A Chinese Classic Reflecting the Nature of Modern China

Records of the Grand Historian, the book itself, serves as a tableau of dramatic lives of influential figures of ancient China. The book can aid our effort to understand China as individuals featured in the book portray quintessential characters of the Chinese nation. The stories of these great individuals carry a striking resemblance to China’s realistic and pragmatic nature. The book can help us to predict how China as a country will conduct its affairs in this era.

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Sima Qian, the author of Records of Grand Historian

The book has stories and records of notable figures from the earliest time in China to 101 BC. The book is full of stories of individuals who suffered a great ordeal, and yet were able to gain fortune, fame, and glory. Even the author, Sima Qian, a historian who served Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, had to endure a great pain. Sima’s effort to defend a military commander who defected to the nomadic tribes to save his men from being massacred by the nomads infuriated the emperor. The emperor forced him to choose one of the three options: death, payment of a great sum of money as penalty or castration.

Sima could have easily chosen death. In ancient China, people considered castrated men as a lowest human being. The only role in the society for them was to become a eunuch. Nevertheless, Sima decided to endure the pain and shame to fulfill his ther’s last wish. His father was also a historian who spent his whole life writing a historical record of all the kings and their royal servants from the earliest time. He managed to survive the painful operation and spent the rest of his life to complete one of the greatest work in the history of Chinese civilization.

It would be impossible for me to share all the stories from the book because there are stories of hundreds of individuals in this book. One of the most notable figures is Han Xin, the marshal of the Han military who helped the Emperor Gaozu, the first emperor of the Han dynasty to defeat the mighty warrior King Xiang Yu. He won many battles against Xiang Yu’s army.

But in his early days, Han was an outcast. Although he had spent years studying, he had no jobs and people thought he had no prospects for a bright future. He usually spent his time begging for food or fishing. One day, village thugs decided to make fun of him. When Han was walking in the village square, the thugs came in front of im. One of the thugs taunted him to be either killed with the sword or crawl through between his legs. Han chose the latter.

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A painting illustrating the story of Han crawling between the thug’s crotch

Han was a stout person, and he could have easily killed the thug. However, he would have become a murderer. He decided to endure the shame and wait for a better opportunity to prove his worth. Soon, the warlords began to rise against Qin dynasty’s tyranny. Qin was unpopular among people for imposing high taxes and forcefully conscripting people to build the Great Wall.

Han first went to Xiang Yu. However, he was only given a position of a foot soldier. Feeling disappointed and unsatisfied, he sought new employment under another warlord Liu Bang, who would later become the first emperor of the Han dynasty. Liu and his advisors were the only people who appreciated Han’s worth. Han showed his gratitude by leading Liu’s army into countless battles against Xiang Yu’s army and helped his master to conquer all of China.

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China in the twentieth century represents many of the hardships that these two individuals endured. China suffered from humiliating colonization by Western powers, the horrendous war between warlords and the Japanese invasion. China became one of world’s poorest nation as Mao’s Great Leap Forward failed miserably. However, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China took a realistic and gradual approach to becoming one of the world’s prosperous nations. And now, no one can deny China’s position anymore.

One of the secrets behind China’s success is to be realistic, pragmatic and stay focused on accomplishing the objective by any means necessary. To become the prosperous country that it is today, China had to be thick-skinned. Chinese authorities took a heavy handed approach to the people’s zeal for democracy despite heavy criticism from the West. China’s goal-oriented economic policy has created a huge income gap between the rich and poor, and caused enormous pollution. China’s aggressive foreign policy in the South China Sea has angered the neighboring countries. And yet, China continues to be aggressive in an effort to secure its position in this strategically important region that is rich in natural resources.

Records of the Grand Historian is a reflection of the pragmatic and realistic nature of China. In the coming years, China may not seek glory and fame. But just like many heroes of the book, China may do what it is necessary to keeping its economy afloat and maintain its influence in the globe—even if it comes at a cost of tainting its image and reputation worldwide.

In this century, China’s end goal may not be obtaining glory and fame by noble and legitimate means. We Canadians must be aware of China’s realistic and pragmatic nature so that we can protect our national interests while maintaining close relations with China.

About Elliot Cho

Elliot Cho is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is currently an undergraduate student majoring in political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. His interest in history, politics, security and social issues in East Asia originates from his South Korean background. He has contributed a number of articles to U of S student newspaper, The Sheaf. His articles focus on informing his fellow students on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the complicacy of North Korea’s relations with its neighboring states. He has also contributed articles supporting Ukrainian causes to several newspapers published by Ukrainian-Canadian organizations including Ukrainian Canadian Student Union (SUSK). If you wish to contact Elliot, please send him an email at elc503@mail.usask.ca