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Redeeming Sima Qian

Stephen Durrant

China Review International, Volume 4, Number 2, Fall 1997, pp. 307-313 (Article) Published by University of Hawai'i Press DOI: 10.1353/cri.1997.0058

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Redeeming Sima Qian


Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian. 3 volumes: Han Dynasty I, Han Dynasty II, Qin Dynasty. Translated by Burton Watson. Hong Kong and New York: The Research Centre for Translation, The Chinese University

of Hong Kong, and Columbia University Press, 1993. xxvii, 496 pp. (vol.
1); xviii, 505 pp. (vol. 2); xxi, 243 pp. (vol. 3). Paperback $19.00 (vol. 1),
$22.50 (vol. 2), $22.50 (vol. 3); ISBN 0-231-08165-0 (vol. 1), 0-231-08166-9

(vol. 2), 0-231-08I69-3 (vol. 3). Sima Qian. Historical Records. Translated by Raymond Dawson. The World's Classics. Oxford, New York, Toronto: Oxford University press, 1994. XXV, 176 pp. Paperback $10.95, ISBN 0-19-283115-1. Ssu-ma Ch'ien. The Grand Scribe's Records. Volume 1, The Basic Annals of Pre-Han China. Volume 7, The Memoirs ofPre-Han China. Edited by William H. Nienhauser, Jr. Translated by Tsai-fa Cheng, Zongli Lu, William H. Nienhauser, Jr., and Robert Reynolds, with Chiu-ming Chan. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994. xliv, 251 pp. (vol. 1); xxxii, 396 pp. (vol. 2). ISBN 0-253-34021-7 (vol. 1), 0-253-34021.6 (vol. 2).
To those of us who regard Sima Qian's Shiji as one of the most important texts from the ancient world, the recent publication of the translations under review
here is most welcome. Western scholars of ancient China sometimes bemoan the "wasted effort" of

simultaneous translations of a single work in a field where the expertise is spread thin (except, of course, in the case of the Daodejing, where it sometimes seems that virtually every sinologist must publish his or her own translation). Indeed, Raymond Dawson calls the coincidence of the overlap between his own new Shiji
translation and that of Watson "unfortunate." However, each of these new trans-

is 1997 by University lations fills a distinctive niche and, in doing so, contributes significantly to the efofHawai'i Pressfort to place Sima Qian where he belongs in a canon ofworld literaturethat is,
alongside such writers as Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, and the Deuteronomis-

tic author(s) as one of the greatest historians of antiquity (although Sima Qian,

308 China Review International: Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall 1997

let me be so bold as to assert, is vastly more complex than any of the others listed
here).

We begin with the reissue of Burton Watson's two-volume Records of the Grand Historian, which originally appeared in 1961, and the publication of a third volume of translations of those Shiji chapters concerning the Qin dynasty. Watson now has published translations of eighty chapters of Sima Qian's 130-chapter text, a very impressive accomplishment indeed.1 His work is primarily directed at the nonspecialist, but obviously a nonspecialist with considerable leisure and scholarly passionthere are approximately 1,200 pages in his three-volume Sima Qian, equaling the combined size of the Richard Crawley translation of Thucydides and the David Grene Herodotusl In his "General Introduction," Watson quotes Michael Grant's opinion that "except as a mere crib, an unreadable translation is useless" (vol. 1, p. xix) to justify a style that aims for fluency and grace rather than excessive literalness. Whatever one may believe about the match between Watson's English and the original style of some of the works he has translated,2 his lively
prose seems well suited to Sima Qian.

