An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Historiography in China

Jun 20, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Historiography was from oldest times on seen as an integral part of high literature, and not as a mere functional type of writing. The category of history writing therefore occupies the second place in traditional bibliographies (see the literary category of historiography, shibu 史部). This introduction will give an overview over the most important developments, trends and styles in Chinese history writing.

The beginning of "history" is basically the time in which written records commence to provide documentary evidence of human activities. In many cultures, the oldest written records are either reports on the lives and deeds of rulers, or constitute ledgers of granaries and storehouses, like in Mesopotamia or Crete, but are also often religious texts, like the Vedic writings in India.

Oracle Bone Inscriptions and Bronze Inscriptions

In China, the script first appears in inscriptions on sacrificial vessels (jinwen 金文 "bronze inscriptions") during the bronze age in the middle Yellow River plain. At the same time the script was used to record the course and results of prognostications at the court of the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), in shape of the famous oracle bone inscriptions (jiaguwen 甲骨文) that were re-discovered in the late 19th century.

The Office of Historiographer

The oldest term for historiographer was shi 史, with a character depicting a hand holding a bamboo tablet, and denoting a person recording events or royal decrees, but also responsible for certain sacrifices and the communication with gods and spirits. "Historiographers" (shi 史) were scribes as well as diviners and astrologers. It is said that there were two specialized scribes during oldest times, the right one recording the king's words, the left scribe his "deeds" like hunts, sacrifices or military campaigns (zuo shi ji shi, you shi ji yan 左史記事,右史記言; from Ban Gu 班固, Hanshu 漢書, ch. Yiwen zhi 藝文志).

The oldest practical writing materials for archives and bureaucratic purposes were bamboo slips (zhujian 竹簡) or wooden tablets (mudu 木牘), in rare cases, particularly in the southern regions, silk fabric (boshu 帛書). Preeminent texts like the Confucian Classic were incised in stone tablets (beiming 碑銘) erected in central educational institutions. Another example for this custom are the so-called Stone Drum Songs (Shigushi 石鼓詩). During the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE), documents of alliances between noble houses were incised into stone (e.g. Houma mengshu 侯馬盟書).

History Books among the Confucian Classics

The Classic Shangshu 尚書 ("Book of Documents", oldest texts from the 10th cent. BCE) is a collection including a great amount of royal speeches (the king's "words"), while the "Spring and Autumn Annals" (Chunqiu 春秋) chronologically record political events (the king's "deeds") from 722 to 467 BCE, and also natural phenomena like solar eclipses, heavy rain or droughts.

These two texts, as the oldest histories of China, were integrated into the corpus of Confucian Classics and were oftenly commented. The Chunqiu was enriched by a very narrative parallel version, the so-called Zuozhuan 左傳 "Commentary by Zuo (Qiuming) 左丘明" and the philosophical commentaries Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳 and Guliangzhuan 谷梁傳. The Chunqiu as an annalistic text belongs to a historiographical genre that was later called biannianti 編年體 "annalistic style".

Not considered as "official" historiography are the two texts Guoyu 國語 "Discourses of the states" and Zhanguoce 戰國策 "Strategems of the Warring States" (written between the 4th and the 2nd cent. BCE), which consist of narrative anecdotes that are loosely grouped according to the regional state in which the story took place, but not strictly chronological.


The oldest text belonging to the genre of genealogy (pudie 譜牒) is the book Shiben 世本, where the history of the regional rulers of the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) is described.

Unofficial History Writing in Pre-Imperial China

In a very wide sense, the bizarre geography Shanhaijing 山海經 "Classic of the mountains and seas" can also be seen as a historiographical source. The same is naturally also true for the writings of the so-called "Masters and philosophers" of the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), whose texts can serve as sources of history.

Shiji and Hanshu as Paradigms of Official Historiography

During the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) a very new style of historiography was invented, namely the biographic-thematic style (jizhuanti 紀傳體). It began with Sima Qian's 司馬遷 (145–86 BCE) famous universal history (tongshi 通史) Shiji 史記 and found its perfection with Ban Gu's 班固 (32–92 CE) Hanshu 漢書, a history of the Former Han dynasty 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE).

The style of the Hanshu was later perpetuated and became the official pattern of the twenty-six official dynastic histories Ershiliu shi 二十六史 (zhengshi 正史 "correct or orthodox histories"), but is also used in some non-official histories.

