Sima Guang
Personal details
Born17 November 1019
Guangshan County, Guāng Prefecture, Song dynasty
DiedOctober 11, 1086(1086-10-11) (aged 66)
Kaifeng, Song Empire
SpouseLady Zhang
ChildrenSima Kang
  • Sima Chi (father)
OccupationHistorian, politician, writer
Courtesy nameJunshi (君實)
Art nameYusou (迂叟)
Posthumous nameWenzheng (文正)
Other namesSushui Xiansheng (涑水先生)
Sima Guang
Traditional Chinese司馬
Simplified Chinese司马

Sima Guang (17 November 1019 – 11 October 1086), courtesy name Junshi, was a Chinese historian, politician, and writer. He was a high-ranking Song dynasty scholar-official who authored the Zizhi Tongjian, a monumental work of history. Sima was a political conservative, who opposed the reforms of Wang Anshi.

Early life

Sima Guang was named after Guang Prefecture, his birthplace, and where his father Sima Chi (司馬池) served as a county magistrate. The Sima family were originally from Xia County in Shǎn Prefecture, and claimed descent from the 3rd century Cao Wei official Sima Fu. A famous anecdote relates the young Sima Guang saving a playmate who had fallen into an enormous vat full of water. As other children scattered in panic, Sima calmly picked up a rock and smashed a hole in the base of the pot. Water leaked out, and his friend was saved.[1]

At the age of 6, Sima heard a lecture concerning the Zuo Zhuan, a work of history dating to the 4th century BC. Fascinated, he was able to retell the stories to his family when he returned home. He became an avid reader, "to the point of not recognizing hunger, thirst, coldness or heat".[1]

Sima obtained early success as a scholar and officer. When he was barely twenty, he passed the Imperial examination with the highest rank of jìnshì (進士; 'metropolitan graduate'), and spent the next several years in official positions.

Historical work

Sima Guang is best remembered for his masterwork, Zizhi Tongjian, and the Australian sinologist Rafe de Crespigny describes him as "perhaps the greatest of all Chinese historians" (de Crespigny 1973:65).

In 1064, Sima presented to Emperor Yingzong of Song the five-volume Liniantu ("Chart of Successive Years"). It chronologically summarized events in Chinese history from 403 BCE to 959 CE and served as a prospectus for sponsorship of his ambitious project in historiography. These dates were chosen because 403 BCE was the beginning of the Warring States period, when the ancient State of Jin was subdivided, which eventually led to the establishment of the Qin dynasty—959 CE was the end of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period and the beginning of the Song dynasty.

Brush pot with the pot-breaking episode from the story of Sima Guang, transitional porcelain

In 1066, he presented a more detailed eight-volume Tongzhi (通志; 'Comprehensive Records'), which chronicled Chinese history from 403 BCE to 207 BCE (the end of the Qin dynasty). The emperor issued an edict for the compilation of a groundbreaking universal history of China, granting full access to imperial libraries, and allocating funds for the costs of compilation, including research assistance by experienced historians such as Liu Ban (劉攽, 1022–88), Liu Shu (劉恕, 1032–78), and Fan Zuyu (范祖禹, 1041–98). After Yingzong died in 1067, Sima was invited to the palace to introduce his work-in-progress to Emperor Shenzong of Song. The new emperor not only confirmed the interest his father had shown, but showed his favor by bestowing an imperial preface in which he changed the title from Tongzhi ("Comprehensive Records") to Zizhi Tongjian ("Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government"). Scholars interpret the "Mirror" of the title to denote a work of reference and guidance, indicating that Shenzong accepted Sima as his guide in the study of history and its application to government. The emperor maintained his support for the compilation of this comprehensive history until its completion in 1084.

From the late 1060s, Sima came to assume a role as leader of what has been identified as a conservative faction at court, resolutely opposed to the New Policies of Chancellor Wang Anshi. Sima presented increasingly critical memorials to the throne until 1070, when he refused further appointment and withdrew from court. In 1071, he took up residence in Luoyang, where he remained with an official sinecure, providing sufficient time and resources to continue the compilation of Zizhi Tongjian. Though the historian and the emperor continued to disagree on policies, Sima's enforced retirement proved essential for him to complete his chronological history over the following one and a half decades. Contemporary accounts relate that to work more and sleep less when he was writing his great opus, the Zizhi Tongjian, he had a wooden pillow made from a log, designed to slip from under his head whenever he rolled over. He called this Jingzhen 警枕 (Alert Pillow), and used it throughout the period of Zizhi Tongjian's compilation.[2]


Sima Wengong Temple in Xia County, Shanxi, is the Sima family graveyard and shrine, and Sima Guang's resting place

Emperor Shenzong died in 1085, shortly after Sima had submitted Zizhi Tongjian to the throne. Sima was recalled to court and appointed to lead the government under Emperor Zhezong of Song. He used this time in power to repeal many of the New Policies, but he died the following year, in 1086.


As well as his achievements as a statesman and historian, Sima Guang was also a lexicographer (who perhaps edited the Jiyun), and spent decades compiling his 1066 Leipian ("Classified Chapters", cf. the Yupian) dictionary. It was based on the Shuowen Jiezi, and included 31,319 Chinese characters, many of which were coined in the Song and Tang dynasty. His Family Precepts of Sima Guang (司馬溫公家訓) is also widely known and studied in China and Japan.[3]

See also


  1. ^ a b Song Shi, ch. 336.
  2. ^ "Sima Guang and His History Book". Retrieved 29 September 2018.
  3. ^ "The family precepts by Sima Guang". Vincent's Calligraphy. Retrieved 2018-01-20.


  • de Crespigny, Rafe (1973). "Universal Histories". In Donald D. Leslie; Colin Mackerras; Wang Gungwu (eds.). Essays on the Sources for Chinese History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. pp. 64–70.
  • Pulleyblank, Edwin G. (1961). "Chinese Historical Criticism: Liu Chih-chi and Ssu-ma Kuang," in Historians of China and Japan, William G. Beasley and Edwin G. Pulleyblank, eds., Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 135–66.
  • Strange, Mark (2014), "Sima Guang", in Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, Kerry Brown, ed., Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing, vol. 2, pp. 664–683. ISBN 9781614729006
  • Xiao-bin, Ji (2005), Politics and Conservatism in Northern Song China: The Career and Thought of Sima Guang (1019–1086), Hong Kong: Chinese University Press. ISBN 962-996-183-0
  • Yap, Joseph P. (2009), Wars With the Xiongnu – A translation From Zizhi tongjian, Extract translations on Qin, Han, Xin and Xiongnu and Introduction. AuthorHouse. ISBN 978-1-4490-0604-4
  • (in Chinese) Toqto'a; et al., eds. (1345). Song Shi (宋史) [History of Song].