An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shitong 史通

Jul 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Shitong 史通 "All about historiography" is one of China's oldest books containing a systematic critique to historiography. It was written by the Tang-period 唐 (618-907) scholar Liu Zhiji 劉知幾 (661-721), is 20-juan long and was finished in 710.

Liu Zhiji was himself a very important historiographer at the Tang court and wrote several history books: Tangshu 唐書 "Book of the [origin of the] Tang" in 80 juan (together with with Zhu Jingze 朱敬則; not the great Jiutangshu 舊唐書!), the veritable records (shilu 實錄) of Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 (r. 690-704), Wuhou shilu 武后實錄 (with Xu Jian 徐堅), and two genalogies called Shizuzhi 氏族志 "Families and clans" (with Liu Chong 劉沖) and Xingzu xilu 姓族系錄 "The genealogies of the [great] families", the latter in 200 juan, further the veritable records of Emperor Ruizong 唐睿宗 (r. 684 and 710-712), Ruizong shilu 睿宗實錄 in 20 juan (with Wu Jing 吳競) and emperor Zhongzong 唐中宗 (r. 683-684 and 705-709), Zhongzong shilu 中宗實錄 in 20 juan, as well as a revised record of the empress, the Zetian shilu 則天實錄 in 30 juan.

In 708 Liu Zhiji retired from his office – at least for some time – in order to compile his Shitong. The main reason was that he was very displeased with the influence high officials tried to exert on the historiographers in order to conceal negative facts or to embellish mediocre performances. The book was not compiled in one process but came into being by a careful composition of several chapters that were compiled over long period of time.

His book contains 39 so-called "inner chapters" (neipian 內篇), of which 3 were lost during the Song period 宋 (960-1279), and 13 outer chapters (waipian 外篇). Liu systematically treats all aspects of historiography and highlights his standpoint with examples. He thus tried to establish rules for an objective (shi 實) kind of historiography. His book is very important to know more about the offices and procedures in ancient Chinese historiography. Liu stressed that a historian has straightly to write down facts (zhishu 直書), without "beating around the bush" (qubi 曲筆), but he has also to highlight the good and to criticise the bad in order to provide a mirror for future generations.

The second important point of his book is a good composition from the standpoint of literary quality. Only this will allow a book obtaining the status of a "classic". Thirdly he has to transmit a scholarly attitude towards history. A historian, Liu says, must know how to interprete sources (shicai 史才 "talent for historiography"), he has to have knowledge of history (shishi 史識), and must be trained in historiography (shixue 史學).

Liu's book has not been written as a critique of one particular book but as a guideline for historians in general. The themes of the outer part are more specialized than those of the first part of the book and criticise the historic value and historiographic method of the Confucian Classics Shangshu 尚書, Chunqiu 春秋 and Zuozhuan 左傳. The inner chapters begin with an assessment of the type of the official dynastic histories (zhengshi 正史) that were written in a biographic-thematic style (jizhuanti 紀傳體).

Though Liu Zhiji developed important guidelines for a more objective historiography he did not leave the traditional paths of the prevalent two types of history writing, which was either done in a biographic-thematic style (jizhuanti) or in an annalistic form (biannianti 編年體). He made no proposals for better forms of writing history in the future.

The Shitong was in effect published by Liu Zhiji's son Liu Su 劉餗 and circulated as a manuscript. The late Tang period scholar Liu Can 柳璨 (d. 906) wrote a commentary, the Shitong xiwei 史通析微. The earliest print was produced during the Song period, but his has not survived, yet the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Zhang Zhixiang 張之象 (1496-1577) used a Song print as a base for his facsimile edition from 1577, which is of an excellent quality. The earliest exant print dates from the early 16th century but is of an inferior printing quality. The Ming period scholar Li Weizhen 李維楨 (1547-1626) wrote the commentary called Shitong pingshi 史通評釋, Guo Kongyan 郭孔延 a commentary with the same title, and Wang Weijian 王維儉 wrote the Shitong xungu 史通訓詁. All those commenaries were considered in Pu Qilong's 浦起龍 (1679-1762) Shitong tongshi 史通通釋 which was printed in 1752. This is the most widespread commentary. It was was reprinted in 1978 by the Shanghai guji press 上海古籍出版社. The edition in the reprint series Sibu congkan 四部叢刊 is a facsimile of a print of 1602.

Table 1. Contents of Liu Zhiji's 劉知幾 Shitong 史通
內篇 Neipian Inner Chapters
1. 六家 Liujia The six historiographical traditions
2. 二體 Erti The two historiographical patterns
3. 載言 Zaiyan Recording speeches
4. 本紀 Benji Imperial annals-biographies
5. 世家 Shijia Biographies of eminent houses and people
6. 列傳 Liezhuan Normal or collective biographies
7. 表歷 Biaoli Chronological tables
8. 書志 Shuzhi Monographies and treatises
9. 論贊 Lunzan Discussions and eulogies
10. 序例 Xuli Prefaces and introductions
11. 提目 Timu Titles and subjects
12. 斷限 Duanxian Restrictions
13. 編次 Bianci The orderly sequence
14. 稱謂 Chengwei Terms and names
15. 採撰 Caizhuan Selection and composition
16. 載文 Zaiwen Recording documents
17. 補注 Buzhu Supplements and commentaries
18. 因習 Yinxi Carry on as before
19. 邑里 Yili Localities and distances
20. 言語 Yanyu Words and speeches
21. 浮詞 Fuci Empty words
22. 敘事 Xushi Narratives
23. 品藻 Pinzao Passing judgments
24. 直書 Zhishu Give truthful accounts
25. 曲筆 Qubi Distorting facts to hide the truth
26. 鑒識 Jianshi Recognition of facts in a mirror
27. 探賾 Tanze Probing into profund truth
28. 摸擬 Moni Mutual dependence and intertwining
29. 書事 Shushi Writing down facts
30. 人物 Renwu Personalities
31. 覈才 Hecai Evaluation of talent
32. 序傳 Xuzhuan Autobiography
33. 煩省 Fanxing Overcharging and abbreviation
34. 雜述 Zashu Miscellaneous descriptions
35. 辨職 Bianzhi Discrimination of state offices
體統 Titong Decorum and decency (lost)
紕繆 Pimiu Errors and mistakes (lost)
弛張 Chizhang Overexpansion (lost)
文質 Wenzhi The quality of texts (lost)
褒貶 Baobian Praise and blame (lost)
36. 自敘 Zixu Prefaces written by the author
外篇 Waipian Outer Chapters
1. 史官建置 Shiguan jianzhi The office of the historiographer
2. 古今正史 Gujin zhengshi The standard official histories in old and new times
3. 疑古 Yigu Doubting antiquity
4. 惑經 Huojing Questioning the canonical books
5. 申左 Shenzuo Presenting support
6. 點煩 Dianfan Pointing out confusion
7.-9. 雜說 Zashuo Miscellaneous treatises
10.-11. 五行錯誤 Wuxing cuowu Errors in the theory of the Five Progresses
12. 暗惑 Anhuo Delusion by unclearity
13. 忤時 Wushi On bad terms with chronology
Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰, ed. (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe), Vol. 1, 1515.
Qu Lindong 瞿林東 (1992). "Shitong 史通", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 939-940.