Sima-Guang’s Zizhi-Tongjian is known as the most realistic and objective work of history in the pre-modern Chinese canon. However, it is difficult for such works to be completely neutral since authors’ subjective perspectives and positions tend to be reflected in them. Authors select, arrange, and synthesize materials in order to clearly convey the essence and parameters of their subject. In this light, this study examined Zizhi-Tongjian not as a volume of history solely composed of facts but as an epic text that requires literary analysis.
Zizhi-Tongjian is a work of history that covers the long period spanning from the Warring States period to the Five Dynasties. Central to the text is the lesson that it was the duties imposed by the practice of Confucian that caused the rise and fall of dynasties over such a long period of time. Materials that supported this perspective were selected and included while those that did not were excluded or edited to support this thesis, and in this process, ‘Xiao-shuo’, trivial or quotidian anecdotes, were cited. This tendency is especially prominent in the section Tang-Ji, which is a record of the Tang Dynasty, in which rather than accurate facts, materials that were helpful in conveying this perspective were selected and employed.
The findings of this study are as follows. First, by citing Xiao-shuo, Sima-Guang was able to create memorable depictions of people with moral flaws. Second, by doing so, he emphasized the outstanding aspects of notable figures. Third, in this way he described illustrative situations in a more serious and dramatic way. Although Xiao-shuo were originally sometimes opaque and informal materials, they became a part of received history through their adoption by Sima-Guang. Ultimately, historically the criterion that distinguished a work of history from a novel was not whether it was true but whether it amounted to an effective didactic epic.