Ssu-ma I (179-251): Wei statesman and Chin founder, an historiographical inquiry
Fairbank, Anthony Bruce
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Ssu-ma I (179-251) was one of the great military and political figures of third century China. He served the Ts'ao imperial house for over thirty-five years, and died as the de facto Prime Minister of the Ts'ao Wei state (220-266); yet he is known to history primarily as the founding emperor of the subsequent Chin dynasty (266-420), a status first conferred upon him fourteen and a half years after his death. A proper assessment of Ssu-ma I's role in history must confront the contradiction between his actual position as a Wei statesman and his posthumous designation as a Chin emperor. An investigation into this problem reveals that it stems from the traditional historical portrayal of this man.In an effort to understand the complex historiographical strata pertaining to Ssu-ma I's life and career, this dissertation traces the evolution of the historical record pertaining to Ssu-ma I as it evolved from the third century to the seventh. During this time, the image of Ssu-ma I as the Chin dynastic founder took shape and was codified by T'ang historiographers of the mid-seventh century in the first chapter of the imperially commissioned Chin shu (History of the Chin), a work which is still extant.The dissertation consists of two parts. The first, which is made up of six chapters, traces the history of historical writing about Ssu-ma I from the production of primary documents during his lifetime through the compilation of the Chin shu during the early T'ang dynasty. By tracing the development of these records, it is possible to see the growing importance dynastic history writing came to have in the Chinese historiographical tradition, and how this shaped the view of Ssu-ma I as a dynastic founder rather than a Wei statesman.The second part of the dissertation, consisting of two chapters, constitutes a translation and study of Chin shu 1, the "Annals of Emperor Hsuan." This document is the only complete extant account which treats Ssu-ma I as its main subject, and is therefore a source of primary importance for the study of Ssu-ma I. The first of the two chapters consists of an annotated translation of this account, while the second undertakes a study of the makeup of the chapter, and reveals how the T'ang compilers drew upon previous materials, and shaped them for their own purposes. The "Annals of Emperor Hsuan" is shown to be an account which seeks to portray Ssu-ma I as an exemplary general and statesman, but also criticizes him for being part of the eventual demise of the Wei dynasty.The portrayal of Ssu-ma I which has come down to us is therefore a contradictory one. On the one hand, he is shown to be a great leader, as all dynastic founders should be; but on the other hand, he is linked with the eclipse of the Wei dynasty and is therefore portrayed as a vicious and ultimately disloyal statesman. It is the conclusion of this study that a proper account of Ssu-ma I must recognize and look beyond the dynastic ideology which has permeated the historiographical treatment of this man since the late third century. Only then will it be possible to sift through the historical evidence and reconstruct a balanced view of this important third century figure.
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