An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Shigang pingyao 史綱評要

Mar 4, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

Shigang pingyao 史綱評要 "Highlights of history with critical comments" is a comprehensive historical critique written by the philosopher and historian Li Zhi 李贄 (1527-1602).

The problem of authorship was long discussed among historians. Many believe that the book was not written by Li Zhi himself, but by Wu Congxian 吳從先 (died c. 1640, courtesy name Ningye 寧野, style Xiaochuang 小窗) who 'borrowed' the name of this famous and hotly debated philosopher to promote the sales numbers of the Shigang pingyao. Wu Congxian was the author of the collections Xiaochuang ziji 小窗自紀, Xiaochuang yanji 小窗艷紀, Xiaochuang qingji 小窗清紀, and Xiaochuang bieji 小窗别紀, which are all described in the imperial catalogue Siku quanshu zongmu tiyao 四庫全書總目提要.

The 36-juan long Shigang pingyao has the character of a universal history and was compiled as a potpourri of quotations from important historiographical sources. Li Zhi added to these pointed critique, often with sarcastic undertones, but very helpful to obtain an insight into the shortcomings even of popular history books. It is an extremely rich source treating not only the reigns of 450 kings and emperors, but also recording the activities of 700 chief ministers and mentioning as much as 6,500 persons.

The arrangement of the Shigang pingyao is that of a chronicle, yet interspersed with commentaries. The text is therefore divided into relevant historical events (shigang 史綱) and historical critique (shiping 史評). Each dynasty is treated in one chronicle (ji 紀). The critical part consists of very brief inserted parts (pi 批) and summarizing parts (ping 評). Li Zhi did not only comment on persons and historical events, but occasionally also wrote about the way of writing history. Quite interestingly, the commentaries tend to vernacular Chinese, which makes reading easier for persons of a common educational background.

Li Zhi, who is known as an enfant terrible in the philosophical realm, also criticizes the standpoints of Confucian advisors in history, particularly their constant praise of benevolent rulership which stands in blatant contrast to the political practice. Li Zhi particularly dispised Neo-Confucian thought.

In many ways he stood in opposition to common historiography. While the latter demonized the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇帝 (r. 246-210 BCE), Li Zhi stressed that his rule and its successes must be seen objectively. He also praised Xiao He 蕭何, the advisor of Liu Bang 劉邦, the founder of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), and criticized Jia Yi 賈誼 and Chao Cuo 晁錯 who had advocated the suppression of the imperial princes, exclusively promoted agriculture (in contrast to trade and commerce), and urged Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) to attack the steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴.

The Shigang pingyao was published in 1974 by the Zhonghua Book Company 中華書局, an edition that was reedited in 2008 by the same publisher.

Cui Wenyin 崔文印 (1977). "Tan Shigang pingyao de zhenwei wenti 談《史綱評要》的真偽問題", Wenwu 文物, 1977 (8).
Fujian Laizhou Shi Wenwu Guanli Weiyuanhui 福建来州市文物管理委员会, Xiamen Daxue Lishi Xi 厦门大学历史系 (1974). "Jieshao Li Zhi de yi bu zhongyao zhuzuo: Ming keben Shigang pingyao 介紹李贄的一部重要著作—明刻本《史綱目評要》", Wenwu 文物, 1974 (9).
Lei Ge 雷戈 (1985). "Shixi Shigang pingyao zhong youguan pingdian shixue de ji ge tezheng 試析《史綱評要》中有關评點史學的幾個特徵", Shangqiu shizhuan xuebao (Shehui kexue ban) 商丘師專學報(社會科學版), 1985/2: 131-136.
Lin Xiaoping 林曉平 (1998). "Shigang pingyao de pi yu ping 《史綱評要》的“批”與“評”", Shixue shi yanjiu 史學史研究, 1998 (4).
Wang Liqi 王利器 (1982). "Shigang pingyao de Wu Congxian jia Li Zhuowu zhi ming yi xing 《史綱評要》是吳從先假李卓吾之名以行", Shehui kexue zhanxian 社會科學戰線, 1982 (3).