Official Historians in the Pre-Qin Era

In the Pre-Qin Era (the times before 221 BC) the political system of most Chinese feudal states was based on the separation of three powers. Monarchs and prime ministers held the administrative power, Dasikou (大司寇) held the judicial power, and Taishi (大史, also written as “太史” in later times, the title of official historians, also called Neishi [内史] or Shi [史]) held the power of recording history. Administrative officials couldn’t interfere in judicature, and they couldn’t impose their views upon Taishi. The official positions of Taishi were hereditary, and they were professional historians. Every male child of a Taishi’s family was educated to become a righteous and brave person from childhood. Taishi recorded every political event with moral principles, and also recorded astronomic events too. No one could take the place of Taishi since if a person was not Taishi, what he wrote about history was invalid. Generally monarchs and ministers who were in power didn’t dare to force Taishi to obey them, because they knew their interposition would be more harmful for their fame. They didn’t want their favored followers to write embellished history for them, because they knew no one would believe what their favorites wrote.

In 607 BC Jin Ling-Gong (晋灵公), a young capricious monarch of the Jin (晋) State, was killed by Zhao Chuan (赵穿), a young hotheaded man. In fact, originally Jin Ling-Gong and Zhao Chuan were good friends. Jin Ling-Gong often committed heinous acts. Zhao Dun (赵盾), the brother of Zhao Chuan and the prime minister of the Jin State, often remonstrated with him. Jin Ling-Gong didn’t follow the counsel of Zhao Dun. He disliked Zhao Dun very much, so much so that he made two attempts on Zhao Dun’s life, but all failed. Zhao Dun had to leave the capital. He said he intended to go to another country and seek sanctuary, but he stayed on the border and didn’t leave the Jin State. When Zhao Dun heard that Zhao Chuan killed the monarch, he returned to the capital at once. Zhao Dun didn’t punish his young brother Zhao Chuan, and he actually let Zhao Chuan go to the capital of Zhou(周) Kingdom and escort Gongzi Heitun (公子黑臀) to return to the Jin State. Gongzi Heitun was the older brother of Jin Ling-Gong, and he was in line to become the monarch soon. Zhao Dun took sides with Zhao Chuan, and the series of events showed Zhao Dun was behind the murder. It exasperated Dong Hu (董狐) who was the Taishi of the Jin State. Dong Hu wrote in the state annals, “Zhao Dun killed his monarch.” He showed it to all ministers in public. Zhao Dun said, “No, the murder was not committed by me.” Dong Hu said, “You are the uppermost minister in power. You said you wanted to go to another country, but you didn’t cross over the border. When you returned to the capital, you didn’t punish the murderer. If the chief conspirator is not you, who is it?” Zhao Dun sighed and said, “Alas! A poem says, ‘I yearn for my homeland in my heart, but it gives me desolation.’ The verses show my suffering.” Dong Hu didn’t support the despotic monarch; he detested the despicable conspiracy which was led by a minister in power, because he thought it was unprincipled and it would cause a country much trouble.

In 548 BC, Cui Zhu (崔杼) killed Qi Zhuang-Gong (齐庄公) who was the monarch of the Qi (齐) State. Cui Zhu was the prime minister of the Qi State, and his wife was very beautiful. Qi Zhuang-Gong was infatuated with the woman. He often went to Cui Zhu’s home and met her in private. The monarch was so incontinent that once he actually gave the cap of Cui Zhu to a person as a gift. The doings of the monarch infuriated Cui Zhu. One day, Cui Zhu pretended that he was ill. Qi Zhuang-Gong went to visit him. When the monarch saw Cui Zhu’s wife, he followed her to another room. Cui Zhu’s warriors besieged the monarch. Qi Zhuang-Gong explained that he was the monarch, but all of these warriors said they didn’t know the monarch, and they only knew they must punish the licentious man. The monarch was killed, and his followers fought and died for him. Though Qi Zhuang-Gong was licentious, he respected brave warriors, so many brave warriors admired him. When some warriors heard of the death of the monarch, they killed themselves with their wives. Cui Zhu was not a merciful person. He forced all the people to obey him, and killed anyone who didn’t support him. When he saw the annals of Taishi recorded “Cui Zhu killed his monarch”, he wanted Taishi to delete the record, but the upright man refused him. Cui Zhu was very irritated, and had the Taishi killed. He ordered a younger brother of the Taishi to rewrite the historical record, but failed. Cui Zhu killed him. Then Cui Zhu tried to force another younger brother of the Taishi to rewrite the record, but the brave man refused him too. Cui Zhu was very maddened, and he killed the indomitable man and cut the annals. When Cui Zhu thought no one dared to be against him, a young boy appeared. He was the youngest brother of the Taishi. Facing Cui Zhu and his bloody sword, the young boy wrote fearlessly, “Cui Zhu killed his monarch.” Cui Zhu was astounded. The courage of the boy frightened Cui Zhu, and he became aware that history could not be tampered with forever. Cui Zhu had no alternative. He didn’t kill the boy. The boy became Taishi and recorded the real history. Nanshi (南史氏) was also the official who recorded annals. At that time, he retired and lived in a suburb. When he heard the Taishi and his brothers were killed by Cui Zhu, he was worried that no one dared to record the real history, so he decided to go to the capital and record all the real history. When he arrived at the capital, he heard the youngest brother of Taishi had recorded “Cui Zhu killed his monarch” in the annals, and then he returned home.

