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The Chinese Herodotus?
June 24, 2010 7:25 PM   Subscribe

Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Tacitus, and the rest of those familiar names are inextricably tied with the historical canon of classical "western" civilization. But who are the "eastern" equivalents?

My familiarity with the canon of classical eastern history is almost none. While I know the names of the ancient historians in the west, I wouldn't even recognize a single name from the east. Some Googling has brought up a few names, such as the classical Chinese historian Sima Qian, who wrote the Records of the Grand Historian between 109 BC and 91 BC. However, I'm sure that such an unfocused search will have left a lot of things out.

Who else is out there? Do we have much of their surviving works? Are those works as readily accessible in English as the western canon?

(Secondary question: Is there an eastern equivalent of someone like, say, Gibbon, who came much later to write a seminal work that's affected all later scholarship, but isn't exactly modern in the 20th-century sense?)
posted by SpringAquifer to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
posted by dfriedman at 7:29 PM on June 24, 2010

Sorry, meant to include the wiki link:
posted by dfriedman at 7:31 PM on June 24, 2010

Mencius --who is also getting popular in the cognitive sciences because his ideas provide a sort of Darwinian explanation for morality.
posted by _cave at 7:38 PM on June 24, 2010

So he is accessible is what I'm saying that is more to your point, and scholars do refer to him fairly often.
posted by _cave at 7:39 PM on June 24, 2010

Chinese Herodotus = Sima Qian
posted by oinopaponton at 7:48 PM on June 24, 2010

To do: learn to read
posted by oinopaponton at 7:50 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

By "Eastern" do you mean Chinese? If so, here are the Classics.

I believe the core of these --- the traditional "Classics" --- are the Five Classics. These are the books that everyone who wanted to be anyone had to memorize for a couple thousand years of Chinese history.
posted by alms at 7:52 PM on June 24, 2010

St. John's College, which is known for its Western "Great Books" curriculum, also has an Eastern Classics graduate program. Here are its reading lists: fall, spring, summer.
posted by k. at 8:12 PM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I totally missed that page, alms. The link to the Twenty-Four Histories is particularly enlightening regarding the existence of a classical historical canon. I'm not necessarily looking for Chinese stuff, though.

And while I know there's often a lot of overlap between the two, I'm looking for more history and less pure philosophy and military science and such. I've at least skimmed through the very basics, like the Analects and the Tao Te Ching, the Mahabharata and the Gita, and such, but I'm looking for something more along the lines of Tacitus' Annals or Histories than, I don't know, Plato's Republic. So I'm not just looking for any "classics" work at all -- just that which forms our knowledge of the historical record.

(I know, I know, the existence of the Analects and the Republic tell us a lot about history in itself, etc. Again, I know it's not always possible to peg someone as a philosopher or a historian, like pegging Confucius a philosopher despite his Spring and Autumn Annals, but hopefully I've clarified the question. Oh, and how did I forget Confucius and such when I wrote this question?)
posted by SpringAquifer at 8:19 PM on June 24, 2010

Here's the reading list for the M.A. in Eastern Classics (a "great books" program) at St. John's College (Santa Fe) for Fall, Spring and Summer.
posted by Jahaza at 8:19 PM on June 24, 2010

gah! beaten to the punch!
posted by Jahaza at 8:25 PM on June 24, 2010

Confucius, of course, never wrote the Spring and Autumn Annals, or any of the work that's attributed to him, but that's fair enough -- Sima Qian didn't write all of the stuff that he gets credit for either.

If all you want is history, then Sima Qian is probably the way to go; earlier histories mainly describe the intrigues of various warring kingdoms. It's not necessarily reliable as history, of course - there are internal inconsistencies, and he tends to opt for the good story ("Lao-Tzu wrote the Daode Jing before disappearing over a mountain pass into India") rather than what was actually known at the time ("We have no idea who Lao-Tzu is").
You might also want to check out the Shanhai Jing, "The Classic of Mountains and Lakes," which is basically a massive weirdo-travelogue mixed with some early myths that don't really appear in other places. It's been translated in a Penguin edition (I think as "The Classic of Mountains and Seas"), and is a fairly fun read.

Abiezer will now probably show up and either correct me or suggest something better.
posted by bokane at 9:18 PM on June 24, 2010

If you're not just looking for Chinese history, The Secret History of the Mongols is the history of Genghis Khan's life and empire, the oldest surviving Mongolian text, and very similar to Herodotus in terms of the way it mixs myths and history. It's also, incidently, completely fabulous reading, sort of like Homer but with more detailed descriptions of horses.
posted by colfax at 9:47 PM on June 24, 2010

For Japan, the first two books you want to check out (and decide whether to read or not) are the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. They have pretty similar content, starting with the Age of the Gods and moving forward to historical times, but the former is much more readable as a "book" while the latter includes a lot more minutiae in a much drier style, modeled closely on Chinese texts. Note that neither is really equivalent to Herodotus or Thucydides, or even, say, Homer -- they were written with different goals in a completely different context, etc.

