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Historical Chinese Figures You Should Know: 1,000 Years of Sima Guang

Historian. Writer. Official. Polemicist. Poet. Prodigy. November 17th is the 1,000th anniversary of Song Dynasty scholar Sima Guang, born 1019 in what is today Henan Province. The Song Dynasty (960-1279) produced philosopher-officials at roughly the same rate the early 2000s produced rap-metal bands. But unlike Limp Bizkit, who nobody under 30 remembers today, Sima Guang’s writings still resonate a millennium later.

Sima Guang was born to a landowning family and claimed descent from the Sima Family, who rose to power in the Three Kingdoms era and established the Jin Dynasty in the 3rd century AD. Even as a child, he showed prodigious talent. He could recite ancient poems and works of history from a very young age.

He also famously saved one of his less gifted classmates from drowning after the classmate had fallen into a large vat. While the rest of the children ran about panicking, Sima Guang picked up a stone and broke the vat letting the water drain and saving his friend.

After passing the highest level of the imperial examinations at just 20, he began a long career serving in the Song bureaucracy. The Song was still in its first century of rule, but things were not going well. Groups like the Tanguts threatened the borders. None of the sons of Emperor Renzong [r. 1022-1063] had lived to maturity and so he adopted one of his nephews who would succeed him as Emperor Yingzong [r. 1063-1067]. Yingzong ruled for just four years and was an ineffectual man with serious daddy issues.* By the time the Shenzong Emperor, Yingzong’s son, took the throne in 1067, the Song court was in crisis mode.

Enter Wang Anshi. Wang was another brilliant Confucian scholar of the Song era who believed the only way forward was to make deep systemic changes in the way the Song government conducted its business. Wang Anshi proposed loan programs for farmers, state granaries, and a re-organization of society into ten-family units which would also be the basis of military conscription. Wang sought to expand the government and integrate the state with society to bring order out of chaos and to make the state stronger.


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