An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Twenty-Five Official Dynastic Histories (ershiwushi 二十五史)

Jul 8, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

"Official Dynastic Histories" (zhengshi lei 正史類), literally "correct or orthodox histories", is a subcategory to the literary category of historiography (shibu 史部) in traditional Chinese bibliography.

The term zhengshi first appears in the imperial bibliography Jingji zhi 經籍志 in the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書. The term is explained in the sense that the first two of them were imitated in their "paradigmatic" style of writing. In Ruan Xiaoxu's 阮孝緒 (479-536) catalogue Qilu 七錄, dynastic histories are called guoshi 國史. The corresponding section of the imperial collectaneum Siku quanshu 四庫全書 includes all zhengshi histories from the Shiji 史記 to the Mingshi 明史, in total 24 books (called Ershisi shi 二十四史), with commentaries and notes 38.

Books ow historical critique do often not touch the Mingshi or Yuanshi 元史, and therefore one might also find books on the "twenty-one histories" (like Ershiyi shi zhengErshi'er shi ganying lu 二十二史感應錄 by Peng Xisu 彭希涑, d. 1793, Nian'ershi zhaji 廿二史劄記 by Zhao Yi 趙翼 or Nian'ershi kaoyi 廿二史考異 by Qian Daxin 錢大昕), or "twenty-three histories" (Niansanshi ping koujue 廿三史評口訣 by Bao Dongli 鮑東里).

The first four of these, Shiji, Hanshu 漢書, Houhanshu 後漢書 and Sanguozhi 三國志, are also known as the "four histories" (sishi 四史).

A twenty-fifth history came in this collection with the Xin Yuanshi 新元史 "New history of the Yuan", compiled by Ke Shaomin 柯紹忞 (1850-1933) during the early Republican years. These are the "Twenty-five histories" (Ershiwu shi 二十五史). After the end of imperial China in 1912 the Qingshigao 清史稿 "Draft to a history of the Qing dynasty" was added to this corpus. The Qingshigao is of course not an "offical" dynastic history because there was no emperor any more promulgating it as a such. With that text, the official dynastic histories in total count 26 books: the "Twenty-six histories" Ershiliu shi 二十六史.

Table 1. The 25 (26) Official Dynastic Histories
1 史記 130卷 Shiji (93 BCE) 司馬談 Sima Tan and his son 司馬遷 Sima Qian "Records of the Grand Scribe" (universal history beginning with the "Yellow emperor" 黃帝 and ending in 93 BCE)
2 漢書 100卷 Hanshu (83 AD) 班彪 Ban Biao and his son 班固 Ban Gu Book of the (Former) Han
3 後漢書 90+30 (120卷) Houhanshu (445 CE) 范曄 Fan Ye Book of the Later Han
4 三國志 30+15+20 (65卷) Sanguozhi (289 CE) 陳壽 Chen Shou Records of the Three Kingdoms (contains Weizhi 魏志 "Records of Wei", Wuzhi 吳志 "Records of Wu" and Shuzhi 蜀志 "Records of Shu")
5 晉書 130卷 Jinshu (648) 房玄齡 Fang Xuanling Book of the Jin (incl. Sixteen Barbarian States)
6 宋書 100卷 Songshu (488) 沈約 Shen Yue Book of the (Liu-)Song
7 南齊書 59卷 Nanqishu (524) 蕭子顯 Xiao Zixian Book of the Southern Qi
8 梁書 56卷 Liangshu (635) 姚思廉 Yao Silian Book of the Liang
9 陳書 36卷 Chenshu (636) 姚思廉 Yao Silian Book of the Chen
10 魏書 124卷 Weishu (554) 魏收 Wei Shou Book of the Northern Wei dynasty (incl. Eastern and Western Wei)
11 北齊書 50卷 Beiqishu (636) 李德林 Li Delin and his son 李百藥 Li Baiyao Book of the Northern Qi
12 周書 50卷 Zhoushu (636) 令狐德棻 Linghu Defen Book of Northern Zhou
13 隋書 85卷 Suishu (636) 魏征 Wei Zheng Book of the Sui
14 南史 80卷 Nanshi (659) 李延壽 Li Yanshou History of the Southern Dynasties
15 北史 100卷 Beishi (659) 李延壽 Li Yanshou History of the Northern Dynasties (incl. Sui)
16 舊唐書 200卷 Jiutangshu (945) 劉昫 Liu Xu Old book of the Tang
17 舊五代史 150卷 Jiu Wudaishi (974) 薛居正 Xue Juzheng Old history of the Five Dynasties (incl. Ten States)
18 新唐書 225卷 Xintangshu (1061) 歐陽修 Ouyang Xiu et al. New book of the Tang
19 新五代史 74卷 Xin Wudaishi (1072) 歐陽修 Ouyang Xiu et al. New history of the Five Dynasties
20 宋史 296卷 Songshi (1345) 脫脫 Tuo Tuo (Toktoghan) et al. History of the Song
21 遼史 116卷 Liaoshi (1344) 脫脫 Tuo Tuo (Toktoghan) et al. History of the Liao
22 金史 135卷 Jinshi (1344) 脫脫 Tuo Tuo (Toktoghan) et al. History of the Jin (Jurchens)
23 元史 210卷 Yuanshi (1370) 宋濂 Song Lian et al. History of the Yuan
24 明史 332卷 Mingshi (1739) 張廷玉 Zhang Tingyu et al. History of the Ming
25 清史稿 529卷 Qingshigao (1927) 趙爾巽 Zhao Erxun Draft history of the Qing
(26) 新元史 257卷 Xin Yuanshi (1920) 柯邵忞 Ke Shaomin New history of the Yuan

