Sima Qian, the Great Historiographer
Sima Qian was born in Longmen (today's Hancheng, Shaanxi Province). His father Sima Tan was a royal historiographer. At 10, Sima Qian was already well versed in history and adept with words as well.
Sima Tan died when Sima Qian was 36. On his deathbed, the old historian cried out to his son about the ambitious mission he had barely started yet had to leave unfinished, saying: "Together with the birth of the Han Dynasty has returned this Golden Age, with the throne in the hand of the righteous, and wisely served. This is a time of grandeur and nobility that a royal historiographer must bear witness to, or he would not be doing his duty. You must finish what I was able to only start, my son."
Two years later, Sima Qian succeeded his father as royal historiographer, and set out to write the history book that his father had left unfinished. Circumstances seemed to be right for him to fulfill the task when, as the royal historiographer, Sima Qian gained access to government archives as well as the rare books in the royal library. But then, tragedy struck. In the year Sima Qian was 48, an officer, Li Ling, was captured in a campaign by the Xiong Nu. When rumors reached the capital Chang'an that Li Ling had surrendered to the enemy, Emperor Wu Di had Li's whole family executed, which then pushed General Li toward the Xiong Nu. In a dramatic twist of events, the case involved Sima Qian, who indiscreetly spoke up in defense of Li Ling. In his wrath, Emperor Wu Di had him castrated, a punishment that was as humiliating as it was physically crippling. Devastated as he was by his ill fortune, Sima Qian nevertheless managed to cast aside the idea of suicide. He decided that he had to live so that he could finish the history book his father had not been able to, being what he knew would allow the deceased historian to at last rest in peace.
After years of hard work, Sima Qian finally completed the great work Shi Ji, or Records of the Historian when he was 53. The book, containing 130 chapters and over 520,000 characters, is divided into 12 Biographies (kings and emperors), 10 Chronicles (records of major historical events and figures in the form of table to supplement Biographies, eight Treatises (records of important rules and rituals, astronomy as well as political and economic life), 30 Hereditary Houses (records of princes, dukes and renowned figures such as Confucius, Chen Sheng, etc.) and 70 Lives (covering all other famous personages, lives of tribes, neighboring countries, etc.). Of all these, Biographies and Lives are the most significant. Since Sima Qian introduced this genre in historiography, all later dynastic historiographers followed suit in recording history.