An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑒

Jul 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑑 "Comprehensive mirror to aid in government" is one of the most important traditional histories of China. In respect of influence it is only second to the first universal history (tongshi 通史) of China, the Shiji 史記, or even surpasses the latter. The Zizhi tongjian was written by the writer and politician Sima Guang 司馬光 (1019–1086, courtesy name Junshi 君實, style Yusou 迂叟).

The Zizhi tongjian consists of 294 juan plus 30 juan of register (mulu 目錄) and a critical apparatus (kaoyi 考異) of 30 juan. It covers the time period between the reign of King Weilie 周威烈王 (r. 425–402 BCE) of the Eastern Zhou dynasty 東周 (770-221 BCE) and the reign of Emperor Shizong 後周世宗 (r. 954–959 CE) of the Later Zhou 後周 (951-960), one of the Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960), or the years 403 BCE to 959 CE.

Sima Guang had always been interested in history, but was repelled by the structure of traditional historiography that made an intellectual access to events and their circumstances very cubersome, especially in the official dynastic histories (zhengshi 正史) that are written in a biographic-thematic style (jizhuanti 紀傳體). He therefore decided to write history by himself, in the annalistic style (biannianti 編年體) in which the Confucian Classic Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals" were written.

His first work was a draft called Tongzhi 通志 "Comprehensive records" in 8 juan, covering the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) and the short-lived Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE). He submitted this book in 1066 to Emperor Yingzong 宋英宗 (r. 1063–1067), who immediately appreciated it and ordered to continue the work. Emperor Shenzong 宋神宗 (r. 1067–1085) granted the book the title of Zizhi tongjian, wrote a preface to it and had it included in the Institute for the Veneration of Literature (Chongwenyuan 崇文院) of the Imperial Archives. In 1084 the whole book was completed.

Table 1. Chapters of the Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑒
1.-5. 周紀 Zhou (403-221 BCE) 1-5
6.-8. 秦紀 Qin (221-206 BCE) 1-3
9.-68. 漢紀 Han (206 BCE-220 CE) 1-60
69.-78. 魏紀 Wei (220~280) 1-10
79.-118. 晉紀 Jin (265-420) 1-40
119.-134. 宋紀 Liu-Song (420-479) 1-16
135.-144. 齊紀 Southern Qi (479-502) 1-10
145.-166. 梁紀 Liang (502-557) 1-21
167.-176. 陳紀 Chen (557-589) 1-10
177.-184. 隋紀 Sui (581-618) 1-7
185.-265. 唐紀 Tang (618-907) 1-81
266.-271. 後梁紀 Later Liang (907-923) 1-6
272.-279. 後唐紀 Later Tang (923-936) 1-8
280.-285. 後晉紀 Later Jin (936-946) 1-6
286.-289. 後漢紀 Later Han (947-950) 1-4
290.-294. 後周紀 Later Zhou (951-960) 1-5

Although Sima Guang is often called the sole author of the book he had only written part of it. The rest was compiled by a team of historians under his supervision. The most important members of the team were Liu Shu 劉恕, Liu Ban 劉攽 and Fan Zuyu 范祖禹. Liu Shu was a historian of wide expertise who constructed the theoretical background of the Zizhi tongjian. Liu Ban was an expert on the history of the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), Fan Zuyu on that of the Tang period 唐 (618-907).

The composition of the Zizhi tongjian was made in three steps. In the first step the compilers collected all available source material from all ages, put together accounts on specific events and arranged the material chronologically. The result was the so-called congmu 叢目 "clustered overview". The second step was to screen the material, to eredicate redundancies, to select the most detailed passages, and to clear contradictions. The result was the changbian 長編 "long version". This version was again, in a third step made by Sima Guang himself, abbreviated and refined.

The compilers of the Zizhi tongjian used a vast amount of material, not only the official dynastic histories and miscellaneous histories, but, especially for the Tang period, a lot of official and private sources of all kinds: "veritable records" (shilu 實錄), family registers (jiapu 家譜, pudie 譜牒), family biographies, condolences and essays. The text-critical apparatus is of great help to reconstruct wordings in primary sources.

The great advantage of the Zizhi tongjian over the official dynastic histories is that it is arranged chronologically. While the latter are following a biographic-thematic pattern of historiography in which specific historical events are to be found in many different chapters, namely the biographies of the persons involved, the Zizhi tongjian follows a chronological pattern, coupled with a short introduction and summary to each important event. This makes is very easy for the reader to follow the course of events and to understand how things in history developed. Inspite of this great advantage the Zizhi tongjian is still a traditional history which lays most stress on political events, not on the history of culture, economy, literature, and so on.