The first universal history of China was the Shiji 史記 "Records of the Grand Scribe", begun by Sima Tan 司馬談 (d. c. 110 BCE) and finished by his son Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145-86 BCE), who both were court astrologers (taishi 太史) under the Former Han Dynasty (206 BCE-8 CE).

Sima Qian used a biographic-thematic type (jizhuanti 紀傳體) of historiography instead of a more "natural" annalistic year-by-year type (biannianti 編年體). This has to do with the high value of persons and genealogies in Chinese history. The history of a dynasty is thus in first line the history of a family and not that of a country.

Additionally to three different types of biographies, Sima Qian added tables and treatises. His book consequently consists of five types of chapters:

Table 2. Types of Chapters in the Dynastic Histories
本紀 (紀) benji (ji) Annals-biographies of emperors or rulers
biao Tables
書, 志, 考 shu, zhi, kao Treatises on various topics of statecraft
世家 shijia Biographies of the houses of the feudal lords, competitor dynasties and of eminent persons
列傳 (傳) liezhuan (zhuan) Individual biographies of ordinary persons and collective biographies of empresses, princes, officials, scholars, usurpers, or reports of foreign countries

Overview of the types of collective biographies (pdf).

Although the later dynastic histories follow this pattern, not every book makes use of the full range of these five types:

Benji are to be found in each of the official dynastic histories. Shijia (also called zaiji 載記) are only to be found in the Shiji (for the feudal states of the Zhou period and as biographies of eminent persons like Confucius), the Jinshu 晉書 "Book of the Jin dynasty" (265-420; annals-biographies for the Sixteen "Barbarian" States 五胡十六國, 300~430), and the Xin Wudaishi 新五代史 "New history of the Five Dynasties" (907-960, for the rulers of the Ten States 十國, 902-979).

Tables are not found in all histories from the Houhanshu 後漢書 "Book of the Later Han dynasty" (25-220 AD) to the Jiutangshu 舊唐書 "Old book of the Tang Dynasty" (618-907), and not in the Jiu Wudaishi 舊五代史 "Old history of the Five Dynasties".

Treatises are not found in the Sanguozhi 三國志 "The Three Kingdoms" (220-280), Liangshu 梁書 "Book of the Liang dynasty" (502-557), Chenshu 陳書 "Book of the Chen dynasty" (557-589), Beiqishu 北齊書 "Book of the Northern Qi dynasty" (550-577), Zhoushu 周書 "Book of the (Northern) Zhou dynasty" (557-581), Nanshi 南史 "History of the Southern Dynasties" (420~589), and Beishi 北史 "History of the Northern Dynasties" (386~581). In later ages, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries, historians tried to reconstruct supplementary tables and treatises for these dynasties, how they might have looked if they had been compiled officially. The results are to be found in the collectaneum Ershiwushi bubian 二十五史補編, published in 1936 by the Kaiming Publishing House 開明書店 in Shanghai (repr. 1955 by Zhonghua shuju 中華書局).