The Shiji consists of five different types of texts, namely royal/imperial annals-biographies (benji 本紀), tables (biao 表), treatises on statecraft (shu 書, in later histories called zhi 志), chronicles of the regional states (shiji 世家; later used for minor, "illegal" dynasties), and individual and collective biographies (liezhuan 列傳).


The development of this variegated style did not halt the further development of the annalistic style. Xun Yue 荀悅 (148–209), for instance, wrote an annalistic history of the Former Han, the Hanji 漢紀, Yuan Hong 袁宏 (328–376) the annals Houhanji 後漢紀, describing the history of the Later Han dynasty 後漢 (25-220 CE), and Cui Hong 崔鴻 (478–525) an history of each of the Sixteen States, Shiliuguo chunqiu 十六國春秋, that is written in a mixed biographic-annalistic style.

The Variety of History Writing until the Tang Period

The Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600) witnessed a rich diversification in historiographical texts. The oldest local history is Chang Qu's 常璩 (c. 291–c. 361) Huayang guo zhi 華陽國志 "The lands south of Mt. Huashan" (about Sichuan); the oldest individual book on foreign countries is Faxian's 法顯 (337–422) Foguoji 佛國記 "The lands of the Buddha" (information on foreign countries and peoples can be found at the end of the dynastic histories, e.g. descriptions of the Xiongnu 匈奴 or the Western Territories Xiyu 西域 [modern Xinjiang]); the biographic collection Gaosengzhuan 高僧傳 reports the lives of eminent Buddhist monks; a collection with biographical features, Shishuo xinyu 世說新語 "New account of the tales of the world", was written by Liu Yiqing 劉義慶 (403–444); Yan Zhitui 顏之推 (531–591) wrote his "Family instructions" Yanshi jiaxun 顏氏家訓 that also serve as political advice for rulers.

Capital Cities and Rivers

The oldest reports of cities are a description of Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi, capital of the Former Han), Huangfu santu 黃輔三圖, and the book Luoyang qielan ji 洛陽伽藍記 by Yang Xianzhi 楊衒之 (mid-6th cent.) that describes more than a hundred Buddhist monasteries in Luoyang (capital of the Later Han, the Western Jin, and the Northern Wei); the oldest of many books on rivers and canal construction is the commented "River classic" Shuijing zhu 水經注 from the Three Empires 三國 (220~280 CE) and the commentary from the Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534).

Imperial Bibliographies

The oldest Chinese bibliographies, Bielu 別錄 and Qilüe 七略, written by Liu Xiang 劉向 (77–6 BCE) and his son Liu Xin 劉歆 (46 BCE–23 CE), were compiled during the Han period. They are preserved as the treatise Yiwen zhi 藝文志 in the history Hanshu. Catalogues of the imperial libraries were therefore from the beginning an integral part of historiographic texts. A comparison with the second-oldest surviving catalogue, the treatise Jingji zhi 經籍志 in the history Suishu 隋書, shows how much the genre of historiography had expanded in the first millennium CE. Sometimes imperial collections of artworks like calligraphies and paintings, or such of antiques are also found among the historiographical writings.

The Theory of History Writing

The Chunqiu Annals had been interpreted as a book in which the activities of rulers and nobles were morally criticized by distinct words or formulations. Historiography was therefore seen as a means of instructing people of the present by contemplating events of the past. During the third century China's first literary critique was written by Cao Pi 曹丕 (187–226, ruled 220–226 as Emperor Wen of the Wei 魏文帝), the Dianlun 典論 "Discussions of the standards (of literature)", of which the chapter Lunwen 論文 "On literature" has survived. The first completely transmitted literary critique is Liu Xie's 劉勰 (c. 465-?) Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 "The mind of literature and the carving of dragons", in which the author explains how history had to be written (chapter Shizhuan pian 史傳篇).

The most famous critique on history writing is Liu Zhiji's 劉知幾 (661-721) Shitong 史通 from the Tang period 唐 (618-907). The compilation of this book was all the more necessary because the Tang dynasty institutionalized the historiography institute (shiguan 史館), where first the "veritable records" (shilu 實錄) of each reign were compiled, and then the official "dynastic history" (guoshi 國史). Based on the latter, the individual official dynastic histories were created. The last great historical critique of imperial China was Zhang Xuecheng's 章學誠 (1738–1801) Wenshi tongyi 文史通義.