It is also influenced by Confucian thinking of righteous rule and usurpatious rule and is therefore biased towards persons thought to be not backed by a right to rule. Sima Guang gives his own comments to history, in paragraphs introduced by the words chen Guang yue 臣光曰 "servant Guang says". His book served in first line as a textbook on governance and should be read by princes and emperors as a guideline how to rule and what not to do as a ruler. Sima Guang was an excellent author whose literary talent is seen in the Zizhi tongjian. It is one of the most-read traditional histories of China.

A textual revision was undertaken after the submission to the throne, and in 1086 the Zizhi tongjian was printed in Hangzhou 杭州, Zhejiang. The print is lost, and from a print from 1132 only fragments exist. During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) Hu Kejia 胡克家 (1757–1816) reprinted a Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) version that served also as the base for the modern reprint by the Zhonghua Book Company 中華書局 in 1956.

The most important commentary on the Zizhi tongjian is Hu Sanxing's 胡三省 (1230–1302, original name Mansun 滿孫, courtesy name Shenzhi 身之, style Meijian 梅澗) Tongjian yinzhu 通鑑音注. Less important—but still helpful—commentaries are Shi Zhao's 史炤 Tongjian shiwen 通鑑釋文, Wang Yinglin's 王應麟 Tongjian dili tongshi 通鑑地理通釋 and Yan Yan's 嚴衍 Zizhi tongjian bu 資治通鑑補.

The late Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) historian Chen Renxi 陳仁錫 (1581–1636) compiled a series including the main text of the Zizhi tongjian as well as other, supplementary books written by Sima Guang and later scholars. This is the Zizhi tongjian daquan 資治通鑑大全, printed in 1629.

Table 2. The series Zizhi tongjian daquan 資治通鑒大全
(Ming) Chen Renxi 陳仁錫 (comp.)
1629 edition from Jinchang 金閶 (Dahuantang 大歡堂)
書名, length in juan Title Author(s)
資治通鑒釋例圖譜 一卷 Zizhi tongjian shili tupu (Song) 司馬光 Sima Guang
資治通鑒問疑 一卷 Zizhi tongjian wenyi (Song) 劉羲仲 Liu Xizhong
資治通鑒目錄 三十卷 Zizhi tongjian mulu (Song) 司馬光 Sima Guang
資治通鑒 二百九十四卷 Zizhi tongjian (Song) 司馬光 Sima Guang; (Yuan) 胡三省 Hu Sanxing (comm.)
甲子會紀 五卷 Jiazi huiji (Ming) 薛應旂 Xue Yingqi
通鑒前編 十八卷
舉要 二卷
首 一卷
Tongjian qianbian
(Song) 金履祥 Jin Lüxiang
通鑒釋文辯誤 十二卷 Tongjian shiwen biancuo (Song) 胡三省 Hu Sanxing
宋元資治通鑒 六十四卷 Song-Yuan zizhi tongjian (Ming) 王宗沐 Wang Zongmu
Source: Shanghai tushuguan 1982, Vol 1, 638.

During the Guangxu reign 光緒 (1875-1908) the Suzhou Printing House 蘇州書局 published the series Zizhi tongjian huike 資治通鑑彙刻 that includes the most important additions and supplements to the Zizhi tongjian.

Table 3. The series Zizhi tongjian huike 資治通鑒彙刻
蘇州書局 Suzhou Printing House (comp.)
1869-1882 edition by Jiangsu Shuju 江蘇書局
書名, length in juan Title Author(s)
資治通鑒 二百九十四卷 Zizhi tongjian (Song) 司馬光 Sima Guang,
comm. by (Yuan) 胡三省 Hu Sanxing
通鑒釋文辨誤 十二卷 Tongjian shiwen bianwu (Yuan) 胡三省 Hu Sanxing
資治通鑒目錄 三十卷 Zizhi tongjian mulu (Song) 司馬光 Sima Guang
稽古錄 二十卷
(附)校勘記 一卷
(Song) 司馬光 Sima Guang
通鑒宋本校勘記 五卷 Tongjian Songben jiaokanji (Qing) 張瑛 Zhang Ying
通鑒元本校勘記 二卷 Tongjian Yuanben jiaokanji (Qing) 張瑛 Zhang Ying
通鑒外紀 十卷
(附)目錄 五卷
Tongjian waiji
(Song) 劉恕 Liu Shu; (Qing) 胡克家 Hu Kejia (comm., suppl.)
續資治通鑒 二百二十卷 Xu zizhi tongjian (Qing) 畢沅 Bi Yuan
明通鑒 九十卷
(附)目錄 二十卷
(附)前編 四卷
(附)附編 六卷
Ming tongjian
(Qing) 陳鶴 Chen He; (Qing) 陳克家 Chen Kejia, 夏燮 Xia Xie (suppl.)
Source: Shanghai tushuguan 1982, Vol 1, 638.

