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This week I decided to combine a few passions in one and read a non-fiction history of China’s First Emperor based on the writings of a subsequent Grand Histographer.

It seemed like a good idea at the time…

Book 12 – The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records by Sima Qian, Translated by Raymond Dawson.  This is actually really difficult to review.  It is a translation of records inscribed around 110BC of events a few generations earlier, written by a man serving a later court.  It is made clear in the preface that the role of Grand Histographer, as Sima Qian was, is not equivalent to our idea of a historian – the stories he recorded are clearly spun in a certain way to tell a particular story, and conversations that no-one would have been privy to are recorded.  In some respects it’s a little like reading a well-researched historical novel, except this is all the record that exists for much of what is reported.

This was a hard read, for me.  There is so much of a gap in my understanding of Chinese history that I was often at a loss to know what each reference meant, and despite pages of explanatory notes at the end I really got a little lost.  I feel, in fact, like I need to read it again and underline important concepts!

Having said that, the voices of the past ring through this book.  The teachings each statesman tried to impart (whether for their own profit or for the good of the Emperor/Empire) shine a light on a culture very different to my own.  The sense of outrage that comes out of the pages when unfilial acts are described, and the subsequent sense that punishment came from Heaven for those very acts, gives a deeper sense of the cultural attitudes of the time.  Suicide as a way to honour your Emperor, and avoid disgrace, is frequently mentioned, and much is made of the sense that All Under Heaven is ruled by one man.

This book was a challenge in its own right, and I do feel I skimmed it too much trying to read it in a week – but those insights into Chinese wisdom and superstition, magic and religion, make me feel inspired and excited, as though I’ve been given a key to another world.

In some ways I have – and I can’t complain about a book that does that!

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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