Sima Guang

Sima Guang.jpg
Xìng 姓: Sīmǎ 司馬
Míng 名: Guāng 光
Zì 字: Jūnshí 君實
Hào 號: Yúsǒu 迂叟¹
aka: Sùshuǐ Xiānsheng
Shì 謚: Wénzhèng 文正³
title: Wēnguógōng 溫國公⁴
1. late in his life
2. after his hometown Sùshuǐ 涑水
3. hence referred to as Sīmǎ
4. hence referred to as Sīmǎ Wēngōng
- For instance, his collection of works
is entitled

Sīmǎ Guāng (Chinese: 司馬光/司马光; Wade-Giles: Ssu-ma Kuang) (1019 – 1086) was a Chinese historian, scholar, poet, and high chancellor of the Song Dynasty. He compiled the monumental Zizhi Tongjian (Tzu-chih t'ung-chien; “Comprehensive Mirror”). Sima Guang studied the Confucian Classics and, after passing his civil-service examinations, rose rapidly to high office. In 1064 and 1066, Sima presented the Emperor Yingzong of Song with prototypes for an innovative historical project, a universal history of China emulating the Spring and Autumn Annals edited by Confucius. The Emperor gave his full support to the project, support that was continued by his son, Emperor Shenzong. The work was completed in 1084. It contains 294 volumes (巻) and about three million words (or Chinese characters), and chronologically narrates the history of China from the Warring States period in 403 B.C.E. to the beginning of the Song Dynasty in 959 C.E. It changed the style of history-writing in China from a biographical to a chronological one, and profoundly impacted all subsequent histories.


Sima Guang was a conservative Confucianist who favored traditional ways. Throughout his career as a government administrator, he was at odds with the reformer Wang Anshi, and was highly critical of his efforts to bring about drastic change.

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Background: History in China

In ancient China, history was considered a very important subject for government administrators to study because of its didactic function. Starting from the Tang Dynasty (608-906), dynastic histories were compiled by state-appointed historians, who were usually commissioned to write histories of the previous dynasty, both so that the present dynasty's rulers could learn from the past and avoid the mistakes that had brought about its fall, and to legitimize the present dynasty’s dominance. Occasionally historians were also asked to compile histories of their own dynasties before the present ruler. Confucius himself supposedly edited the Spring and Autumn Annals, a history of the contemporary state of Lu, in order to demonstrate, through history, how success or failure to adhere to the ancient ways would bring prosperity or ruin to a country. The edition of the Spring and Autumn Annals, by Zuo Qiuming, was one of the Five Classics. The interest in history during the Song Dynasty was not confined to official historians, but was common to all Confucian scholars. Sima Guang, prime minister after Wang Anshi and a Confucian scholar, edited one of the greatest imperial histories in Chinese history, called the Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance.[1]

Life, Profession, and Works

Sima Guang was born in 1019 in present-day Yuncheng, Shanxi, to a wealthy family, and obtained early success as a scholar and officer. When he was barely twenty, he passed the Imperial examination with the highest rank of jìnshì (進士 "quasi-doctoral degree"), and spent the next several years in official positions.

In 1064, Sima presented to Emperor Yingzong of Song a book of five volumes (巻), the Liniantu (歷年圖 "Chart of Successive Years"). It chronologically summarized events in Chinese history from 403 B.C.E. to 959 C.E., and was something like a prospectus for sponsorship of his ambitious project in historiography. These dates were chosen because 403 B.C.E. was the beginning of the Warring States period, when the ancient State of Jin was subdivided, which eventually led to the establishment of the Qin Dynasty; and because 959 C.E. was the end of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period and the beginning of the Song Dynasty.