The themes of the treatises multiplied in the course of the centuries; these chapters were the basis for the upcome of encyclopaedias (leishu 類書) and the overviews of the political-administrative system of the dynasties (huiyao 會要). The themes of the treatises range from rituals and state offerings to ritual music, imperial robes and carriages, official measures and the calendar, river conservancy, political economy, penal law, central and local administration, the military, description of strange phenological events, imperial bibliographies, as well as the description of the recruitment system and the state examinations. The Qingshigao is the only one of the official dynastic histories that provides treatises about communications (149-152 交通志 Jiaotong zhi) and foreign relations (153-160 邦交志 Bangjiao zhi).

Table 3. Types of Treatises in the Dynastic Histories
N.B. Names differ from book to book.
禮 (禮儀) li (liyi) Rites (in combination li-yue 禮樂)
樂 (音樂) yue (yinyue) Ritual music
儀衛 yiwei Court ceremonies
曆 (曆象, 時憲) li (lixiang, shixian) Calendar (in combination lü-li 律曆)
天文 (天官, 天象, 司天) tianwen (tianguan, tianxian, sitian) Astronomy
封禪 fengshan Offerings to Heaven and Earth (only in Shiji)
符瑞 furui Omina and portents (only in Songshu and Nanqishu)
五行 (災異) wuxing (zaiyi) The Five Phases
河渠 (溝洫) hequ (gouxu) River conservancy
平準 pingzhun Agronomical matters
刑法 (刑罰, 刑) xingfa (xing) Penal law
食貨 shihuo Food and commodities
祭祀 (郊祀, 靈徵) jisi (jiaosi, lingzheng) State offerings
地理 (郡國, 州郡, 地形, 郡縣, 職方) dili (junguo, zhoujun, dixing, dixing, junxian, zhifang) Administrative geography
選舉 xuanju Recruitment of officials and state examinations
百官 (職官, 官氏) baiguan (zhiguan, guanshi) State offices
兵 (兵衛) bing (bingwei) Military
營衛 yingwei Garrisons (only in Liaoshi)
輿服 (車服) yufu (chefu) Chariots and robes
藝文 yiwen Literature, imperial bibiography (only in Hanshu, Xintangshu, Songshi, Mingshi, Qingshigao; in Suishu, Jiutangshu called jingji 經籍)
釋老 Shi-Lao Buddhism and Daoism (only in Weishu)
交通 jiaotong Traffic and communication (only in Qingshigao)
邦交 bangjiao Diplomatic relations (only in Qingshigao)

Overview of the treatises (pdf).

Although each of the Southern and Northern Dynasties during the time of division have their distinct dynastic history (except the Western Wei 西魏 [535-556] and Eastern Wei 東魏 [534-550], two dynasties whose history is included in the Weishu 魏書 "Book of the [Northern] Wei dynasty" [386-534]), there are two compound histories for the Southern Dynasties (Nanshi) and the Northern Dynasties (Beishi).

The so-called Sixteen Barbarian States (Shiliuguo 十六國 [300~430]) were not officially granted the status of dynasties and are dealt with in the biographies of hereditary houses (shijia) of the Jinshu and the Weishu. The so-called Ten States (Shiguo 十國 [902~979]) faced the same fate and their history is dealt with in the biographies of hereditary houses (shijia) of the Jiu Wudaishi and the Xin Wudaishi.

According to politial circumstances the "barbarian" dynasties of the Liao 遼 (907-1125, Kitans) and Jin 金 (1115-1234, Jurchens) were treated with as equal to the Chinese Song dynasty and were written an official dynastic history each (Liaoshi 遼史 "The history of the Liao dynasty" and Jinshi 金史 "The history of the Jin dynasty"). Surprisingly enough, this was not done for the Western Xia dynasty (Xixia 西夏, Tanguts, 1038-1227), for which no official dynastic history exists.

The Song period scholar Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (1007–1072) rearranged the histories of the Tang and the Five Dynasties, for which therefore an old version and a new version exists (Jiutangshu 舊唐書, Xintangshu 新唐書, Jiu Wudaishi 舊五代史, Xin Wudaishi 新五代史). These differ significantly in some points differ in some points.