Official Dynastic Histories

The historiographers of the Tang also took care for the compilation of the official histories of the dynasties that had ruled over China after the disintegration of the unified empire in the third century (Jinshu 晉書, Liangshu 梁書, Beiqishu 北齊書, Zhoushu 周書, Nanshi 南史, Beishi 北史). For some dynasties, two alternative official histories were written, namely two for the Tang (Jiutangshu 舊唐書, Xintangshu 新唐書), two for the Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960, Jiu Wudaishi 舊五代史, Xin Wudaishi 新五代史), and two for the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368, Yuanshi 元史, Xin Yuanshi 新元史). The last official dynastic history was written in the early years of the Republic: Qingshi gao 清史稿.


Apart from the (literally) "correct histories" (zhengshi), compiled by state officials (guan xiu 官修), numerous non-official "wild histories" (yeshi 野史, i.e. not based on official documents in the archives), "miscellaneous" histories (zashi 雜史) or "alternative" histories (bieshi 別史) were written. The style of these differs widely, and they rely on a vast range of different sources, often stories told by employees in the imperial palace. "Miscellaneous" histories mostly concentrate on one single event, while alternative histories compete against the official ones and are therefore valuable additional sources for historians. The boundaries between facts and fiction are often not discernable in this type of literature.

Books on Statecraft

During the Tang period a new type of history came into being with Du You's 杜佑 (735–812) Tongdian 通典 "Comprehensive statutes", an encyclopaedic book that covers all aspects of statecraft through the ages, namely "food and commodities" (shihuo 食貨), the selection of state officials (xuanju 選舉), the administrative structure of the empire (zhiguan 職官), state rituals (li 禮), ritual music (yue 樂), the military (bing 兵), administrative and penal law (xing 刑) and administrative geography (zhoujun 州郡).

Universal History

During the Song period 宋 (960-1279), Zheng Qiao 鄭樵 (1104-1162) continued this concept with his universal history Tongzhi 通志, in which the treatises on statecraft cover a fourth of the whole text, which was rarely the case in the official dynastic histories written until that date. Another text of this encyclopaedic genre was Ma Duanlin's 馬端臨 (1254–1323) Wenxian tongkao 文獻通考 "Comprehensive investigations based on literary and documentary sources" that continues Du You's book until the late Song period. These three books on state administration are called the "Three Comprehensives" (santong 三通) and were two times expanded during the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), to the corpus of the so-called "Ten Comprehensives" (shitong 十通). The three archetypes are comprehensive histories, covering many ages and dynastic periods, while the last four of the Ten Comprehensives only deal with administrative matters of the Qing period.

Institutional History (huiyao 會要)

Another type of text on issues of statecraft was begun by Wang Pu 王溥 (922–982) during the early Song period, with the two books Tang huiyao 唐會要 "Institutional history (literally: collection of important matters) of the Tang" and Wudai huiyao 五代會要 "Institutional history of the Five Dynasties", in which all important matters of administration of the Tang and Five Dynasties periods, respectively, are explained.

Unlike the Tongdian and Wenxian tongkao, the huiyao-type books focus on the administrative system of only one dynasty (or at least one restricted group of dynasties). This type, too, found continuation, for instance, in Xu Tianlin's 徐天麟 (jinshi degree 1205) Xihan huiyao 西漢會要 and Donghan huiyao 東漢會要, Sun Kai's 孫楷 (1871–1907) Qin huiyao dingbu 秦會要訂補, or the large reconstructed Song huiyao jigao 宋會要輯稿. These important texts made writings on politics and administration (zhengshu 政書) an integral part of the category of historiographic writings.

Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑑 as a New Type of Chronicle

Yet in an intellectual sense the most influential novelty of Song period historiography was Sima Guang's 司馬光 (1019–1086) universal history Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑑 "Comprehensive mirror to aid in government". With the idea that the classical Chunqiu Annals had been the paradigm of how to write history, he compiled a chronicle covering the time from 403 BCE to 959 CE, based on a nearly insurmountable number of sources. With a large team of collaborators, Sima Guang managed to write a history book of high scholarly standing that is still today regarded as one of the most important histories of China. This book was oftenly commented, supplemented and enlarged, for instance, in the Zizhi tongjian waiji 資治銅鑑外記 by Liu Shu 劉恕 (1032–1078), Xu zizhi tongjian changbian 續資治通鑑長編 by Li Tao 李燾 (1115–1184), Xu Song biannian zizhi tongjian 續宋編年資治通鑑 by Li Shiju 劉時舉 (fl. 1244) or Zizhi tongjian qianbian 資治通鑑前編 by Jin Lüxiang 金履祥 (1232–1303). This type of universal history (tongshi) made the minds of historians free from the concept of dynastic cycles and the need to write dynastic histories (duandaishi 斷代史).

