Building Blocks of Chinese Historiography: A Narratological Analysis of Shi Ji
In Shi ji studies, scholars from both the East and West have predominantly taken one particular approach: the psychological reading of its author, Sima Qian. Since the author suffered penal castration when he was writing the Shi ji, this approach has been summarized as “the theory of conveying one’s frustration.” Many scholars, modern and pre-modern alike, have inferred the author’s feelings and emotions from his biographical experiences and have interpreted the text accordingly. This narrow interpretation constrains our understanding by exclusively focusing on the author’s personal pains and purposes. Such analysis thus commits the intentional fallacy, which mistakenly equates the author with the text, unjustifiably simplifying the complicated interpretive process. I explore the features of the text itself, shifting the focus of research from the author’s intention to the effects produced by its narrative devices, which have determinative influence over the interpretive process but have long been overlooked. I explore the role of narrative as a medium in historical works, applying theories of narratology from the French Structualist Gérard Genette to analyze narratives in the Shi ji. By setting the text into this framework, I systematically examine the narrative sequences, such as anticipation and flashback, narrative duration and mood, and characterization. My investigation shows that these narrative devices produce literary effects, distinguishing Shi ji from both earlier and later histories, such as the Zuo zhuan and Han shu. Shi ji presents a highly complicated past by manipulating interrelations among historical events, regulating information, and emphasizing changes and their effects. It pays most attention to how the historical events happened, more than what happened and why, a significant issue has not been discussed in a context of Chinese historiography. My narratological approach provides an alternative perspective and explores new territory in Shi ji studies.