Sima Qian and His Quixotes

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard opens in the final days of the Italian monarchy. A prince makes an empty pledge of allegiance to an impotent monarch, and imagines a well-trodden conversation with one of his royalist relatives:

Malvica would reply: “One particular sovereign may not be up to it, yet the idea of monarchy is still the same.”

That was true too; but kings who personify an idea should not, cannot, fall below a certain level for generations; if they do, my dear brother-in-law, the idea suffers too.

Malvica’s rhetoric may be familiar to readers of Julius Evola. But what of the prince’s response? What is to be done when the principle has failed to deliver for decades on end, and a generation has been raised knowing nothing but its failure?

Take the Zhou dynasty in ancient China. By 500 BC, the Zhou kings had grown so weak that they garnered no respect from their “client” kings. Eventually they were replaced. But the defenders of the principle continued against all odds to claim that Zhou was the rightful son of Heaven. Imagine how foolish this must have sounded! You who go around proclaiming on the Internet that democracies are illegitimate because they have no divine consecration, perhaps the medium of text consoles you: it makes your words look more logical and permanent, removes the emotional sounds of your voice. Can you imagine what it would take to go around walk through Washington, DC denouncing its disloyalty to the Crown? How about quitting your job and doing it for a living?

As the warlords continued their petty squabbles, seizing the common goods for themselves and depriving the people of their basic needs, more and more literate men saw no reason to get preachy about lost causes. They dropped out of the noble courts, changed their names, and became farmers in the fields, swapping aphorisms with each other such as “The name that can be named is not the true name.” In the courts, a bemused fatalism seemed to set in. It was an age about which someone might have indeed said that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

One day a Don Quixote appeared, wandering from kingdom to kingdom, offering to assist all the warlords in governing the state and performing the rituals correctly, but rebuking them, absurdly, for their disloyalty to the powerless Zhou. He never had stable employment and sometimes went days without food, but followers gathered around him. He possibly wrote down no words by himself, but in the generations after his death, books and sayings became attributed to him. He is remembered, for some reason, as China’s greatest hero.

A few centuries later, after the final destruction of the Zhou and decades of hardships and death, Confucius was finally given a biography for the first time. It was rough going for the biographer, Sima Qian, as he had no primary sources at all besides the Analects and some rather dubious sayings about Confucius by Mencius. But Sima Qian saw something brilliant in the Spring and Autumn Annals, which he believed to be full of Confucius’s own critiques of illegitimate seizures of power. He wrote of the book:

Its language is concise, its content profound. Though the rulers of Wu and Chu had styled themselves kings, the Spring and Autumn criticizes them by calling them barons. Although the duke of Qin actually summoned the king of Zhou to a meeting at Jiàntŭ, the Spring and Autumn records that ‘the Great King went to hunt at Héyáng’! These examples can be used as criteria in any age to criticize or condemn men’s actions, and later princes should uphold this tradition and broaden its applications. [after Yang and Yang 1979, p. 25]

In his biography of Sima Qian, Li Changzhi [1988:78] sees Sima Qian’s description of Confucius as a mirror for the historian’s own attitude towards the unfortunate subjects of his biographies.

It is as if Sima Qian’s spirit is coming forth from the page when he reads Confucius between the lines. He voluntarily adopts the words of Confucius, and weaponizes them, mastering their depth and breadth.

Sima Qian borrows all of his attitude towards injustice from Confucius. But Confucius had something in spades that Sima Qian cannot find anywhere he looks: hope. It was that boundless personal energy, faith in Tian and in the universe, that drove Confucius onward towards justice. Sima Qian had that faith and courage robbed from him. In his famous letter to Ren An, he bemoans his castration at the hands of an arbitrary emperor after he tried to speak out in defense of a good man. He proclaims that he will devote his life to completing his history, and speaks of the conviction that keeps people writing in devastating tone:

When Xibo, the Earl of the West, was imprisoned at Youli, he expanded the I Ching. Confucius was in distress when he made the Spring and Autumn Annals. Qu Yuan was banished and he composed his poem “Encountering Sorrow.” After Zuo Qiu lost his sight, he wrote the Conversations from the States. When Sun Tzu had his feet amputated in punishment, he set forth the Art of War. Lü Buwei was banished to Shu but his Spring and Autumn of Mr. Lü has been handed down through the ages. While Han Fei Zi was held prisoner in Qin he wrote “The Difficulties of Disputation” and “The Sorrow of Standing Alone.” Most of the three hundred poems of the Odes were written when the sages poured out their anger and dissatisfaction. All these men had a rankling in their hearts, for they were not able to accomplish what they wished. Those like Zuo Qiu, who was blind, or Sun Tzu, who had no feet, could never hold office, so they retired to compose books in order to set forth their thoughts and indignation, handing down their writings so they could show posterity who they were.

