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Notes on Literary Chinese

Sections from Records of the Historian

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Notes on Literary Chinese

Collection of Literary Chinese Prose

Sections from Records of the Historian

Records of the Historian 史記 (sometimes translated as Records of the Grand Historian or Shi Ji) was written by Sima Qian 司馬遷 in the Han Dynasty. Sima Qian was considered the father of Chinese history for his compilation of this work, the first systematic Chinese historical text. The work was actually started by Sima Qian's father Sima Tan 司馬談.

Records of the Historian is divided into 12 volumes of Annals 本記, 10 volumes of Tables containing timelines of events, 8 volumes of Treatises , 30 volumes of Biographies 世家 of the Feudal Houses and Eminent Persons, and 70 volumes of Biographies 列傳 and Collective Biographies. It covers Chinese history up until Emperor Wu of Han (r. 147-87 BCE). (Idema and Haft, 1997, pp. 79-80)

The complete Chinese text can be found online at the Chinese Text Project, as listed in the References. The English translations are by Herbert J. Allen. (Sima Qian and Allen H.J., 1894)

Shi She

This passage is the entire biography of Shi She from the chapter Biographies of Obedient Minor Officials 《循吏列傳》.



Shi She

Shi She was a minister to King Zhao of Chu. He was upright, honest, impartial, and did not flatter or avoid his duty. He was inspecting his county and assisted in pursuit of a murderer, which turned out to be his own father. He severed ties with his father. This caused him to say to the king, “The murderer is the father of an official. Now, according to established tradition I have have not been filial. Breaking the law and with this crime also shows disloyalty. The minister should die for this crime.” The king said, “Your pursuit shows otherwise. It would not be suitable to punish you. Please take care of the matter.” Shi She said, “He is not my own father. I am an unfilial son. I do not accept my host's course of action. The minister has been disloyal.” The kings pardon of my guilt is beyond a blessing. I should be executed.” Thereupon, without receiving any order, he cut his own throat.

Fuller gives notes and vocabulary on this section of text. (Fuller, 2004, pp. 130-133)

Yan Zi's Charioteer

This text is from the chapter Biographies of Guan and Yan 《管晏列傳》.



Yan Zi was a minister for the state of Qi. On his way out the wife of his charioteer peeked at her husband through the gap in the door. This man acted as the charioteer for the minister, supported a large parasol, whipped a team of four horses, and was very satisfied with himself. On finishing and returning, his wife asked to go. The man asked her for what reason? His wife said, “Elder Yan Zi is nearly six feet tall, is a high minister for the state of Qi, and has the title of a feudal lord. This morning the concubine saw him leave with noble thoughts and a humble manner. Now Sir has grown to eight feet tall, behaving so graciously to his servant charioteer, as if he were the minister. The concubine pleads to go.” After this the man became dispirited. Yan Zi considered this strange and asked him, “Charioteer, what would you do if Yan Zi recommended you for minister?”


Fuller also gives notes and vocabulary on this section of text. (Fuller, 2004, pp. 134-137)

Han Gao Zu

This text is from the section Annals of Gaozu 《高祖本紀》.



Han Gao Zu was a Ting leader to lead people on foot to Mount Li from his county. Many of the people being led escaped on the way. From his own estimate by the time they reached their destination most of the people escaped. Arriving at the city of Feng on the western marshes they stopped for a drink. At night he unbound the people travelling on foot and said, “You are all free to go. In fact, I am going to leave as well.” Amongst the people travelling on foot were several stout men that were willing to follow and ten men remained behind. One night Han Gao Zu was drunk travelling through the marshes with a person leading the way in front. The person leading the way came back and reported, “There is a large snake in front blocking the way. I want to go back.” Gao Zu drunkenly said, “A strong man like you should not be scared. Continue ahead!” He took out his sword and chopped the snake in two opening the path. After walking a few li he was so drunk that he laid down. When the people following behind arrived at the place the snake was they saw an old woman crying in the night. The person asked the old lady why she was crying. The old lady said, “Someone killed my son. I am crying for my son.” The person asked, “Old lady, how was your son killed?” The old lady said, “My son is the son of the White Heavenly Emperor. He transformed into a snake to block the path but today the son of the Red Heavenly Emperor beheaded him, which is why I am crying.” Thus the man thought that the old lady was lying and wanted to whip her when suddenly the old lady disappeared. When the person following arrived Gao Zu woke up. The person told Gao Zu the story. Gao Zu alone felt happy and self-confident. All those following him became more fearful of him each day.


Han Gao Zu 漢高祖 is the posthumous name for Liu Bang 刘邦 (c. 256—195 BCE), a bandit leader who became first Han emperor. He reigned from 202—195 BCE. A Ting was an Qin administrative unit of ten villages. 酈山 Mount Li is located east of Chang'an. Fuller gives notes and vocabulary on this section of text. (Fuller, 2004, pp. 153-156)

Chunyu Kun

This text is the biography of Chunyu Kun from the chapter Biographies of Court Wits 《滑稽列傳》.


