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Literature / Zi Zhi Tong Jian

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Zizhi Tongjian (Chinese: 資治通鑑, "Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance") is a pioneering reference work in Chinese historiography, published in 1084. Compiled by a team led by Sima Guang, Tongjian took 19 years to be completed, and records Chinese history from 403 BC note  to 959 AD, covering 16 dynasties and spanning across almost 1,400 years. It contains 294 volumes (巻) and about 3 million Chinese characters.

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Tongjian was first ordered by Emperor Yingzong of Song as an compilation of a universal history of China. While Sima Guang's team compiled with the order, Sima Guang intended for the text to become an aid in guiding future emperors in governance. The book's title was given by Emperor Shenzong, Yingzong's son and successor.

As a "textbook" for emperors, historical events which are culturally significant or otherwise do not involve governance issues were generally ignored. For example, many of China's great poets, from Qu Yuan to Li Bai and Du Fu were not mentioned in the text. Much like The Art of War, the advice encapsulated in the work is largely common sense, but may not always be easy to follow.

The work has never been fully translated into English, although the years 157 to 220 CE have been translated into English and annotated by Rafe de Crespigny as part of his works on the Three Kingdoms.

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Compare and contrast The Book of Lord Shang, which is more theoretical and written more than a millennium earlier.


It provides examples of:

  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The author emphasizes the need for the emperor to keep the relatives of his mother and empress (waiqi) under firm control, lest they garner too much influence or otherwise set bad examples for the empire. The work itself provides many examples of waiqi families who either brought ruin to themselves or the empire through their reckless actions and extravagance.
  • Conspicuous Consumption: Frowned upon by the author, who criticized this as wholly destructive.
  • Control Freak: Criticized by the author, who postulates that the emperor's role is not to micromanage, but to appoint competent officials to handle various matters, while the emperor sets the correct vision and direction for the empire.
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  • Crippling Overspecialization: As mentioned, Tongjian does not talk about cultural events and personalities, making it useless for anyone who is interested in China's cultural history.
  • The Good King: Following the advice given in the work should make it easier for any Chinese emperor to have a stable and prosperous reign.
  • War Is Glorious: Not according to the author, who frowns upon excessive military expeditions, as supplying such expeditions places a heavy burden upon the people.
  • Written by the Winners: Averted. Sima Guang had little motive or interest in intentionally defaming dynasties which fell centuries before his time. As he clearly stated in the preface, the objective of Tongjian was to teach emperors on governance.
  • Yes-Man: Frowned upon, as a)they give bad advice to the emperor and b)they set bad examples for others to follow, particularly if the emperor rewards them without them having earned any merit to justify the rewards.
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