Topically Arranged History Writing: Tongjian jishi benmo 通鑑紀事本末

A very different approach to history was begun by Yuan Shu 袁樞 (1131–1205), who rearranged the text of the strictly chronological Zizhi tongjian to a history that was centered on coherent themes, describing the latter's development and outcome. This was the Tongjian jishi benmo 通鑑紀事本末 "Historical events of the Comprehensive Mirror in their entirety" that has the advantage over the Zizhi tongjian that the thicket of chronological data was thinned out in order to gain an overview of the origin, context and development of single historical events. The jishi benmo 紀事本末 "history in its entirety" style was also imitated, and books of this genre were written for particular dynasties, like Tongjian changbian jishi benmo 通鑑長編紀事本末 by Yang Zhongliang 楊仲良 (early 13th cent.), Songshi jishi benmo 宋史紀事本末 by Feng Qi 馮琦 (b. 1558, jinshi degree 1577) or Liaoshi jishi benmo 遼史紀事本末 and Jinshi jishi benmo 金史紀事本末 by Li Youtang 李有棠 (1837–1905).

History Writing and Moral in the Tongjian gangmu 通鑑綱目

The great Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130–1200) interpreted Sima Guang's Zizhi tongjian in a moral sense, like the Gongyang and Guliang commentaries had interpreted the Chunqiu Annals. Zhu Xi wrote the Tongjian gangmu 通鑑綱目 "Outlines and details of the Comprehensive Mirror", in which he pointed out headlines (gang 綱) of events whose significance was explained as "meshes" (mu 目), written in small-character text. The Tongjian gangmu with its moral undertone was one of the most influential histories of traditional China. Its style was copied, too, for instance, in the books Xu zizhi tongjian gangmu 續資治通鑑綱目 by Shang Lu 商輅 (1414–1486), Tongjian gangmu qianbian 通鑑綱目前編 by Nan Xuan 南軒 (mid-16th cent.), or Tongjian gangmu sanbian 通鑑綱目三編 by Shen Deqian 沈德潛 (1673–1769).

Historical Romance (yanyi 演義)

Quite interesting is the observation that historical romances also became a distinct literary genre. They, too, were based on limited periods of history, like the celebrated Sanguo yanyi 三國演義 "Historical romance of the Three Empires" by Luo Guanzhong 羅貫中 (1330–1400) that served as a model for later stories like Qianhan tongsu yanyi 前漢通俗演義 "Historical romance of the Former Han", Songshi tongsu yanyi 宋史通俗演義 "Historical romance of the Song dynasty", and other romances by Cai Dongfan 蔡東藩 (1877–1945), Liang Wudi yanyi 梁武帝演義 "Historical romance about Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty" by a writer called Tianhuacang zhuren 天花藏主人 (i.e. Xu Zhen 徐震?) or Hong Xiuquan yanyi 洪秀全演義 "Historical romance about Hong Xiuquan (the founder of the Heavenly Kingdom of the Taiping)" by Huang Xiaopei 黃小配 (Huang Shizhong 黃世仲, 1872–1912).

Geographies and the Local Gazetteer (difangzhi 地方志)

Less standardized than the "great" history books mentioned above were the imperial geographies. Apart from the official geographies Yuanhe junxian tuzhi 元和郡縣圖志 (Tang), Taiping huanyu ji 太平寰宇記 (Song), Yuanfeng jiuyu zhi 元豐九域志 (Song) and the three great imperial geographies Da-Yuan da yitong zhi 大元大一統志, Da-Ming yitong zhi 大明一統志 and Da-Qing yitong zhi 大清一統志, there were also privately written geographies of the whole empire, like Tianxia junguo libing shu 天下郡國利病書 "On benefits and defects of the empire's local administration" by Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613–1682) or Gu Zuyu's 顧祖禹 (1631–1692) Dushi fangyu jiyao 讀史方輿紀要 "Important notes on reading the geographic treatises in the (dynastic) histories".

