A Boy Who Saved a Boy and Grew Up to be a Grand Historian and Prime Minister


Sima Guang was playing with some small kids in a yard. Nearby was this large ceramic vat that people used to store water. A boy somehow climbed up to the edge of the container and accidently fell inside. There was water in the vat and the little boy was drowning. Unable to reach the struggling boy ang getting scared, most kids ran away. Sima Guang stayed. He looked around and found a big rock. He picked the stone up and threw it hard against the vat. The wall of the vat broke, water poured out, and the little boy inside was saved.

Sima Guang was evidently a prodigy. When he was seven, he chanced on scholars in town teaching ancient Chinese classics. Back at home, he could repeat what he had heard and explain meanings of the archaic text. A the age of nineteen he passed the highest level of China's formidable civil examination, received the doctoral degree jinshi, and thus became a greatly respected Confucian scholar-official. That was year 1038, when the impressive Song Dynasty was reigning over China. 

Recognized for his knowledge and uprightness, Sima Guang rose in officialdom. However, a conservative in heart, he could not stand some reformist minister who then dominated the imperial court, so he begged for leave and went home. In the following fifteen years Sima devoted himself to the writing of a general history of China, with the ambitious goal to draw moral lessons from past events to influence policies and politics. Upon finishing the first eight volumes of his book, he presented them to the emperor. The emperor liked the writings so much that he set up an institute specifically dedicated to helping Sima with his historical work. The assistants helped in research, but Sima, too conscientious to leave the actual writing to anyone else, penned everything personally. After years of hard work, Sima finished his book, which covers over 1300 years of Chinese history, from 403 BCE to 959 AD, and features illuminating commentaries and reflections from the historian himself. The book carries a title that the emperor had conferred onto it - A General History as Aid to Government.

In 1085, with reformist ministers dropping out of sight, Sima Guang accepted the appointment of him as the prime minister of the country. He immediately set off to abolish policies implemented in recent years so as to restore what he viewed as traditional ways of China. He could not accomplish a great deal in this regard because he passed away after serving as premier for a little over one year.

Sima Guang's politics was controversial, but his monumental historical work, three million words in length, greatly influenced China in the centuries that followed. His quick-witted action to save a small playmate is still widely circulated among the Chinese today.

(Boy Sima Guang saves a playmate's life. Traditional drawing)