Historians have been known through history as recorders and observers of historical events. They seldom have to put their lives on the line to persevere. Ancient China has such a historian. He submitted to a painful and humilitating mutilation in order to complete his work. Today, we have a complete historical record of China from the first dynastys to the Western Han, thanks to one mans dedication to honor his father.
The events that occured during that time period, still resonate in today's world. For example, we know of Sun Tzu the great Chinese military strategist who wrote,The Art of War, because of a biography written by Sima Qian, historian to the Emperor Han Wudi. Sun Tzu's work survived and is the basis for the popular military strategy book. What Sima Qian provided was credibility that Sun Tzu existed and was an important figure during the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history.
Another important event described is the opening of the fabled Silk Road, the longest trading route in pre-modern times. The record of the opening of the route contains one of the greatest personal adventure stories of all time. We know of this adventure because of Sima Qian's dedication to complete his work against all odds. The Han Emperor Wudi dispatched an envoy, Zhang Qian to travel west to try and establish contact with potential Central Asian allies to combat the on going threat posed by the nomadic Xiongnu, or Huns. The trip not only was a great personal adventure, but Zhang Qian brought back information about Central Asia and beyond, that stimulated interest in cross-continent trade.
The elements of Sima Qian's own life forehadows the importance of the records he left behind. Born the son of the Prefect of the Grand Scribes of the Emperor Wu of Han, Sima assumed his fathers role after his death, and served the Emperor as Council to the emperor on general affairs of state. He began to compile the Shiji or Records of the Grand Historian during this time. He fell out of favor with the Emperor when he defended an accused general. For this defense, he was sentenced to death. As was the custom he was given the choice of buying his life, or submit to casteration. Sima Qian chose the latter, in order to complete his work and honor the work his father had begun.
He served three years in prison and upon release wrote the following.
"The losses he [Li Ling] had formerly inflicted on the enemy were such that his renown filled the Empire! After his disgrace, I was ordered to give my opinion. I extolled his merits, hoping the Emperor would take a wider view, but ...in the end it was decided I was guilty of trying to mislead the Emperor...
I had not the funds to pay a fine in lieu of my punishment, and my colleagues and associates spoke not a word in my behalf. Had I chosen suicide, no one would have credited me with dying for a principle. Rather, they would have thought the severity of my offense allowed no other way out. It was my obligation to my father to finish his historical work which made me submit to the knife...If I had done otherwise , how could I have ever had the face to visit the graves of my parents?
...There is no defilement so great as castration. One who has undergone this punishment is nowhere counted as a man. This is not just a modern attitude; it has always been so. Even an ordinary fellow is offended when he has to do business with a eunuch -- how much more so, then, a gentleman! Would it not be an insult to the court and my former colleagues if now I, a menial who sweeps floors, a mutilated wretch, should raise my head and stretch my eyebrows to argue right and wrong?
I am fit now for only guarding the palace women's apartments. I can hope for justification only after my death, when my histories become known to the world."
We can only imagine what Sima Qian endured. His legacy lives on to remind us that principles count. We have few historians in Western Culture who would come close to Sima Qian's example. Perhaps Marc Bloch, who wrote The Historian's Craft while on the run from the German Gestapo during World War II comes close, Bloch was caught and excuted in 1944.