Individualism in Szuma Chien’s Historical Biographies – History Essay
Through the course of China’s development of the written word, the aged tradition of recording history has played an indispensable role. The Chinese have long valued
historical accounts as precedents to guide their own lives, and in the past it was these writings that gradually gave rise to later literary forms such as fiction. The historical biography, or zhuan, appeared as an intermediate genre, and many still consider it as the quintessential narrative form. Supplying commentary for early recorded history, these pseudo-historical accounts attempted to explain the cause and motivation behind actual events. Scholars and advisors then referenced these commentaries as models for their own situations, so these biographies were more concerned with education than painting detailed portraits of individuals. Of the vast number of historical biographies composed throughout China past, Szuma Chien’s Shi Ji stands out as the most well-known and arguably most important piece of Chinese historical writing. Completed around 100 BC and Comprising 130 chapters, it presents a model that influenced subsequent writings of the genre as well as other more modern types of literature. Moreover, it illustrates central ideas about society and, more importantly, the individual as a microcosm of society. In the stories “Hsiang Yu” and “The Assassins”, for example, Szuma Chien uses the lives of failed heroes to exemplify desirable qualities that make the men appear ideal while also pointing out faults and peculiarities that show their innate humanness. In a sense, these men represent exemplary models of behavior that still resemble the reader. This makes the subjects and their valuable qualities accessible, thereby encouraging readers to place emphasis on the self and emulate the heroes’ righteousness, courage, honor, determination, and other values. Yet, although the central characters have been normalized, these stories fail to address aspects of life seen in other literary genres, such as emotion, religion, and the supernatural. On the other hand, this disregard helps to add emphasis to the self and do not take away from the overall effect and importance of Szuma Chien’s work.
In the biography “Hsiang Yu”, the author normalizes a flawed hero in order to articulate the traditional Chinese belief that, to attaining success in life, one must first instill desirable qualities in the self. The narrative portrays Hsiang Yu as a strong-willed, courageous, and virtuous man whose own arrogance and rash character ultimately leads to his defeat to Liu Pang. The storyline can be broken up into two parts of a parabola shape: a steady rise to power followed by an equally progressive decline. During Hsiang Yu’s ascension, the author highlights the man’s heroic qualities by enlacing his account with a reverent tone. Even early in the story, when Hsiang Yu kills the governor of Wu to raise an army against Chin, the narrative describes: “Hsiang Yu killed several scores of them. The whole office cowered in terror and no one dared stand against him” (“Records of the Historian”, p206). The image showing the officials cowering implies their cowardice and illustrates Hsiang Yu’s bravery by comparison. As the defeated are portrayed unfavorably here, the author elevates the protagonist as a strong and fearless victor, the archetypal hero. In fact, Hsiang Yu’s strength and courage become increasingly accentuated as he repeatedly leads his men to victory against the oppressive Chin’s forces. During the battle to capture the Chin capital, a climatic point in the narrative that ultimately sets Hsiang Yu at his prime, Szuma Chien draws attention to another heroic quality of this man: his strength of mind. Resolved to defeat Chin, Hsiang Yu kills Song Yi, who has advised against immediate action, and unhesitatingly “led his entire force across the river. They sank all their boats, smashed their cooking vessels, burned their huts, and carried only three days’ rations with them, to allow their determination to fight to the death and never to turn back. They…defeated it utterly” (212-3). In vividly detailing the absolute resolve involved in this battle, the narrative emphasizes determination and shi, the ability to seize the moment, as notable values to uphold. Only by adhering to his own beliefs and imposing absolute resolve, could Hsiang Yu attain total victory over Chin and eventually conquer a vast territory and become the Overlord of West Chu. In addition to bravery and determination, Szuma Chien presents his subject’s virtue, or de, as a desirable quality that plays an essential part in his rise to power. One can see Hsiang Yu’s virtuous nature when he derides Song Yi for delaying the attack on Chin: “‘The harvest has failed, the people are destitute…yet he holds a great banquet’” (212)! Hsiang Yu’s primary concern for the community evidences his compassion and high Confucian morals over personal benefit, and this de helps to win him loyalty from his troops as well as new followers, which prove indispensable in his accumulation of power. Hence, in recounting the life of Hsiang Yu, Szuma Chien emphasizes the importance and benefit of possessing attributes such as bravery, determination, and virtue.