The amount of local geographies or descriptions of private travels is extremely vast. From the Ming period on the local gazetteer (difangzhi 地方志) with its encyclopaedic character became the official type of information on individual provinces, prefectures, districts or cities.

Private History Writing

From the Ming period on private historiography flourished. Such books are often not considered as texts on history, but belong to the ill-defined genre of biji 筆記 "brush notes". They nevertheless include valuable information on history and can thus be used as additional sources for various themes of research. Such books are Gu Yanwu's Rizhilu 日知錄 "Records of daily (gains) in knowledge", or Huang Zongxi's 黃宗羲 (1610–1695) Mingyi daifang lu 明夷待訪錄 "An obscured paragon (of virtue) awaiting a (royal) visit", the former today classified as a "miscellaneous" treatise (zajia 雜家), the latter as a Confucian one (rujia 儒家), both in the category of the "Masters and philosophers" (zibu 子部).

Biographic collections like Huang's Mingru xue'an 明儒學案 "Annals of Ming period Confucians" are naturally part of the biographies section in the historiography category.

Many writers began freely contemplating about matters of history, like Wang Fuzhi 王夫之 (1619–1692), author of the essays Du Tongjian lun 讀通鑑論 "When reading the Comprehensive Mirror" and Songlun 宋論 "On the Song dynasty", both being texts of historical critique. Many philosophical treatises also include statements about matters of statecraft and base their arguments on examples of history, like Tang Zhen's 唐甄 (1630–1704) Qianshu 潛書 "Book of profundity" or Tan Qian's 談遷 (1593–1657) Guoque 國榷 "Discussions about the state".

A New Wave of Historical Critique in the Qing Period

During the 18th and the early 19th century, a new movement of analyzing ancient texts flourished. Members of this so-called "School of Antiquity Studies" (kaogu xuepai 考古學派), inventors of textual criticism (kaozhengxue 考證學), began with philological investigations of the Confucian Classics, discarded the speculations of Neo-Confucianism, and then also examined historiographical works. Some representatives of this school like Zhang Xuecheng 章學誠 (1738–1801) even contended that the ancient Classics could be used for history research, and not only for philosophical studies. The fruits of the studies of this school are books like Wang Mingsheng's 王鳴盛 (1722–1797) Shiqishi shangque 十七史商榷, Qian Daxin's 錢大昕 (1728–1804) Nian'ershi kaoyi 廿二史考異 or Zhao Yi's 趙翼 (1727-1814) Nian'ershi zhaji 廿二史札記. Their methods included phonology, philology, textual criticism and the collection of fragments.

One of the last great historians of traditional China was Wei Yuan 魏源 (1797–1857), who compiled a military history of the Qing dynasty, Shengwuji 聖武記, a report on the Opium War, Daoguang yangsou zhengfu ji 道光洋艘征撫記, and an analysis on naval defence, Haiguo tuzhi 海國圖志.

Collections of History Books

While most historiographical books can easily be found in many editions, it is the case that a large number of texts, expecially smaller ones, are only accessible in certain collections. The most important of these are Xiaofanghuzhai yudi congchao 小方壺齋輿地叢鈔, a large collection of geographical books of late Qing China, published by Wang Xiqi 王錫祺 (1855–1913), Man-Qing yeshi 滿淸野史 (publ. by Changfu Publishing House in Chengdu 成都昌福公司), a collection of "wild" histories about the Manchu dynasty, Jindai Zhonggo shiliao congkan 近代中國史料叢刊 (publ. by Shen Yunlong 沈雲龍, 1909–1987), a collection of sources mainly from the late Qing period, Zhongguo shixue congshu 中國史學叢書 (publ. by Wu Xiangxiang 吳相湘, 1912–2007), three collections of a vast range of different sources on the late imperial period, including memorials to the throne, diaries, and local gazetteers, Biji xiaoshuo daguan 筆記小説大觀 (publ. by Shanghai jinbu shuju 上海進步書局), a collection of biji-style texts, many of which are of historiographical character, Zhongguo yeshi jicheng 中國野史集成 (publ. by Sichuan daxue tushuguan 四川大學圖書館), a huge collection of unofficial histories through the ages, or Qingdai shiliao biji congkan 清代史料筆記叢刊 (publ. by Zhonghua shuju 中華書局).

Historiography in the Republican Era


History Writing in the People's Republic