In 1066, he presented a more detailed eight-volume Tongzhi (通志; "Comprehensive Records"), which chronicled Chinese history from 403 B.C.E. to 207 B.C.E. (the end of the Qin Dynasty). The emperor issued an edict commanding the compilation of a groundbreaking universal history of China, granting Sima Guang full access to the imperial libraries, and allocating funds for all the costs of compilation, including research assistance by experienced historians such as Liu Ban (劉攽, 1022-88), Liu Shu (劉恕, 1032-78), and Fan Zuyu (范祖禹, 1041-98). After Yingzong died in 1067, Sima was invited to the palace to introduce his work in progress to Emperor Shenzong of Song. The new emperor not only confirmed the interest his father had shown, but proclaimed his favor by changing the title from Tungzhi ("Comprehensive Records") to the honorific Zizhi Tongjian ("Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government"). Scholars interpret this titular "Mirror" to mean a work of reference and guidance; indicating that Shenzong accepted Sima as his mentor in the science of history and its application to government. The emperor maintained his support for compiling this comprehensive history for decades, until it was completed in 1084.

Such loyalty is notable, especially since Sima was a leader of the conservative faction at court, resolutely opposed to the reformist policies of Chancellor Wang Anshi. Sima presented increasingly critical memorials to the throne until 1070, when he refused further appointment and withdrew from court. In 1071, he took up residence in Luoyang, where he remained with an official sinecure, providing sufficient time and resources to continue compilation. Indeed, though the historian and the emperor continued to disagree on policies, Sima's enforced retirement proved essential for him to fully complete his chronological history.

Sima Guang was also a lexicographer (who perhaps edited the Jiyun), and spent decades compiling his 1066 Leipian (類篇; "Classified Chapters," cf. the Yupian) dictionary. It was based on the Shuowen Jiezi, and included 31,319 Chinese characters, many of which were coined in the Song and Tang Dynasty.

Sima Guang is best remembered for his Zizhi Tongjian masterwork, and Rafe de Crespigny describes him as "perhaps the greatest of all Chinese historians." Modern Chinese children's books portray him as a heroic child who saved a playmate from drowning by breaking the water tank into which his friend had fallen.

The Zizhi Tongjian

Zizhi Tongjian (Traditional Chinese: 資治通鑒; Simplified Chinese: 资治通鉴; pinyin: Zīzhì Tōngjiàn; Wade-Giles: Tzu-chih T'ung-chien; literally "Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government") was a pioneering reference work in Chinese historiography. It was presented to Emperor Shenzong of Song in 1084. It contains 294 volumes (巻) and about three million words (or Chinese characters).

The book chronologically narrates the history of China from the Warring States period in 403 B.C.E. to the beginning of the Song Dynasty in 959 C.E. The major contributor to this work was Sima Guang, from the collection of previously documented events and dates from the Twenty-Four Histories, to drafting and publication.

It changed a tradition dating back almost 1,000 years to the Shiji; standard Chinese dynastic histories (collectively the Twenty-Four Histories) primarily divided chapters between annals (紀) of rulers and biographies (傳) of officials. In Chinese tradition, the book changed the format of histories from biographical style (紀傳體) to chronological style (編年體), which is better suited for analysis and criticism. According to Wilkinson, "It had an enormous influence on later Chinese historical writing, either directly or through its many abbreviations, continuations, and adaptations. It remains an extraordinarily useful first reference for a quick and reliable coverage of events at a particular time."[2] Zizhi Tongjian is considered one of the finest single historical works in Chinese. Sima evaluated men and institutions from the standpoint of Confucian moral principles. Most of his work concerned political events, but it also covered such diverse subjects as rites, music, astronomy, geography, and economy. Though Sima wrote from a Confucian moral perspective, he applied rigorous academic standards to his research, even compiling a separate work, the Kao-i (“Scrutiny”), to explain the discrepancies in his numerous sources and give his reasons for preferring certain authorities over others.

