CRCAO / News

Lives and power in the Records of the historian: The destinies of the biographical genre

May 18 2022 - May 20 2022 - Workshop

4th international symposium on the Shiji

Organizers : Lee Chi-hsiang (Fo Guang University), Béatrice L’Haridon (Université Paris Cité-IUF), Damien Chaussende (CNRS)


After two first symposia at FoGuang University in Taiwan (2008 and 2011) and a third at Charles University in Prague (2011), the fourth international symposium on Sima Qian’s司馬遷 Shiji 史記 (Records of the Grand Historian, completed around 100 BC) takes as its centre and starting point a particular genre within the Shiji, the liezhuan列傳, which was long translated as biography, before the expressions “arrayed traditions” or “arranged traditions” or simply “traditions” gradually became established in English-speaking sinology. The object raises problems of definition from the outset, because the biographical genre does not coincide with the field designated by the term liezhuan in Shiji. On the one hand, some liezhuan are not built around individual destinies, but are dealing with the history of foreign peoples, in more or less close contact with Chinese states and later Chinese empire. On the other hand, as far as the Shiji is concerned, the thirty chapters referred to as shijia 世家 (Hereditary Houses) also have a strong biographical dimension. However, after the Shiji, the term liezhuan or zhuan was chosen to designate this literary genre through which “lives” are transmitted. Throughout the Shiji, the liezhuan are often considered an extension of benji 本紀, annalistic chapters that lay the foundations of the book, but which, like the Spring and Autumn Classic 春秋, focus on the person of the sovereign and the politics at court, leaving the actions of “subjects” forgotten, or at best on the periphery. From this point of view, what we call “biographical genre” is close to the development that the comments (chuan 傳) give to the Classics, which then constitute foundations that make sense only through the constructions they allow. However, Sima Qian’s liezhuan have the particularity of being articulated for the most part around individual destinies, sometimes intertwined with each other, and it is this biographical “arrangement” that constitutes one of the most fascinating innovations in the Shiji.  They are built in a greater or lesser distance from the sphere of power, to the point of including eremetical figures. With the liezhuan, the scribe no longer only notes the actions and words of the sovereign and his closest ministers. It is this gap and this play with a historiography centered on figures and places of power that we would like to explore more precisely.

This symposium is intended as an opportunity to reflect on the inventiveness and diversity of biographical writing methods in the Shiji, but also, beyond that, to consider the transformation of this genre in subsequent historiographical works (forming what will be called “official biographies”), its possible imitations and parodies in hagiographical and fantastic literature, among others, and finally, as far as possible, to propose significant ways of comparing it with biographical writing in Greco-Roman literature. The proceedings of the Conference are aimed to be published by the online editions of the CRCAO (East Asian Civilisations Research Center).


Collège de France – Salle 4
11 Place Marcelin Berthelot, 75005 Paris