The Cloudy Mirror

Tension and Conflict in the Writings of Sima Qian

By Stephen W. Durrant

Subjects: Asian Literature
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Paperback : 9780791426562, 226 pages, September 1995
Hardcover : 9780791426555, 226 pages, October 1995

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Table of contents



1. The Frustration of the Second Confucius

2. Sima Qian's Confucius

3. Sima Qian, the Six Arts, and Spring and Autumn Annals

4. Dying Fathers and Living Memories

5. (Wo)men with(out) Names

6. Ideologue versus Narrator


Appendix: Chronology of Sima Qian's Life





Sima Qian's writings have influenced the Chinese for over 2,000 years and still serve as a fiscal source of historical information about China.


Sima Qian's vast Records of the Historian is the first comprehensive history of China and has exerted an immense influence both upon our understanding of the Chinese past and also upon the style and structure of subsequent Chinese historiography. In addition to his contribution as a historian, Sima Qian is a highly significant literary figure whose writings are among the most elegant and powerful from the ancient world.

Durrant's study approaches Sima Qian's work from a literary perspective and demonstrates the relationship between Sima's narrative of the past and his narrative of his own life. That life was a fascinating and complex one. Enjoined by his father to complete a comprehensive history of China, Sima Qian subsequently offended the great Emperor Wu and was sentenced to castration. Rather than take the "noble path" of suicide, he suffered this traumatic punishment and lived on to fulfill his father's injunction—but not without emotional scars, scars that influenced his portrayal of the Chinese past. In fact, the great Han historian's account of the Chinese past, this study argues, is as much his story as it is history.

Stephen W. Durrant is Associate Professor of Chinese at the University of Oregon. He has also written The Tale of the Nisan Shaman: A Manchu Folk Epic.


"The book is a wonderful amalgam of classical, historical, and literary scholarship. It is well-reasoned, asks intelligent questions about the work and life of Sima Qian. It will become the major English language study of the Records of the Historian, the earliest and most important of the dynastic histories of China. This book has moments of brilliance. It ties classical sources in the past together in a way that is completely novel and original. The author has excellent insight into the relationships between history and literature. " — Stephen West, University of California, Berkeley

"The Shiji in the past has been studied primarily as a work of history. But its influence in China was as much literary as historical. Durrant's brilliant analysis shows why the work was so highly regarded as a piece of literature. It's really a tour de force and will be a model for other studies of other early narrative texts. My compliments to Professor Durrant!" — William H. Nienhauser, Jr. , University of Wisconsin-Madison