offended the emperor, who sentenced him to castration.
Released from the prison, he was appointed Zhongshuling, the imperial secretary-general and was determined to complete his great work.
Shiji is an overview of Chinese history covering events from Huang Di to Emperor Wudi in the Han Dynasty, consisting of 130 chapters with more than 520,000 Chinese characters. These 130 chapters are further divided into five parts: eight Basic Annals, ten Chronological Tables, 12 Treatises, 30 Hereditary Houses, and 70 Biographies.
For Sima Qian, to compile such a book was to “investigate the interrelationship between the human and the universe, to generalize the rules of historical evolution and to formulate a unique historical view".
He believed the mandate of Heaven and admitted that it is God's will that contributes to major historical changes.
He held a progressive, evolutionary historical view and was against separation of a country. He upheld the principle of running a country with moral standards and objected to tyranny. He also argued that the monarch should govern through non-action and follow the practice of the common people.
In Shiji, Sima Qian attempted to develop a candid style to record historical events without flamboyant ornaments. In recounting historical events, he often added his own comments by using a unique style introduced by “The Taishigong says that. . .”
Historical figures and events were systematically depicted in different places so that they could be evaluated from different angles. For the first time in Chinese historical writings, Sima Qian focused on the portrayal of historical characters.
His skillful writing techniques made these characters more vibrant and realistic. In presenting historical facts, the author infused emotional descriptions, expressing his intense love and hate.
Shiji is not only a masterpiece about history; it is also a great literary work. Lu Xun, regarded this book as “the first and last great work ever written by a historian; it is Qu Yuan's Li Sao without rhyme.” Sima Qian was a cultural giant in the Chinese history of historical studies, literature and philosophy.