I too have ventured not to be modest but have entrusted myself to my useless writings. I have gathered up and brought together the old traditions of the world that were scattered and lost. I have examined events of the past and investigated the principles behind their success and failure, their rise and decay, in 130 chapters. I wished to examine into all that concerns heaven and humankind, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, putting forth my views as one school of interpretation. […] When I have truly completed this work, I will deposit it in the Famous Mountain archives. If it may be handed down to those who will appreciate it and penetrate to the villages and great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret would I have?

This must stand alongside the world’s greatest critiques of writing. Writing, says Sima Qian, is just an elaborate way to tell the world about your indignation. Writing is a therapeutic behavior which you must resort to because you have been wronged or defeated. These are the bitter words of a man whose romantic belief in standing up for goodness and justice was viscerally mutilated by reality.

Sima Qian confides to Ren An that “such matters as these may be discussed with a wise man, but it is difficult to explain them to ordinary people.” The life of the mind is defined by knowing other people write from a state of discontent, not only with local injustices, but with the human condition itself. Those who have never known such deep discontent make poor conversation partners. Conversely, those who have come to peace with the human condition have no need to defend their views in public. This is the meaning of the Tao Te Ching’s verse, “Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know.”

Confucius stood outside the corruption of society, harnessed the knowledge of the mean, and tilted at windmills totally secure in his ability to do good. Sima Qian stood outside the corruption of society and fell into despair. Like the Greek historians, Thucydides, Herodotus, Xenophon and Polybius, all of whom grumbled about how stupid their home cities were to exile them, Sima Qian writes with a glowing grudge. But unlike the Greeks, he recognizes that his grudge does not end with the people who punished him.

He called himself Tàishǐgōng, “the Grand Historian.” He gave his book the name Tàishǐgōng’s Documents, and he concludes every chapter with the statement, “Tàishǐgōng speaks.” But his official title was not Tàishǐgōng but Tàishǐlìng. The word “gōng” was a loanword from Chu: Li Changzhi writes that this was one of many aspects of Chu language, poetry, and customs that flourished at the highest levels of Han courtly life. [17-18] In effect, Sima Qian was emphasizing Chu’s cultural superiority to Han, and bemoaning its political loss.

Sima Qian is a man who has lost his manhood, his country, and his hope for goodness in the world. His grudge is against humanity itself, and he knows it: he never once tacks on a lying moral about how things could be better if a certain way of thought had been avoided, nor does he try to convince us that good men are rewarded and evildoers are punished. Li Changzhi writes:

Because Confucius knew not to put his trust in reality, did not waver in his claims, and sought an ideal within himself, he was able to achieve tranquility. That was not so for Sima Qian. With his inability to put trust in reality, he had to take up a stance of opposition to it. But even as he did so, unable to achieve tranquility, he tossed it out with indignation and lyricism. [89]

Why, and how, lyricism? Han was a somewhat pragmatic, realist nation. It stressed the importance of the “square and rule” and desired that its literary ideals be for practical effect. Chu, in contrast, was Impressionist. It was famous for his music. Its poet in the Songs of Chu described a grove of orange trees as “blues and yellows flowing into each other.” Sima Qian’s Chu was vanishing, and he himself was no mystic. He may have been a poet, but he ridiculed fiction and had an obsession for naturalistic facts. If he was going to preserve the memory of his vanishing country, it would not be through inventing stories about its heroism, but by manifesting the deepest and most beautiful principles of Chu into the style and method of his history.

So Sima Qian tells us of the founder of the Han, not as a hero or villain, but as an emotionally expressive man who loved his friends and his hometown. He tells us of the last dictator of Chu and how he sang a song to his horse as he fled alone to his last stand. He berates the emperor of his day as a superstitious fool, but also makes us empathize as the emperor searches endlessly for the supernatural in a disenchanted world. Nothing can escape his raw naturalism, but at the same time everything is illuminated in the pathos of a dying Chu romanticism.

Sima Qian does not write to plea with his readers to make the world different from what it is. Instead, he slyly suggests to the reader: History makes no promises that your pain in the service of the good will be rewarded, but those Quixotes who stuck to their principles through the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” became, in the end, our heroes. So too was he, in his personal commitments and in becoming a voice for his country and his people, a Quixote. I give the last word to him, through Burton Watson [after 1958:156]:

At the end of his biography of Fàn Jū and Cài Zé, he points out that luck and the right opportunities have a great deal to do with success. “But,” he concludes, “if these two men had not known suffering and hardship, how could they have risen to such heights?”

Li Changzhi, 1988 (original 1956). Sima Qian. Tokyo: Tokuma Bunko.
Tomasi di Lampedusa, Giuseppe, 1960 (original 1958). The Leopard. London: Collins.
Watson, Burton. 1958. Ssu-ma Chi’en: Grand Historian Of China. New York: Columbia University Press.
————— (tr.) 1961. Records of the Grand Historian of China. New York: Columbia University Press.
Yang Hsienyi and Gladys Yang (trs.) 1974. Selections from Records of the Historian. Hong Kong: Commercial Press.

Posted: January 27th, 2017 | Confucius