There is an old Chinese proverb that says “Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness,” which held true for Sima Qian and his friend Ren An.
Sima Qian (145–86 B.C.) served as the governor of Yizhou (in modern Sichuan) after inheriting his father Sima Tan’s official position as the royal historian. He was working on completing his father’s work, a great compilation of the history of China written in biographic theme style in which biographies of different types, treatises, and tables are combined.
His friend, Ren An, sent him a letter. The letter said: “Brother Zichang (Sima Qian), you are now a great official like the Commander of the Central Secretariat, in charge of the state’s important affairs with a prominent position, and you can see the Emperor frequently. Therefore, it would be best if you had taken this opportunity and recommended more talented people to the Emperor to have the chance to work for the country. But I’ve heard that you’ve never done so, which is a dereliction of duty! I am very disappointed in you.”
True friends support in times of need
Sima Qian did not write back to Ren An and did not comment on his friend’s criticism, but two years later, Ren An himself was in great peril. There had been a cordial but somehow fragile relationship between Emperor Wu and his crown prince Ju, who perhaps was not as ambitious as his father wished.
Eventually, the two began to have disagreements over policy, with Ju favoring leniency and Wu’s advisers urging the opposite. Court politics eventually led to a direct conflict between Emperor Wu and Prince Ju. Ren An, who was an army commander, chose not to actively participate in the conflict. He was accused of being a sympathizer and sentenced to death.
Sima Qian was shocked to hear this news, and because of his personal experience, he sympathized with Ren An. While other ministers confessed that they had nothing to do with Ren An, Sima Qian found the letter Ren An had written a few years before, read it, and thought to himself: “Shaoqing (Ren An), I didn’t want to reply to your letter. Yet, now that you are in great trouble, I would like to write a letter to give you some comfort. I have been in the same situation as you, and I know how much one needs the help of friends at this time!”
Sima Qian wrote: “You wrote to me all that time ago, asking me to select talented people to be officials in the court. However, I have heard that the greatest shame in the world is to suffer a corrupt sentence. So let me explain about mine. Since ancient times, people do not associate with those who have been sentenced for corruption, so how can I go about recommending the great men of the world?”
“When I was young, I thought I was very talented and hoped to be appreciated by the Emperor. Who could know that I had angered the Emperor by speaking a few words for Li Ling? The Emperor ordered me to be tortured because I didn’t have enough money to pay the fine for the ‘crime’ and I was expected to take my own life afterward to end my disgrace.
“After the punishment, I felt ashamed to face others and thought of the insult I had suffered. I wanted death, but I hadn’t finished writing my history book and hadn’t fulfilled my father’s last wish; I couldn’t die yet. Thinking of this, I decided that I would live no matter what. As long as I finish my history book and future generations can read it, I will have been compensated for the insults I have suffered. Then, even if I am put to death by the sword, I will not regret it.”
As he waited for his death in prison, Ren An spent his days wishing for a visit, but all his close friends were hiding, so he was left alone with his thoughts. Ren An took the letter and read it over and over again. Finally, he was moved to tears and said: “Brother Zichang, you are a great man. Even though you are physically disabled, you are a true man! Both you and your history book will be famous forever!”
Ren An’s words came true, as Sima Qian completed his book, known as the Records of the Grand Historian, spanning the time of the Yellow Emperor to Sima Qian’s time with Emperor Wu of Han. It incorporated biographical details chronicling the Warring States Period, the Qin, and the Han Dynasties.
His writing in the biographic theme style was considered the “official” style of documenting historical acts and was continued through the subsequent dynasties up to the 20th century.