Please do not misunderstand that these official historians tried to defend the ruling of monarchs. At that time, if a monarch was expelled or killed, the official historians of every state, who recorded the event must obey such principles: If the monarch was in the wrong, the event should be recorded as “So-and-so (the title of the monarch) ran away to the So-and-so State” or “The people of the So-and-so State killed their monarch so-and-so (the name of the monarch)”; If a minister was in the wrong, or if a monarch was in the wrong, but a minister killed or expelled him using vile means or with an evil purpose, the event would be record as “So-and-so (the name of the minister) of the So-and-so State killed his monarch So-and-So(the name of the monarch)” or “So-and-so (the name of the minister) of the So-and-so State expelled his monarch So-and-So(the name of the monarch)”.

In 559 BC, Sun Linfu (孙林父) and Ning Zhi (宁殖) expelled Wei Xian-Gong (卫献公), who was the monarch of the Wei State. The whole story was that, one morning Wei Xian-Gong sent a messenger to invite the two ministers to have lunch with him. When Sun Linfu and Ning Zhi arrived at the palace of Xian-Gong, he had gone hunting. The two ministers had to wait for the monarch. From the morning to the afternoon Xian-Gong didn’t return and the two ministers waited with hunger. When the sun was sinking, Wei Xian-Gong returned. He saw the two hungry ministers, but didn’t offer an apology. Moreover, Xian-Gong didn’t change his leather cap to formal cap. A leather cap was used to meet low-class officials or go hunting. But Sun Linfu and Ning Zhi were the prime ministers. So it was a serious humiliation for the two ministers that the monarch with a leather cap met them. They were very angry, but had to endure. When they returned home, Sun Linfu sent his younger brother Sun Kuai (孙蒯) to visit the monarch in order to find out what the purpose of the monarch was. Wei Xian-Gong invited Sun Kuai to drink and told the Taishi (大师, the title of the premier official musician, also called “Shi”[师]) to sing the poem “Qiao Yan”(巧言) for Sun Kuai. “Qiao Yan” is a poem which denounces sycophants who bring disasters to a country. Taishi knew this poem would infuriate Sun Linfu, and refused to sing it. Another official musician Shi Cao (师曹) wanted to sing it, so the monarch let him sing. Why did Shi Cao want to sing it? He wanted Sun Linfu to give the monarch a lesson. Why did he hate the monarch? One day Shi Cao taught a concubine of the monarch to study a musical instrument and whipped her when she played wrongly. The woman complained to the monarch. Wei Xian-Gong was very angry, and whipped Shi Cao three hundred times. So Shi Cao hated him for doing so. When Sun Kuai heard the poem “Qiao Yan”, he felt fearful because he understood the poem was the warning of the monarch. Sun Kuai told this to Sun Linfu. Sun Linfu said angrily, “The monarch suspects us. If we don’t take action first, we will die.” So Sun Linfu led his warriors to expel Wei Xian-Gong, and then supported Gongsun Piao (公孙剽) who was the younger cousin of Wei Xian-Gong. Wei Xian-Gong ran away to the Qi State. Ning Zhi was not a chief instigator, and didn’t support Wei Xian-Gong. However, people thought he was the accomplice of Sun Linfu. The annals of every state recorded this event as “Sun Linfu and Ning Zhi of the Wei State expelled their monarch”. Ning Zhi was very remorseful. When he became very ill, he left last words to his son Ning Xi (宁喜), “I offended the monarch, and now I feel very remorseful. My name is recorded in the annals of every state as ‘Sun Linfu and Ning Zhi expelled their monarch’. If the monarch returns by the support of our family, my guilt will be covered. If you can cover this, you truly are my son. If you can’t, and if the world really has ghosts and gods, I won’t accept your sacrifices and I prefer to go hungry.” In order to realize his father’s last wish, Ning Xi started to contact Wei Xian-Gong. Youzai Gu (右宰穀), another prime minister, told Ning Xi that Wei Xian-Gong was an inconstant man, and if Xian-Gong returned, the family of Ning Xi would have a disaster. Ning Xi understood the words of Youzai Gu, but he sadly said, “I have promised my father, and I can not betray my promise.” Youzai Gu was Ning Xi’s friend, and he had no alternative, so he decided to help Ning Xi. In 547 BC, Ning Xi and Youzai Gu defeated the Sun family while Sun Linfu stayed in the city Qi (戚) which was his fief. He killed Gongsun Piao and his heir. This event was recorded as “Ning Xi of the Wei State killed his monarch Piao” in the annals of every state. Sun Linfu held his fief and asked the Jin State for aid. Wei Xian-Gong returned to the Wei State and ascended to the throne again. Wei Xian-Gong, a loyal minister Gongsun Mianyu (公孙免馀) and his supporters attacked the Ning’s family, and killed Ning Xi and Youzai Gu. The bodies of the two men were shown to the public. Zixian (子献), who loyally followed Wei Xian-Gong abroad and helped him to contact Ning Xi, felt a shock. Following that, he refused to accept any official position. Though Ning Xi took on a bad reputation and his family suffered a disaster, the guilt of Ning Xi was covered, and the official historians of every state modified the record of 559 BC as “Wei Hou ran away to the Qi State” (The title of the monarchs of the Wei State was “Hou”[侯] which was the second rank of feudal monarchs).

The pens of official historians really had powerful deterrent force!

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