Another particularly noteworthy feature of Watson's Shiji is that it provides a complete translation of all material in Sima Qian's text concerning the Qin dynasty and the first century of the Han dynasty. Thus, any historian or specialist of Chinese history who wants a relatively quick exposure or review of Sima Qian's portrayal of this critical period in Chinese history, a time when the empire took shape and when a rather legalistic form of Confucianism came to dominate the political world, will find Watson's translation exceedingly useful. Indeed, there is no more enjoyable way to gain a quick exposure to the genius of Sima Qian, both as a historian and as a literary figure, than to read Watson's versions. The Qin volume is a welcome addition to Watson's huge translation oeuvre and, in an important sense, completes his earlier volumes on the Han. It is clear that Sima Qian wrote much of his history of the first century of the Han dynasty against the very troubling backdrop of the brief and brutal Qin dynasty. For example, the "Basic Annals of Emperor Wen" (Shiji, chapter 10), I would suggest, is a rebuke that points simultaneously in two directions: first, back to the first Qin emperor, whose cruelty stands in such stark contrast to the "humane" Emperor Wen, who, among other things, abolished mutilating punishments; and, second, forward to Emperor Wu, whose "harsh officials" terrorized the political world in which Sima Qian lived and, no doubt, Sima Qian himself (see Shiji, chapter 122). Beyond this, Sima Qian has an admitted preference for modern history, and modern history for him begins with the unification of China that took place in
221 B. e. e. under the Qin.3
How much of a revision is this new edition of Watson's Han volumes?

Watson himself describes it as "slighdy revised." My own cursory comparison of the 1961 and 1993 editions fully justifies Watson's adverb. The romanization has

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been changed from Wade-Giles to Pinyin, which has forced a complete and surely tedious reworking of the "Index," and a few references have been added to scholarship published since the earlier edition. However, Watson, so far as I can tell, has not changed any of his translations as a result, for example, of criticisms voiced in an interesting T'oungPao article by the distinguished Shiji specialist Timoteus Pokora, although in several cases he probably should have.4 Watson

does respond, quite correctly, I believe, to Pokora's suggestion that keng rC does
not mean "buried alive" but simply "to exterminate," but the response is muted

and is found in the Qin dynasty volume (Qin Dynasty, p. 28), rather than at the
place where Pokora suggested a change (vol. 2, p. 356). Furthermore, Watson does not adjust the names of Han official tides in his revision, despite the excellent work done on this subject by Hans Bielenstein and Michael Loewe after his initial translation.5 All of this is to say that those who own the two earlier volumes need not run out to their local bookstore to buy the revised edition, although these

beautifully prepared new paperback volumes will certainly entice the many bibliophiles among us. The Qin volume is, however, a must for all of our libraries and contains many of the best narratives in the Shiji: the biographies of Jing Ke, Lu Buwei, Lord Shang, Li Si, and Meng Tian. Raymond Dawson's new translation of what he calls the Historical Records,6

appears in Oxford University Press's "World's Classics" series, joining his earlier
translation of the Analects. It is a happy event when a series intended to educate the general reader includes Asian classics (when will Penguin issue a Shiji or a

Zuo zhuan translation to join its array of Western classics of historiography?), and
Dawson is a fine choice for this series. He is generally a more conservative trans-

lator than Watson, preserving a more literal rendering of the original even when that rendering might mystify the general reader. For example, just after the unification of the empire in 221 b.c.e., the emperor speaks of how the King of Han had yu Zhao, Wei he zongpan Qin IftfllfrAffUl, which Watson translates as "allied himself with Zhao and Wei to defy Qin" (vol. 3, p. 42) but which Dawson

renders more literally as "formed a north-south alliance with Zhao and Wei to rebel against Qin" (p. 63). Since there is no footnote, the reader will not know the
historical resonance of this "north-south alliance," which may not be of much in-

terest to the general reader anyhow, but Dawson has translated the word zongtf,
which Watson chooses to disregard.
The translations in Dawson's volume, as I have noted above, also all deal

with "material relevant to the Qin Dynasty and its founder" (further guaranteeing the long-dead emperor the immortality he so desired). Consequently, there is considerable overlap with Watson's Qin volume. Still, the two volumes also differ from one another significantly. Dawson's is much more narrowly focused on the first Qin emperor and does not contain "The Basic Annals of Qin" (chapter 5)/
which concerns the state of Qin in the centuries before the unification, or the bi-

