Sima Qian and the Chinese Hero

Sima Qian / Si-ma Qian / Ssu-ma Ch’ien (c. 145 BC – c. 86 BC) is considered to be the founder of Chinese historiography. History treatises had been written before Sima Qian, but he wrote the first (and most complete for its time) general history of China, the Records of the Grand Historian, covering about 2500 years. The Records is written not as a continuous chronological narrative like today’s history books, but as a series of biographies of the emperors, nobles, and the most important historical figures of their time.

Sima Qian through his monumental Records influenced greatly also the Chinese literature. The style he used to write the biographies was literary, in some parts epic in nature, even if he tried to be relatively objective in his depiction of the subjects. For that reason, Sima Qian’s biographies will be much later compared to the Iliad and the Odyssey (and other epic poems), in the sense that he told stories that will become the basis for the creation of legendary heroes. One such hero was Xiang Yu.

Xiang Yu (232–202 BC) was a warlord whose endeavors played an important part in the overthrow of the Qin Dynasty, after which, the empire being divided, he declared himself “Hegemon-King of Western Chu,” ruling over a vast area of today’s central-eastern China. He was eventually defeated, and, at the young age of thirty, he famously committed suicide together with his concubine, Consort Yu, to avoid the humiliation of capture. His exploits are the subject of numerous Chinese folk tales, classical poetry, novels; the final moments between him and Consort Yu are the subject of a famous Peking opera (a form of traditional Chinese theater), Farewell My Concubine.

A scene from “Farewell My Concubine,” performed by Wei Hai-ming, left, and Wu Hsing-kuo, playing the parts of Consort Yu and Xiang Yu, in 2007. Credit Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times (Source)

Xiang Yu’s prowess in battle and personality were talked about before Sima Qian; however, it was the historian who collected all the information and fleshed out a full-fledged person. Sima Qian described Xiang Yu’s qualities in his biography, while his faults are described in other biographies, through the words of other people. Thus, we learn that Xiang Yu’s strength “uprooted mountains and [his] spirit overtopped the world;” however, “he boasted of his conquests, trusted only his personal judgment and did not follow ancient precedents.” According to Sima Qian, some people described Xiang Yu as “… kind, generous and considerate…”, but also “jealous of capable and virtuous people, and he murders officials who have performed outstanding service, and distrusts men of virtue.” The historian paints a clear and honest picture of the warlord, showing that he was indeed fearless and determined in battle, but he was also “shortsighted, suspicious and jealous, brave but not resourceful, and ruthless and bloodthirsty.” Sima Qian writes that “when Xiang Yu bellows with rage a thousand men are rooted to the ground, but since he cannot appoint worthy commanders all he has is the courage of a single man. He is polite, kindly and an amiable talker. If a man falls ill he will shed tears and share his meal with him; but when a man renders such services that he deserves a fief, Xiang Yu plays with the seal till its corners are rubbed off before he can bring himself to part with it. This is what is called womanly kindness.” What he meant is that Xiang Yu “had the courage of a single man” and “womanly kindness” only in name and would not be able to accomplish anything great. (1)

To draw a comparison, the only difference between the classic Chinese hero and other classic heroes seems to be a more down-to-earth quality. His failures got little or nothing to do with the gods or other fantastical creatures and objects (dragons, magic, witches, etc.), but with his own faults. In the case of Xiang Yu, according to Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (1), he failed to recognize his own shortcomings, to listen to other people’s advice, and to learn from his own mistakes. Sima Qian even finds ridiculous Xiang Yu’s claim that his defeat was due to the gods’ will and not his own mistakes. To some extent, this is true also of the other ancient heroes (their faults being at least partially the reason for their demise), but in their case, there is some fantastical element that intervenes in one way or another – for example, the Norse princes Gunnar and Hogni enchant their brother, Guttorm, to a frenzy to kill Sigurd (the older Norse basis for the German Siegfried from The Song of the Nibelungs) (2).

In the end, the essence of a classic hero, Chinese or otherwise (such as Gilgamesh, Achilles, Beowulf, or Sigurd), is for him to be larger than life, strong and brave, a warrior who defies death constantly, regardless of the consequences. These represent the reasons why these characters are remembered over centuries, why there are still stories being told about them. Sima Qian tried to go beyond that, however, leaving us a complex human being, something that is rarely encountered in ancient epic writing, even historical.


  1. Yao, Dan, et al., Chinese Literature. 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 56-64
  2. Völsunga saga (The Saga of the Volsungs), Eng. transl. G. Finch. Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1965, p. 58

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