In the second part of his narrative, in giving equivalent attention to Hsiang Yu’s downfall as his rise, Szuma Chien promotes the cultivation of desirable values in the self. Firstly, the historian depicts a man who falls prey to his own deep-rooted flaws. As a child, he was clever but never saw his studies to the end. As an adult, he allowed his victories to inflate his ego to the point where he ignored advisors and grew increasingly ruthless and arrogant. Impetuous and headstrong, he never believed himself to be at fault. Rather than decry his subject, however, Szuma Chien paints his demise in a sympathetic tone. In fact, he actually uses others’ points of view to present the victor, Liu Pang, unfavorably. Fan Hseng, for one, disparages him as one who “was greedy for wealth and fond of beautiful women” (216). In contrast, Hsiang Yu’s ability to attract numerous subordinates shows that others find his character much more worthy. Clearly Szuma Chien holds a similar view, for he instills sympathy in the reader when associating the failed conqueror’s final hours with a tragic song and tears for his beloved concubine. This sympathetic tone prevents the reader from regarding the protagonist with disdain or derision. Instead, the failed hero’s fatal flaws normalize him so that the reader identifies with him and realizes the potential power of the individual that comes with the adoption of the same desirable values that Hsiang Yu possessed. While one might have read the first part of the biography believing that the subject’s achievement elevates him high above the common man, this latter part of the narrative presents Hsiang Yu as an individual who is, in fact, flawed like the reader, but whose exceptional qualities raise him above the everyman. This historical biography, therefore, is vehicle to the idea that one can attain greatness by implementing the right values and behavior in himself. At the same time, it serves a didactic purpose in modeling favorable qualities such as courage and virtue while also cautioning against the faults that led to Hsiang Yu’s demise. Szuma Chien reinforces the emphasis on the self in a commentary at the end: “What a fool he was to say that Heaven was against him and that it was not his generalship that was at fault (237)! This commentary asserts that each person succumbs to the consequences to his own actions and character, in opposition to the belief that life is preordained by a greater power. One must nurture a worthy self before they can control larger entities such as the family or even the state. Thus, in depicting the life of a heroic but flawed man, Szuma Chien emphasizes self-cultivation and encourages values modeled after Hsiang Yu’s strengths: his courage, resolve, and virtue.
In his historical biography “The Assassins”, Szuma Chien again emphasizes the importance of individual achievement through depiction of exemplary lives. While “Hsiang Yu” describes a life of great renown and achievement, this collection of narratives about various assassins in history focuses on commoner, lesser-known men who are nevertheless instilled with many of the same desirable values that led Hsiang Yu to power and fame. As with Hsiang Yu, Szuma Chien portrays these men as heroically as the embodiment of character ideals that serve as models for the reader. One such heroic value, which Szuma Chien illuminates in his Hsiang Yu biography as well as all assassin stories, is bravery. None of the men hesitate to risk their own lives for some ultimate goal, whether it is repayment, righteousness, or recognition. One can attribute this courage largely to the assassins’ absolute moral certainty, which cements their resolve and stays them from turning back on their goal. In Chuan Chu’s murder of King Liao, for instance, he “broke open the fish and stabbed the king with the dagger, dispatching him in an instant” (“The Assassins”, 387). In showing no reluctance or uncertainty in taking action to eradicate King Liao, Chuan Chu sets himself apart from the everyman, who is often riddled with indecision and need for compromise. Szuma Chien, then, depicts how a value such as moral certainty can elevate a person to distinction and heroism. This certainty also infuses the assassins with unwavering loyalty. In many of the stories, the assassins commit themselves to repayment, or bao, for patrons who gave them a name by recognizing their merit. For instance, Yu Jang, who inflicts physical mutilation upon himself in order to repeat attempts at avenging his patron, reflects that, “‘This way is very hard, but my aim is to shame all those who in future are guilty of disloyalty to their lords’” (388). Although Yu Jang ultimately fails in his goal, even his enemy recognizes his worth and offers the assassin his coat before taking his life. Szuma Chien therefore uses secondary points of view in illustrating the importance and nobility of loyalty and repayment. While Hsiang Yu shows his virtue when refusing to kill Liu Pang in adherence to Confucian ritual, or li, the assassins show similar greatness in pursuing bao. While the more common reader might not identify with li, he will most certainly understand the motifs of bao and loyalty, and Szuma Chien hence uses these assassin biographies to promote these ideal values. In the story of Nieh Cheng, the assassin honorably seeks repayment for his patron’s kindness, but his sister Jung is admirable for showing a different type of loyalty. She bestows fame upon her brother by identifying his body and perishes besides him, showing faithfulness to family. The community recognizes the two’s honor, and even the narrator praises their patron for being “a good judge of character able to find loyal helpers” (302). Szuma Chien again uses varying points of view to reveal his subjects’ merit, thus promoting their loyalty as a precious virtue that raises these otherwise ordinary persons to greatness. The grand historian’s narratives moreover reveal his subjects as pursuers of justice, or yi, a Confucian value. The assassins in the biographies sacrifice themselves to set things right according to their beliefs. The famous Prince Tan story vividly exemplifies this unrelenting desire for justice, as the pursuit of it eventually leads to the sacrifice of not only the assassin Ching Ko, but also of Fan Yu-chi, Chin Wu-yang, Kao Chien-li, and eventually Prince Tan himself. Before carrying out the assassination Ching Ko sings movingly, “‘The wind is wailing, cold the River Yi,/ And a hero sets forth, never to return’” (399). Here Szuma Chien uses an unconventional verse form and shows that Ching Ko does not yield to fear or despair and upholds his obligation to justice and bao even in the face of imminent death. Although Ching Ko fails in his mission to attain yi for his patron, Szuma Chien gives him fame by portraying him as one of the most noble failed heroes who even inspires others such as Kao Chien-li to continue his pursuit of justice. In doing so, the historian encourages this virtue in his audience. At the same time, by using unorthodox characters who are nevertheless heroic and honorable, he makes his point accessible to a larger audience. The peculiarities of these exemplary roles diverts them from the model imposed by the state, and because of this they bear greater resemblance to the reader. Szuma Chien asserts that the fame and honor in these men come from their individual values and not predestined capabilities. He thereby encourages the readers to emulate the virtues of these heroes, and to nurture nobility in themselves by adopting heroic qualities such as bravery, moral certainty, faithfulness, and righteousness. The author, in essence, uses his stories as a means of conveying the traditional Chinese belief that success in life begins with perfecting the self.
Although Szuma Chien breaks literary barriers in using unconventional roles as character models and expanding narratives to include more genres and points of view, he ignores aspects of life explored in other forms of Chinese literature. For one, he does not incorporate personal sentiments, a subject that appears later in more fictional writings. The narratives, for the most part, merely recount assumedly factual information without describing the opinions, emotions, and reactions associated. The few passages that do reveal emotion, such as when Hsiang Yu and Ching Ko despair over their doom, are confined to verses instead of being incorporated into the main narrative. Yet, failing to include emotions does not weaken Szuma Chien’s argument for the potential of the individual. By presenting a frame of exemplary morals and behavior rather than a detailed personality, the author draws emphasis to his subjects’ model values and diverts attention from the rest of his character. This way, he strengthens his belief about the importance of nurturing these model values in the self. Another aspect of life that is widely explored in Chinese literature but ignored by Szuma Chien is the role of otherworldly beings. These include gods that dominate early Chinese mythology as well as spirits and officials of the Heavens and underworld that appear in writings such as anomaly tales. In fact, Szuma Chien purposely remarks that the Heavens did not play a role in Hsiang Yu’s failure. By rejecting the idea of destiny, or ming, he stresses that people craft their own fates through their own actions. This fits with his emphasis on the importance of self-cultivation and individual action in taking control of life. Thus, by ignoring subjects such as personal sentiments and higher otherworldly powers, Szuma Chien promotes developing a noble self through the adoption of the heroic values modeled in Hsiang Yu and the assassins.
In the in his famed work Shi Ji, the grand historian Szuma Chien uses the historical biographies “Hsiang Yu” and “The Assassins” to convey the traditional Chinese cultural belief about the importance of nurturing the self. The individual is a smaller replica of larger entities such as the family and the community, and only after one develops a worthy self can he attain control over those larger areas. To guide his audience, the author promotes values such as courage, determination, virtue, loyalty, and righteousness by modeling them in the protagonists of his biographies. Instead of portraying these subjects as ideal, however, he afflicts them with faults, failures, and oddities that normalize them without effacing their exemplary heroic qualities. In doing so, he allows the audience, who are themselves plagued with common flaws like weakness, indecision, and insecurity, to identify with the stories’ central figures. The text thereby promotes individual accomplishment through the pursuit of the same values that elevate the flawed heroes above the ordinary man and win them fame. In drawing attention to the individual, Szuma Chien’s masterpiece establishes precedents in his time that are mirrored in later Chinese literature. For example, he is the first to sign his name to his work and incorporate multiple types of writing and points of view, including that of his own. In doing this, he presents a bias in factual accounts that lead readers to acquire similar inequitable opinions of different historical figures. It is this vivid characterization that continuously wins Shi Ji, as well as the zhuan narrative form, high regard over the centuries and today.
Yang Hsien-yi & Gladys Yang, Selections from Records of the Historian by Szuma Chien, Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1979, p. 205-237 (“Hsiang Yu”), 385-402 (“The Assassins”)