Following up on that you have less well-known works like the Great Mirror (one of several "mirror" works along the same line) and the Eiga Monogatari.

Moving forward, it depends on where you draw the line that cuts off the "classical" period, but the Tale of the Heike is a famous epic about a real 12th-century war. There are several other lesser war chronicles from that period in Japanese history, as well, but you would have to be really interested in the topic to read beyond the Heike. These are probably much closer to your Greek/Roman war histories.

(In general, the most recent translation of any given work will be the most accurate, although older ones [especially pre-war] might be more readable and have dull and repetitive bits excised.)
posted by No-sword at 10:35 PM on June 24, 2010

Surprisingly it seems there is no equivalent in Indian culture. Perhaps they had such a huge corpus of myth and legend it crowded history out?
posted by Phanx at 1:54 AM on June 25, 2010

There is the Persian Book of Kings written around 1000 CE. It gives a mythical and then later somewhat factual history of Persia before the Muslim conquest. Rulers of Persia, including the Muslims, had a bad habit of trying to obliterate the memory of previous dynasties, so there is really not much surviving earlier documents.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 3:43 AM on June 25, 2010

Confucius was not a historian, he was a philosopher, neither was Mencius who was a later philosopher who refined many of Confucius's paradigms in his Analects.

There was Sima Quian, but I am not explicitly familiar with his work. I would postulate that there was never really a great collapse in Chinese history, even when they were conquered they essentially absorbed their conquerors (see the Mongols and the Manchurians), and as such they never really had any "lost ages" that required the work a singular hugely important scholar to bring to light. Additionally, history is really really important over there and pretty much always has been, so there have always been many thousands of scholars who worked continuously to preserve those records.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:03 AM on June 25, 2010

Actually after thinking about it for a minute I realize I was wrong about one incident of historical blindness the Chinese suffered. When the first Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi came to power he essentially tried to wipe the slate clean and buried hundreds of thousands of scholars alive as part of that. Other than that I was right.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:05 AM on June 25, 2010

Kautilya is beginning to be referenced alongside Thucydides, among some International Relations scholars, as a source for political realism.
posted by .kobayashi. at 8:16 AM on June 25, 2010

I will also nominate Sima Qian to be Chinese Herodotus. All of the later twenty-four official histories follow the biographical format pioneer by Sima Qian. As for Thucydides, Plutarch, Tacitus? It will be difficult, because you can't really compare the works of these three historians with the twenty-four official histories. The aim of writing official history in China is to legitimatize the current ruling dynasty. It was often compiled by a team of scholars who labor for decades to edit the text. Often what happen is the current ruling dynasty has every incentives to vilify the previous dynasty. That lead to question about whether to trust certain aspect of the text.

With all that been said, another influential Chinese historian is Sima Guang. His work Zizhi Tongjian or Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government took 19 years to compile and it was finished in 1084 CE. It covers Chinese history from 403 BCE to 959 CE. Unlike Sima Qian , Sima Guang use chronological format to present important events.

Here are some other historians from the "East":

Rashid al-Din wrote Jami' al-tawarikh or Universal History at the request of Mongol ruler of Persia. The work was completed in 1307. It covered from the time of Adam to Ghazan . It provides an important source of materials for the study of the Il Khanate.

For Korean history there is Samguk Sagi, the oldest extant record of Korean history, compiled by Kim Bu-Sik and completed in 1145. It was written in Classical Chinese and highly influenced by Sima Qian. It was based on Chinese sources and no longer extant Korean sources. There are some partial English translations available online.

Annals of the Joseon Dynasty is a massive Korean court annal that was recorded from 1413 to 1865.

I'm not that familiar with Vietnamese history but Annals of Dai Viet completed in 1272 by Lê Văn Hưu is first comprehensive account of the history of Vietnam. It was heavily influenced by Zizhi Tongjian and followed the same chronological format. Unfortunately is it no long extant. It served as a source for the Complete Annals of Dai Viet finished in 1479.
posted by Carius at 10:59 AM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here are few chapters of Zizi Tongjian translated by Rafe de Crespigny.

Burton Watson translated few books of Sima Qian's work.

You might be able to find few other chapters online translated into English, but as far as I know there are really no English translation of the twenty-four histories. It is unlikely it will ever be translated into English in my life time. To give you scale of translation it will entail, the twenty-four histories were only translated into modern Chinese just few years ago.
posted by Carius at 11:13 AM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


The oldest extant copy of The Secret History of the Mongols is actually a Chinese transcription of the Mongol text.
posted by Carius at 11:16 AM on June 26, 2010

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