Sima Guang and Wang Anshi

Wang Anshi (Chinese: 王安石; Wade-Giles: Wang An-shih, Pinyin: Wáng Ānshí) (1021 – May 21, 1086)[3] was a Chinese economist, statesman, chancellor and poet of the Song Dynasty who attempted some controversial, major socioeconomic reforms. These reforms constituted the core concepts and motives of the Reformists. Between 1069 and 1085, Sima Guang opposed these reforms, and led the Conservative faction against them. Sima argued for the cause of good government through moral leadership, rather than by assertive measures; and gradual reform through the improvement of well-established institutions, rather than by making drastic changes. In front of the court, and in correspondence with Wang Anshi, Sima Guang argued that the government should cut unnecessary expenditures and lower taxes, while Wang claimed that there were ample resources if the government knew how to generate wealth. Sima Guang replied “rich resources […] for the government must have been extracted from the people.” He concluded that this kind of economic pressure caused the people to rebel and sink into banditry. Wang Anshi claimed that the government was rewarding officials less generously now than in the past, and Sima Guang responded that the officials of the past had been much more deserving.

Emperor Shenzong favored Wang Anshi’s policies. Sima Guang wrote to Wang emphasizing the influence he had over the Emperor and urging him to change his assertive ways. Wang countered he could not accept Sima’s policy of “doing nothing at all and simply preserving the old ways.” Shortly before his death, Sima finally became the leading minister in a government that attempted to repeal most of Wang's reforms. Until recently, historians tended to view Sima favorably and criticize Wang, but recent historical work has shown that Sima’s program of antireform measures was not overly successful.

See also


  1. The Song Confucians' view of history Retrieved December 20, 2007.
  2. Wilkinson 2000, 499.
  3. Sixth day of the fourth month of Yuanyou 1 (元祐元年四月六日), which corresponds to May 21, 1086, in the Julian calendar.


  • "Stamps of New China: Sima Guang Breaks the Vat." China Today. 53(8) (2004): 82.
  • Bo Yang. Modern Chinese Edition of Zizhi Tongjian. Taipei: Yuan-Liou Publishing Co. Ltd. vol. 1 ISBN 9573207958 to vol. 72 ISBN 9573218100.
  • De Crespigny, Rafe. "Universal Histories," in Essays on the Sources for Chinese History. Donald D. Leslie, Colin Mackerras, Wang Gungwu (eds.). Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973, pp. 64-70.
  • Ji xiao-bin. "Mirror for Government: Ssu-ma Kuang's Thought on Politics and Government in Tzu-chih t'ung-chien," in The New and the Multiple. Thomas H.C. Lee (ed.). Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2003, pp. 1-32.
  • Ji xiao-bin. Politics and Conservatism in Northern Song China: The Career and Thought of Sima Guang (1019-1086). Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2005. ISBN 9629961830
  • Partington, James Riddick. A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder. Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons Ltd., 1960.
  • Pulleyblank, Edwin G. "Chinese Historical Criticism: Liu Chih-chi and Ssu-ma Kuang" in Historians of China and Japan. William G. Beasley and Edwin G. Pulleyblank (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961, pp. 135-66.
  • Sima, Guang, and Rafe De Crespigny. The last of the Han; being the chronicle of the years 181-220 C.E. as recorded in chapters 58-68 of the Tzu-chih Tʼung-chien of Ssu-ma Kuang. Canberra: Centre of Oriental Studies, Australian National University, 1969. ISBN 0708101631 ISBN 9780708101636
  • Ssu-ma, Kuang, and Rafe De Crespigny. Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling being the chronicle of Later Han for the years 157 to 189 C.E. as recorded in chapters 54 to 59 of the Zizhi tongjian of Sima Guang. Volume two, Notes. Faculty of Asian studies monographs, new ser., no. 12. Canberra, Australia: Faculty of Asian Studies, Australia National University, 1989. ISBN 0731506553 ISBN 978-0731506552 ISBN 0731506588 ISBN 978-0731506583
  • Wilkinson, Endymion. Chinese History: A Manual. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2000. ISBN 0674002490


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