A similar series, the Zizhi tongjian quanshu 資治通鑑全書, was published by Hu Yuanchang 胡元常 in 1888, printed in Changsha 長沙, Hunan, by Yang Dewu 楊德吾.

Table 4. The series Zizhi tongjian quanshu 資治通鑒全書
(Qing) 胡元常 Hu Yuanchang (comp.)
1888 edition of Master Yang from Changsha 長沙楊氏
書名, length in juan Title Author(s)
新校資治通鑒敍錄 三卷 Xinjiao zizhi tongjian xulu (Qing) 胡元常 Hu Yuanchang
資治通鑒 二百九十四卷 Zizhi tongjian (Song) 司馬光 Sima Guang; (Yuan) 胡三省 Hu Sanxing (comm.)
資治通鑒目錄 三十卷 Zizhi tongjian mulu (Song) 司馬光 Sima Guang
資治通鑒考異 三十卷 Zizhi tongjian kaoyi (Song) 司馬光 Sima Guang
資治通鑒釋例 一卷 Zizhi tongjian shili (Song) 司馬光 Sima Guang
資治通鑒問疑 一卷 Zizhi tongjian wenyi (Song) 劉羲仲 Liu Xizhong
資治通鑒釋文 三十卷 Zizhi tongjian shiwen (Song) 史炤 Shi Zhao
資治通鑒釋文辨誤 十二卷 Zizhi tongjian shiwen bianwu (Yuan) 胡三省 Hu Sanxing
Source: Shanghai tushuguan 1982, Vol 1, 639.

The latest collection of texts related to Sima Guang's famous book and its imitations was published in 2020 by Zhai Kuifeng 翟奎鳳, namely Tongjian wenxian jikan 通鑒文獻輯刊.

The style of the Zizhi tongjian became so popular that historians started writing similar chronicles for many other periods of history.

Table 5. Derivates of or supplements to the Zizhi tongjian
資治銅鑒外記 Zizhi tongjian waiji (Song) 劉恕 Liu Shu
from mythological times to the end of the Spring and Autumn period
續資治通鑒長編 Xu zizhi tongjian changbian (Song) 李燾 Li Tao
Northern Song
建炎以來繫年要錄 Jianyan yilai xinian yaolu (Song) 李心傳 Li Xinzhuan
Southern Song
建炎以來朝野雜記 Jianyan yilai chaoye zaji (Song) 李心傳 Li Xinzhuan
Southern Song
續宋編年資治通鑒 Xu Song biannian zizhi tongjian (Song) 劉時舉 Li Shiju
Southern Song
資治通鑒前編 Zizhi tongjian qianbian (Song/Yuan) 金履祥 Jin Lüxiang
from mythological times to the end of the Spring and Autumn period
資治通鑒續編 Zizhi tongjian xubian (Ming) 陳檉 Chen Cheng (陳桱 Cheng Jing)
creation of the world and early Song
宋元資治通鑒 Song-Yuan zizhi tongjian (Ming) 王宗沐 Wang Zongmu, Song and Yuan dynasties
宋元資治通鑒 Song-Yuan zizhi tongjian (Ming) 薛應旂 Xue Yingqi, Song and Yuan dynasties
資治通鑒補 Zizhi tongjian bu (Ming) 嚴衍 Yan Yan
same period as the Zizhi tongjian
資治通鑒後編 Zizhi tongjian houbian (Qing) 徐乾學 Xu Qianxue
Song and Yuan dynasties, lost
續資治通鑒 Xu zizhi tongjian (Qing) 畢沅 Bi Yuan
Song and Yuan dynasties
明紀 Mingji (Qing) 陳鶴 Chen He, 陳克家 Chen Kejia
Ming dynasty
明通鑒 Ming tongjian (Ming) 夏燮 Xia Xie
Ming dynasty
續通鑒長編拾補 Xu tongjian changbian shibu (Qing) 秦湘業 Qin Xiangye or 黃以周 Huang Yizhou
Chen Guangchong 陳光崇 (1992). "Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑒", 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. 3, 1618-1619.
Shanghai tushuguan 上海圖書館, ed. (1982). Zhongguo congshu zonglu 中國叢書綜錄 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe), Vol. 1, 638, 639.
Standaert, Nicolas (2018). "Comprehensive Histories in Late Ming and Early Qing: The Genealogy of the gangjian Texts", Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities Bulletin, 79-80: 245-334.
Zhu Fan 朱凡 (2014). "Xijian shanben Zizhi tongjian daquan kaobian 稀见善本《资治通鉴大全》考辨", Tushuguan zazhi 图书馆杂志, 2014 (3): 104-108.