310 China Review International: Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall 1997

ographies of prominent figures who helped enhance the power of Qin well before the conquest (i.e., Lord Shang, the Marquis of Rang, etc.). He does, however, include the "Basic Annals of Xiang Yu" (chapter 7) in his small volume, which Watson has translated in his first volume on the Han. Many of us who teach undergraduates in world literature courses or in introductory Chinese literature courses have been looking for a small, relatively inexpensive Sima Qian volume.8
Dawson's translation fills this need. Moreover, it has two further benefits: first of

all, it gives an idea of the variety of materials and perspectives that Sima Qian brings to bear on a major figure of historythat is, it highlights the way in which Sima Qian's "segmented" history can create an array of quite different perspectives on a single event or a single person; and second, by including the story of Xiang Yu, it provides one of the finest pieces of literature in the entire Shiji in a new and vigorous translation. The third translation under review here is radically different from the two works discussed above. It is the first two volumes of a projected nine-volume complete, scholarly translation of Sima Qian's vast history. Coincidentally, this work is appearing almost exactly one hundred years after the great Edouard Chavannes was engaged in his effort to produce a complete translation into French. Chavannes published a masterful translation of the first forty-seven chapters of the Shiji, all carefully annotated, and apparently left an unannotated manuscript
of the remainder of the text. The first volume of Chavannes' work appeared in

1895 and the last in 1905.9 The first volume of this new English translation is dated 1994; let us hope the ninth and last volume is published in the centenary year of Chavannes' last volumethere could be no greater honor to one of the giants of
European sinology.

This large translation project is a team effort under the direction of Professor William H. Nienhauser, Jr., of the University of Wisconsin. It is, along with Professor David Knechtges' multivolume translation of the Wen xuan, one of the most important translation projects in the field of early China studies (a time period I somewhat generously extend down to the Tang) since the days of James Legge (1814-1897), Edouard Chavannes (1863-1918) himself, and Erwin Von Zach (1872-1942). Students of the Shiji have long called for such a translation. Several decades ago, in his review of the first edition of Watson's translation of Sima Qian, Pokora voiced the need for a full, scholarly translation, but conceded that "this is an immense task and I cannot say whether and when, from the few who might be able to perform it, there will be found someone to devote his whole life to this task."'0 Elsewhere, Watson himself issued such a call and with thoroughly admirable modesty conceded that a popular translation like his is best done where "scholarly and heavily annotated translations of such works already exist and can be consulted by those in search of more detailed information."11

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The translation team assembled by Professor Nienhauser is a strong one, and

the members bring an array of different perspectives to their work. Such a team
effort has made it possible for the translation to be surrounded by an excellent

and quite varied scholarly apparatus. This apparatus consists not only of abundant
footnotes but also very rich extended notes, introductory materials, and, perhaps most usefully, a "Translators' Note" at the end of each chapter that comments on special issues or textual problems raised by the particular chapter and occasionally on literary topics as well. As an example of the usefulness of much of this material, I would call attention to Robert Reynolds' notes on chronology, wherein he succincy discusses the array of complicated dating problems that arise in the Shiji (vol. 1, pp. xxvii-xxx, and vol. 7, pp. xv-xix). I should add, however, mat Reynolds promises an appendix "to this volume," volume 7, containing a list of the dates of state rulers according to Sima Qian and the modern scholar Yang Kuan. This would be most helpful for those of us who continue to be misled by Sima Qian's tables or, worse, by Legge's lists, but, unfortunately, the promised appendix is not included at the end of volume 7at least not in the copy at my disposal. Working on a translation as a team obviously has its strengths and weaknesses. One strength, at least in this case, is the accuracy of the translation. It is unlikely that a "screamer," of which we all are guilty from time to time, will get by a group as distinguished yet varied in specialty as this one (a linguist, a historian, a literary scholar, etc.). But an obvious weakness in team translation is unifying the English style and providing the text with a consistent voice. Whatever one may think of Watson's smooth and fluent English, or Robert Fagles' "muscular prose"to refer to a much acclaimed recent translation in a quite different fieldthere is an identifiable style in each case.12 While this new translation gen-

erally reads well, I must say that volume 7 reads more smoothly than volume 1.
The latter volume, also, tends to employ rather unwieldy or, sometimes, surpris-

ing English for quite common classical Chinese vocabulary. For example, I prefer
Watson's "evil" or Dawson's "violence" to Nienhauser's "felonious" for the Chi-

nese hun ff; and I find the phrase "transmitting the imperial position down to infinity" for chuan zhi wu along $.^IP!, "passing it on without end," to be awkward as well as logically a bit strange (i.e., "down to" calls for an object that is a person or at least a point in timeimagine substituting the word "forever" here
and the illogic becomes more evident).

