An Analysis of Sima Qian’s “Biographies of Conscientious Officials”
|Keywords:||史記，循吏列傳，酷吏列傳，奉職循理，漢代政治思想，漢代史學;Records of the Grand Historian, “Biographies of Conscientious Officials,” “Biographies of Cruel Officials,” Carry out One’s Duty by Following Principle, Han Political Thought, Han Historiography.||Issue Date:||Jun-2016||Source:||臺大歷史學報||Start page/Pages:||001-046||Abstract:||
Although the term xunli (循吏) or “conscientious official” appears in the Shiji’s “Biographies of Conscientious Officials,” the traditional Chinese idea of the “conscientious official” is based on the figures portrayed in the Book of Han’s “Biographies of Conscientious Officials,” and refers specifically to local officials who guide people by means of moral transformation. Throughout history, readers of the Shiji’s “Biographies of Conscientious Officials” have raised many questions about its contents, genre, and meaning. It has been noted, for example, that it only mentions figures from the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods without citing any from the Qin and Han periods. Also, instead of focusing on leading local officials, four of the important figures in the text are ministers and one is a judge. Finally, the figures are not presented in chronological order and most of their deeds are described only briefly. From this perspective, “Biographies of Conscientious Officials” could be considered one of the rare failures of the great historian Sima Qian.
However, this essay analyzes the text’s original objective instead of reading it in light of the Book of Han. This essay argues that “carrying out one’s duty (by means of) following principles” 「奉法（職）循理」, which appears in the “grand historian says” section at the beginning of the chapter, is the text’s main idea. Sima Qian combined the Confucian and Daoist notions of “following principle” in order to create the concept of a “conscientious official,” and a series of stories and anecdotes about worthy ministers of ancient times were composed to explain its meaning. The genre of the text is thus similar to that of texts written by philosophers, and though there are other examples of this type within Shiji, it is not a standard historiographical biography.
Sima Qian used the term “conscientious official” to refer to someone who follows “principle” in order to govern. Such officials have their own convictions in regard to what constitutes the true aim of government, reasonable means, and political ethics. This is expressed in their wholeheartedly devoting themselves to the state and the people rather than deferring to ruler’s personal whims. They are capable of solicitously leading the people, and establishing an ideal society through moral transformation. They are strict in regard to self-discipline, and willing to sacrifice themselves. This kind of ideal official has the effect both of stabilizing the “rule of law,” and of serving as a check on violations of the law. Sima Qian not only made use of this chapter to critique the “cruel officials” (酷吏), but also offered criticism of Daoist officials and Confucian officials of his time.
In contrast, the Book of Han’s description of “conscientious officials” emphasized their “benevolent” (循良) character and political achievements in regard to moral transformation, thus losing the term’s original meaning of “following principle.” That the Book of Han treated only local officials as “conscientious officials” further deviated from Sima Qian’s discussion of government as a whole.
|Appears in Collections:||歷史學系|
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