The Castration of Sima Qian
The Grand Historian's brutal fate made way for his greatest gift to posterity.
Sima Qian (145–86 BC) is considered the foremost Chinese historian for his work, Records of the Grand Historian (in Chinese, Shiji). The work was started by his father, Sima Tan, an astrologer to the imperial court, and finished by Sima Qian in 94 BC. It covers a period of approximately 2000 years right until Han emperor Wudi’s reign (141-87 BC) and the author’s subsequent death.
The story of how a well-respected court official met his gruesome death is of interest because contextualizing his demise within the time period tells us a great deal about Chinese imperial customs, legality and divinity.
We must start with the concept of Heaven’s Favour, also called Heaven’s Mandate1. The idea is that the universe bestows upon a just ruler its favour, and that if an emperor is overthrown they must not have been worthy of the title. Natural disasters such as famine or flood were also seen as signs of an emperor being out of favour with divinity, and cause for many a coup.
Thus, a ruling emperor had ample motivation to be seen as infallible and perfect for any mistake could be seen as the emperor losing favour with Heaven. After all, if divinity had blessed you as the Son of Heaven, how could you possibly make a mistake? Surely, it could only be a sign that the blessing was no longer valid, and in the cut-throat court where murder lurked behind treachery, an emperor’s main defense was to eliminate any doubt of his infallibility and go on the offensive which very often meant mass execution of entire extended families.
This was also a period where Confucian ideas were being applied in the court and the requirement that a ruler must be attuned to Heaven’s Mandate was central. According to Confucius (551-479 BC) the emperor had to be of exemplary moral standards, for only when the people saw his example would they be shamed into correcting themselves. Confucius preferred this method of keeping the public in order rather than laws and punishment which he believed to be ineffective. Though the philosopher also stated the importance of self-correction after errors, this did not seem to apply to emperors due to the elevated status bestowed through Heaven’s Mandate. This contradiction seems to be swept under the carpet throughout early Chinese history.
Rivals of the emperor often successfully employed the tactic of making an emperor look like he had lost Heaven’s Favour to stage revolts, especially in cases where regents presided over the empire while the emperor came of age. One such instance was how the regent Zhao Gao took out a young emperor. Gao gave the emperor a gift of a deer while calling it a horse. When the emperor pointed out that this in fact was not a horse at all but a deer, Gao had his collaborators in court “confirm” that it in fact was a horse, and that something must be wrong with His Majesty’s condition. Other collaborators pointed out how the emperor had recently slurred his words at a liturgy, and that was that. The emperor was soon advised to poison himself to avoid capture from a phantom army who had sensed him losing Heaven’s Favour. He did just that.
With that in mind we’ll return to our protagonist, Sima Qian who in 99 BC, 13 years before his death, was busy writing a chapter of Shiji while a war raged on. Emperor Wu’s campaign against the Xiongnu, a tribal confederacy to the north, was not going too well. His main appointed general was Li Guangli who was also his brother in law. Serving under Li Guangli was another general, Li Ling. Li Guangli had not anticipated the swiftness of the Xiongnu on the northern terrains and had limped back to defeat. Of the 100,000 men that marched north under him only 10,000 returned. However, the emperor not wanting to blame anyone in his family, blamed Li Ling for the military failure. None of the meek government officials wanted to challenge the emperor on this flawed take for fear of suggesting Heaven’s Favour had been tampered with, and nodded their heads in agreement.
All except Sima Qian.
Li Ling’s courage and military nous was unquestionable. Where Li Guangli had severely underestimated the complexity of the windswept northern terrains and led his forces to a military failure so significant that he was at first refused entry back into Han territory after his retreat. Li Ling on the other hand, with just 5,000 infantry had fought for weeks against impossible odds until there wasn’t an arrow in a quiver left. Though Sima Qian was not a friend of Li Ling, he respected him and sought to “broaden His Majesty’s views” on the events of the war. Instead, he was accused of trying to exonerate Li Ling in order to disparage Li Guangli, and in turn put into question the emperor’s judgement, for it was the Emperor Wu who had appointed Li Guangli and of course, losing a war could easily be seen as losing Heaven’s Favour. That at all costs needed to be avoided and thus Sima Qian was sentenced to death by suicide. This was hardly a controversial sentence as noted by John Keay2:
For in the Confucian ideal, officials attracted by the magnetic effect of the emperor’s moral example were supposed to be sufficiently righteous and high-minded to recognize their guilt and penalise themselves. Not to do would be to acknowledge their inadequacy for office in the first place and to cast a slur on the judgement and moral calibre of the emperor, a surefire way to a death yet more painful. Except as a delaying tactic, it was pointless to to plead one’s innocence. Imprisonment pending trail was a euphemism for torture pending confession.
Having yet to finish the history he had poured his life into, Sima Qian searched desperately for options. There were two other than death. The first was the purchase of a commutation into exile, but lacking the funds, it was an unfeasible option. The second was “the punishment of rottenness” which meant castration and a plunge into the lowest strata of society where nothing but humiliation, derision and contempt lay. A future where he was excommunicated from society and seen as a scourge upon humanity. Along with Li Ling, the man who he had stood up for, Sima Qian was castrated. Explaining his decision to opt for this avenue he wrote3:
Together we became a sight for all the world to laugh at in scorn. Alas, alas! Matters such as these it is not easy to explain to ordinary people.
The reason I have not refused to bear these ills and have continued to live, dwelling in vileness and disgrace without taking my leave, is that I grieve that I have things in my heart which I have not been able to express fully, and I am shamed to think that after I am gone my writings will not be known to posterity.
If it may be handed down to men who will appreciate it, and penetrate to the villages and the great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret should I have?
Sima Qian spent the last thirteen years of his life living in misery while finishing Shiji. The cost of scholarship was his own great personal suffering. It is because of him that today we know about ancient Chinese history including how the great Han empire came to be, the Confucian ideals that motivated it, the administrative and political aspects that drove it, and much more. True to scholarship, Sima Qian in Shiji, as John Keay notes, “has enough innuendoes to alert posterity to both the emperor’s failings and his own likely bias”. In such times, the truth needed to be read between the lines.
The word “hero” is thrown around a lot. Here we have one.