Reading Order in Early Biographical Histories

This paper examines how reading order impacts historians’ presentation of historical events and personages. It traces a gradual transformation of genres of early Chinese histories from annals to biographies. Before Sima, historical narratives are grouped according to chronology as in the Zuo Commentary. Others are organized by themes, including political topics or various states such as the Huainanzi and Discourses of the States. Each entry tells a single but complete event or episode. Readers can start with any entry and randomly jump into another. Related episodes about the same character or subject are widely distributed throughout a book. However, Sima created the biographical from, grouping and recounting interrelated episodes together according to a certain carefully planned order. One has to follow this order to understand the whole chapter, which is an intimately and logically correlated hub. This change of organizing materials determines the reading order and has several advantages. First, the biographical form helps to set up the network of causality among events, highlighting the trigger of history. Second, it moves the focus of narrative from events to individuals. In addition, the consistency of characters’ personality becomes necessary, which further assists the author and reader’s evaluation of them. Therefore, later histories widely borrowed the biographical genre.  


  • East Asian Studies