From the great Song dynasty on the official histories were called shi 史 "history" instead of shu 書 "book", like before, probably in order to distinguish the history of the great Song from that of the small southern Liu-Song, Songshu. The titles of the two Wudaishi are not the original names of these books, but were given at a later date of time. The original titles were Liang-Tang-Jin-Han-Zhou shu 梁唐晉漢周書 and Wudai shiji 五代史記, respectively.

There were several attempts to revive the pattern of the Shiji as a multi-dynastic history. The oldest of such books was Tongshi 通史 "Comprehensive history" (lost), written by Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty 梁武帝 (r. 502–549). It was 480 juan-long, began in the mythical times of the Three Emperors (Sanhuang 三皇) and ended with the foundation of the Liang. Others were Li Yanshou's 李延壽 Nanshi 南史 and Beishi 北史 (which were included into the corpus of the official dynastic histories and are therefore the only surviving of these comprehensive dynastic histories), Gaoshi xiaoshijuan) by Gao Jun 高峻 and his son Gao Jiongli 高迥釐, Liu Quan's 劉權 Liushi dongshi 劉氏洞史 (20 juan) and Yao Kangfu's 姚康復 Tongshi 統史 (300 juan).

The official dynastic histories of the Five Dynasties, Wudaishi and Xin Wudaishi, must also be counted among these multi-dynastic histories and are accordingly classified in the bibliographic chapter of the encyclopaedic history book Tongzhi 通志.

In many cases, particularly the older dynastic histories, it was not from the beginning evident that they would be official histories. For virtually all of the dynastic histories before the official compilation of the "trio" Songshi, Liaoshi and Jinshi therefore, parallel or alternative histories existed. Some of them followed the same structural pattern as the (later) official histories, with an arrangement in biographies and treatises, while others must be counted as chronicles (biannian 編年). In ancient bibliographies these two types sometimes seem to be mixed up, chronicles being listed as alternative dynastic histories side by side with texts of the biographical-thematical type, yet because the largest part of these alternative histories has not survived, it is no longer possible to find out which arrangement these texts followed.

The most important editions of the dynastic histories are the modern Zhonghua Book Company 中華書局 edition that was published between 1962 and 1975 (but without the Xin Yuanshi and the Qingshigao, the latter published in 1977). The predecessor of this edition was the so-called Bona edition 百衲本, published by the Commercial Press 商務印書館 between 1930 and 1937 (repr. 1958 and 1965). The authoritiative version from imperial times was the Wuyingdian edition 武英殿本 (produced in the imperial printing shop in the Hall of Military Glory) from 1775.

From the beginning, commentaries on content and phonetics were found side by side with the source texts. The Suishu bibliography, for instance, first lists the Shiji, then the commentary by Pei Yin 裴駰 (also called Shiji, in 80 juan), and then the two commentaries on phonetis Shiji yinyi 史記音義 by Xu Yemin 徐野民 (Liu-Song period) and Shiji yin 史記音 by Zou Dansheng 鄒誕生 (Liang period). The Siku quanshu includes five commentaries on the Shiji (The commentaries by Pei Yin, Sima Zhen 司馬貞 and Zhang Shoujie 張守節, as well as Du Shiji shibiao 讀史記十表 by Wang Yue 汪越 and Xu Kefan 徐克范, and Shiji yiwen 史記疑問 by Shao Taqiqu 邵泰衢), one on the Hanshu (Ban-Ma yitong 班馬異同 by Ni Si 倪思 and Liu Chenweng 劉辰翁), two on the Houhanshu (Bu Houhanshu nianbiao 補後漢書年表 by Xiong Fang and Liang Han kanwu buyi 兩漢刊誤補遺 by Wu Renjie 吳仁傑), two on the Sanguozhi (the anonymous Sanguozhi bianwu 三國史辨誤 and Hang Shijun's 杭世駿 Sanguozhi buzhu 三國志補注), one on the Xintangshu, one on the Xin Wudaishi (Wu Chen's 吳縝 Wudaishi zuanwu 五代史纂誤 and Xintangshu jiumiu 新唐書糾謬) and one on the Liaoshi (Li E's 厲鶚 Liaoshi shiyi 遼史拾遺), as well as a group of commentaries on terms in the languages of the Kitans, the Jurchens and the Mongols that are in modern editions appended to the main text of these history book.