In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Traditional Historiography

  • Introduction
  • General Surveys
  • Reference Works
  • Periodicals
  • Structure and Character of Dynastic Histories
  • Biography
  • Gazetteers
  • Institutional Histories
  • Leishu (Encyclopedias)

Chinese Studies Traditional Historiography
Johannes L. Kurz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0122


This article considers mainly the imperial traditional historiography that started with Sima Qian 司馬遷 (b. 145 BCE–d. 86 BCE), who was the first historian to employ a structured approach to the writing of history. In his Shiji 史記 he reserved annals for rulers and biographies for officials and others as well as tables and treatises. The Shiji and all subsequent official historical works are what one refers to as a standard or dynastic history (zhengshi 正史). Beginning in Sima Qian’s time, a number of individual authors contributed official histories. From the Tang dynasty and the establishment of an Institute of Historiography (shiguan 史館) onward, most of the official records were compiled by teams of court historians. The importance of the dynastic histories as a resource of historical knowledge cannot be underestimated. The Twenty-Four Dynastic Histories (ershisi shi 二十四史) cover a period from the legendary times of the Yellow Emperor to the end of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. Sometimes they are also referred to as the Twenty-Five Dynastic Histories (ershiwu shi 二十五史) when they include the Qingshi gao 清史稿 (Draft history of the Qing), and sometimes the Twenty-Six Histories (ershiliu shi 二十六史) with the inclusion of the Xin Yuanshi 新元史 (New history of the Yuan). An informative table of the Standard Histories is provided in Wilkinson 2013 (p. 626, cited under Reference Works). All scholars agree that, to a certain extent, biases are involved, since historiographers were subject to employ “praise and blame” (baobian 褒貶) on human players, their attitudes, actions, and words. Unofficial histories (bieshi 別史, yeshi 野史) in the best of cases verify or falsify the official records; in the worst cases they supplement material otherwise not available.

General Surveys

Many of the surveys of traditional historiography published in Chinese follow dynastic lines, including Du 1993–2004 and Tang 2001, and they still do so, as surveys continue to be regularly published in the People’s Republic of China as well as in the Republic of China. Among the most important works in a Western language are Beasley and Pulleyblank 1961 and Leslie, et al. 1973, because they provide studies on specific aspects of Chinese history as single volumes covering many dynasties. These works are complemented by recent studies that seek to uncover the underlying nature of traditional Chinese historiography and place it in context with Western historiography, such as Schmidt-Glintzer, et al. 2005. In contrast, Ng and Wang 2005 presents the development of Chinese historiography in a more formal way, as a gradual process from the earliest times to the end of the Qing.

  • Beasley, William G., and Edwin G. Pulleyblank, eds. Historians of China and Japan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

    This is the first major volume published on history-writing in East Asia for an English reading audience. It features useful studies of traditional historiography, both official and private, from the Han to Qing times, as well as of individual authors such as Liu Zhiji 劉知幾 (b. 661–d. 721) and Sima Guang 司馬光 (b. 1019–d. 1086), and also includes essays on the character of premodern and modern historiography.

  • Du Weiyun 杜維運. Zhongguo shixueshi 中國史學史. 3 vols. Taipei: Sanmin shuju, 1993–2004.

    Surveys historiography comprehensively from the earliest times to the 20th century. Reprinted in 2010 (Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan).

  • Gardner, Charles S. Chinese Traditional Historiography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938.

    Superseded by a number of publications, such as Beasley and Pulleyblank 1961 and Leslie, et al. 1973, as well as more recent texts, this work was one of the very first monographs in a Western language outlining and explaining general aspects of Chinese history-writing.

  • Han, Yu-shan. Elements of Chinese Historiography. Hollywood, CA: W. M. Hawley, 1955.

    This book, as its title suggests, is an introduction to essential information on processes of history-writing, the classification of historical texts, the major historians and their works, historical criticism, and so forth. Outdated since the appearance of a number of more recent works, such as Wilkinson 2013 (cited under Reference Works), it still is valid as an excellent short (256 pp.) reference work.

  • Leslie, Donald D., Colin Mackerras, and Wang Gungwu, eds. Essays on the Sources for Chinese History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.

    Written by specialists in their respective fields, this volume contains essays on a variety of sources ranging from oracle bone inscriptions to standard histories, religious compendia, and archives. The essays are arranged from the earliest times to modern China. Some of the texts are outdated, while others are still essential reading. These are indexed in Wilkinson 2013 (cited under Reference Works).

  • Ng, On-cho, and Q. Edward Wang. Mirroring the Past: The Writing and Use of History in Imperial China. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005.

    Starting with a discussion of shi 史in pre-imperial times, this volume sketches the general development of historiography, both official and private, until the end of the Qing.

  • Schmidt-Glintzer, Helwig, Achim Mittag, and Jörn Rüsen, eds. Historical Truth, Historical Criticism, and Ideology: Chinese Historiography and Historical Culture from a New Comparative Perspective. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.

    The eighteen essays in this volume are preceded by an introductory essay on religion and the emerging fact-based Western history-writing in the 18th century. The essays in the first two parts deal mostly with relevant topics in the pre-Qin and Han periods. Part 3 begins with the evolution of German history-writing into a scientific subject and features essays on Chinese historiography from the 18th century onward.

  • Tang Qinfu 湯勤福, ed. Zhongguo shixueshi 中国史学史. Taiyuan, China: Shanxi jiaoyu chubanshe, 2001.

    This work provides an examination of material based on oral history, ending with an overview of eminent historians in the People’s Republic of China. The last part is highly informative in providing a who’s who in history-writing in mainland China.

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