Confucius said, “The six arts should be treated as one. Ritual restrains people, music sends out harmony, writing speaks of things, poetry conveys intentions, the cannon of change beings divine change. The Spring and Autumn Annals uses righteousness.” The Grand Scribe says, the path to heaven is very, very long. Subtle discussion is most appropriate and also resolves confusion. Chunyu Kun was from the state of Qi and adopted into his wife's family. He was just under seven [Chinese] feet tall. He was satirical and argumentative, being humiliated by the feudal lords on more than one occasion. King Wei of Qi liked riddles. After long nights of drinking for wanton pleasure, he was in a drunked stupor which he could not revive from and so delegated rule to his senior officials. From dawn to dusk the government was in chaos, feudal lords from surrounding regions invaded, the state was headed for collapse, and retainers and officials did not dare complain. Chunyu Kun persuaded the king to listen to a riddle: “In the capital there is a large bird that has stopped in the king's courtyard for three years without flying or chirping. What is it?” The king said, “This bird does not fly but if it did it would rush into the sky. It does not chirp but if it did it would startle people.” Thereupon he brought 72 people to court, including various leaders and chiefs. He showed appreciation for some, executed others, and gave direction to raise an army for an expedition. The feudal lords were alarmed and frightened. All of them returned the land they had taken from Qi before. King Wei ruled for thirty six years. This is discussed in the section Tian Wan in the Biographies of the Feudal Houses and Eminent Persons section.


In the eighth year of the rule of King Wei the state of Chu sent out a large number of troops to annex the state of Qi. The King of Qi used Chunyu Kun of Zhao to request that the state of Zhao rescue Qi's troops. Chunyu Kun presented the state of Zhao with 50 jin of gold and chariots and horses for ten teams of four horses each. Chunyu Kun looked up at the sky and laughed uproariously. The string connecting the tassel to his hat broke. The king said, “Sir, is that too few?” Chun said, “I would not dare.” The king said, “How could it be that you are laughing as you speak?” Chun said, “I was travelling to the east today and saw an offering on the roadside. It held a pig's trotter, a bowl of wine, and prayed ‘Shall the high ground be enough to fill a basket, shall the low ground be enough to fill a cart, shall the five grains flourish and ripen, shall they be abundant enough to satisfy our family.’ Your servant saw the narrow nature of this grasping and desire for extravagance and it caused me to laugh.” Consequently, King Wei of Qi thus increased the gift to one thousand yi of gold, ten pairs of white jade ceremonial disks, and a hundred chariots and teams of four horses each. Kun took his leave and travelled to the state of Zhao. The king of Zhao gave him one hundred thousand crack troops and one thousand leather covered chariots. The state of Chu heard about this and at night withdrew their troops.


King Wei was very delighted and put on a party in the rear of the palace and invited Kun. He asked, “How many drinks does it take you to get drunk?” Kun replied, “It might take one peck [two liters] for your servant to become drunk. With twenty pecks I would also be drunk.” King Wei said, “Sir, if you get drunk on one peck, how could you possibly drink ten? Please explain how that is possible?” Kun said, “Great king you invite me to drink with you but behind me is the censor who upholds the law. I am scared of falling over drunk because one peck might do it right away. If my parents had an important visitor, I would roll up my sleeves and kneel humbly, wait for there be only a few drops of the wine in front of me left, and only then take the goblet and toast the long life of the guest. So it would have only taken me two pecks to get drunk. If I had not seen a friend or companion for a long time and we suddenly met. We would happily talk about old times and personal feelings and it would I would drink five or six pecks and then be drunk. If three was a gathering of people from my village with a mix of men and women drinking wine and lingering around playing liu bo or pitch pot. If I found that I and a companion were mutually attracted to each other, holding hands without fear and not able to stop staring at each other. Maybe an earing or a hairpin would be dropped. Although I should not I would enjoy this and be able to drink eight pecks of wine and only be about two thirds drunk. At sunset when the wine is finished, with the wine from the bottles combined together, a man and a woman are sitting at the same seat after a lively party with cups and dishes in disorder, the candles in the hall out, the master leaving me to send off guests, my under-shirt unbuttoned, smelling a delicate fragrance. At that time I would be the most happy and able to drink ten pecks. This leads me to say that drinking too much causes chaos, to many parties causes unhappiness, ten thousand of anything can be not enough, discussion can also be too much, and too much of anything looses its value.” Thus criticizing through indirection. The king of Qi said, “Very good. So we will stop our long nights of drinking.”


Chunyu Kun was an advisor to King Wei of Qi 齐威王 (378 BCE—320 BCE) during the Warring States Period.

The Six Arts or Six Cannons 六艺 are listed in the second sentence of the text. These are well known in Confucian philosophy.

A Ling commands a region of 10,000 people or more and a Zhang is the chief of a smaller area. In the Warring States period one jin was 256 grams (not 500 grams as it is today). An yi is a measure of weight equal to 20 taels (liang) or two jin in the modern Chinese market system. A peck at that time and place was 1.94 liters. These measures were all before the standardization under Qin Shi Huang and are not equal to the equivalents in the more recent Chinese market system.

In the Zhou system a Zhou had 25 households and a zhou had 2,500 households.

The rear of the palace was the womens' quarters.

Fuller gives notes and vocabulary on this section of text. (Fuller, 2004, pp. 162-171) The English text here is an original translation based on those notes and vocabulary.

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