Szu-ma Chien, Scarlet Emperor Bean

I’m finally learning “who” these beans are. Four poets and a historian. Since plants are not ego-driven by identity and originality, welcome the return of Li Bai, Tu Fu, Bai Juyi, and Li Ho. The fifth is the great historian, Szu-ma Chien. Wang Wei is still in the house as are his compatriots who are 20th century Chinese writers, including Pearl S. Buck. Why? you ask — reasons will unfold soon enough.

So who is Szu-ma Chien and why is he included now?

Sometimes when you’re involved in learning things you find a hero and as I was trying to figure out where in the world I’d been for a year in the People’s Republic of China, and reading all the history I could, I hit on Ssu-ma Chien and found him to be one of the most amazing, brave and noble men I’d ever “met.” So, what was his story?

I bought Selections from Records of the Historian on September 4, 1982, soon after my arrival in Guangzhou, probably at the Youyi Bingguan or Friendship Store. I don’t think I read it, though, until I got back to Colorado the next year. I bought it because the introduction said, “The Records of the Historian, written two-thousand years ago by Szuma Chien of the Han Dynasty, is the greatest historical work China has produced. Thanks to Szuma Chien’s rich experience of life, his enlightened approach to history and his brilliance as a man of letters, he was able to make a discriminating selection of material and to write a new form of history.”

So what happened to him that made him “noble” “brave” and so on? He offended the Emperor by defending a general who had “been defeated in battle and had surrendered to the Huns. For this he was punished by imprisonment and castration.” In Chinese culture castration was worse than death and most men would have taken their own lives rather than suffer the shame of castration; face was everything and a man without, uh, you know, male parts had no “face”. So why didn’t he kill himself? Because his recording of history was more important than his pride. Stopping work? No. He continued writing while he was imprisoned. The humiliation didn’t end there but in a paradoxical honor. In 96 BCE he “…was pardoned and appointed palace secretary, a post slightly higher than grand historian (his former post) but one usually held by eunuchs. Humiliated and distressed, he nevertheless went on writing the history and completed the work in 91 BCE when he was 55.” (Records of the Historian, preface by Wang Po-hsiang)

Szu-ma Chien inspired me to think about my own work seriously, to consider if I would accept such a horrible punishment and humiliation just to keep writing. Szu-ma Chien “told” me I should, that true history told with a living voice, is THAT important.

The book consists of reports and anecdotes of people important both to Chinese history in a large sense and in the smaller sense, to Szu-ma Chien’s time. Szu-ma Chien’s writing (translated by Gladys Yang and Yang Hsien-yi) is energetic, very alive and I think you’ll like it when you finally get to meet the heroic bean who bears his name. I’m going to enjoy looking into this book again!