A work on the scale of a full English translation of the Shiji may not be "passed on without end," but it will be with us as a valuable resource for many, many years. Short of writing a voluminous classic, there is nothing quite like translating such a work "to establish one's name in future generations." Still,
translation remains a thankless task. The work is not as glamorous as those

ephemera that ride the most recent theoretical wavelet, nor is it likely to be completed within the short time spans our institutions use to evaluate promotion or

312 China Review International: Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall 1997

salary. Moreover, there are always the tiresome translation police (TPs) who are eager to quibble about whether one should use "felonious" instead of "violence." Despite the difficulties and discouragements that almost certainly attend an undertaking of this scope, it is imperative that this project be completed. I say this, in part, to encourage all those in a position to help with Professor Nienhauser's valuable translation effort to give it the support and attention it deserves. Indiana University Press, for example, should provide the most competent assistance at its disposal to this valuable project. As others have noted, there are simply too many proofreading errors in these first two volumes (several very unfortunate indeed). There is a tendency these days for presses to pass all responsibility and hence blame for such errors onto authors, but all of us who have published know how difficult it is to see the mistakes that remain in manuscripts and galleys we have already been over several times. Authors need skilled editorial help, and it is in the interest of the press to make certain that help is providedespecially when a translation this important will be linked not just to the name of the translators but the name of the press for many decades if not centuries to come. As the publication of the works under review here indicates, these are good days for Sima Qian scholarship in the West. Let us hope the activity continues. The great Han historian deserves translation and many, many more book-length studies. For those of us who work in this field, believe in the greatness of this text, and are romantics at heart, there is another incentive: it is our very small way of helping to redeem a man who looked to us, across the horror of castration, for his
redemption: When I have truly completed this work, I shall deposit it in the Famous Mountain archives. If it may be handed down to people 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?13 Stephen Durrant University of Oregon

Stephen Durrant is a professor of Chinese and director of the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Oregon. His research interest is early Chinese narrative, particularly the Zuo zhuan and Shi ji. N OTE S 1. This includes translations published in his Ssu-ma Ch'ieri (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958) and Records of the Historian: Chapters from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch'ieri (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1969).

2. 1 have expressed some concern on this issue with regard to Watson's translation of the
Zuo zhuan. See "Smoothing Edges and Filling Gaps: Tso chuan and the General Reader," Journal of the American Oriental Society 112, no. 1 (1992): 36-41.

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3.Sima Qian's preference for modern history is stated in the preface to his "Chronological Table of the Distinguished Followers of Gaozu Who Became Marquises," Shiji, chap. 18 (see Watson, vol. 1, pp. 427-429).
4.See T'oungPao 50, nos. 1-3 (1963): 294-322.

5.Hans Bielenstein, The Bureaucracy ofHan Times (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1980), and Michael Loewe, "Official Titles and Institutional Terms," in The

Cambridge History ofChina, vol. 1, The Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 b.c-a.d. 220 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. xxv-xxxvii. 6.With due respect to Chavannes and Dawson, such a title is a loose rendition of the original. The shi in the title Shiji almost certainly refers to the office rather than to a category
of writing.

7.Dawson titles one of his chapters "The Annals of Qin," but this is all translated from "The Basic Annals of the First Qin Emperor," Shiji chapter 6, not Shiji chapter 5. 8.Watson's 1969 one-volume collection of translation from the Shiji (see note 1 above) is also an excellent choice but twice as expensive as Dawson's small volume.
9.Les Mmoires historiques de Se-ma Ts'ien (1895-1905; reprint, Paris: Librairie d'Amrique et d'Orient, 1967).

10.T'oungPao, p. 321. 11."Some Remarks on Early Chinese Historical Works," in The Transition of Things Past, ed. George Kao (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1982), p. 36.
12. 1 am thinking of his recent and much praised translation of Homer's Odyssey (New York: Viking, 1996). 13. Han shu 62:2735. 1 have followed Watson's translation (vol. 1, p. xiii), changing only his

"men" to "people." I do not do this out of any particularly strong conviction about gender-neutral language but to emphasize the fact that we might well owe the very existence of the Shiji to a womanSima Qian's remarkable daughter, whose son was responsible for the book becoming
knownand also the further fact that some of the most distinguished Shiji scholars among us today are women.

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