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 Jingjizhi 經籍志 in the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書. The Siku quanshu 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), together with commentaries and notes 38 books.
The first universal history of China was the Shiji 史記 "Records of the Grand Scribe", written by Sima Tan 司馬談 (d. ca. 110 BCE) and 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).
The pattern of Sima Qian's historiographic work was unique and should serve as model for the official standard histories (zhengshi 正史) of the imperial dynasties for the next two thousand years. The official histories of China are collected in the corpus of the "Twenty-four histories" (Ershisi shi 二十四史). After the end of imperial China in 1911 the Qingshigao 清史稿 "Draft to a history of the Qing dynasty" (1644-1911) 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. These are the "Twenty-five histories" (Ershiwu shi 二十五史). A further history came into this collection with the Xin Yuanshi 新元史 "New history of the Yuan dynasty" (1279-1368), leading to the title of "Twenty-six histories" Ershiliu shi 二十六史.
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 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 1. 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 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

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, the Jinshu 晉書 "Book of the Jin dynasty" (265-420; feudal 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 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).
The themes of the treatises multiply in the course of the centuries; these chapters are the basis for the upcome of encyclopedias (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, 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 providing treatises about communications (149-152 交通志 Jiaotong zhi) and foreign relations (153-160 邦交志 Bangjiao zhi).
The types of treatises are:

Table 2. Types of Treatises in the Dynastic Histories
N.B. Names differ from book to book.
禮 (禮儀) li (liyi) Rites
樂 (音樂) yue (yinyue) Ritual music
儀衛 yiwei Court ceremonies
曆 (曆象, 時憲) li (lixiang, shixian) Calendar
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 commerce
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) Local administration
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

The first four official dynastic histories, the Shiji, Hanshu, Houhanshu and Sanguozhi are subsumed under the title "The four histories" (Sishi 四史).
Although each of the northern and southern 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] 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 hereditary biographies of the Jinshu and the Weishu. The so-called Ten States (Shiguo 十國 [902~979]) face the same fate and their history is dealt with in the hereditary biographies of the Jiu Wudaishi and the Xin Wudaishi.
According to politial circumstances the "barbarian" dynasties of the Liao 遼 (907-1125, Khitans) and Jin 金 (1115-1234, Jurchens) were treated with as equal to the Chinese Song dynasty and were written an official dynastic history (Liaoshi 遼史 "The history of the Liao dynasty" and Jinshi 金史 "The history of the Jin dynasty"). Surprisingly this was not done for the Western Xia dynasty (Xixia 西夏, Tanguts, 1038-1227).
The Song period scholar Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 has 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), which in some points differ significantly. 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. The titles of the two Wudaishi are of a later date. The original titles were Liang-Tang-Jin-Han-Zhou shu 梁唐晉漢周書 and Wudai shiji 五代史記, respectively.

Overview of the treatises (pdf).
Overview of the collective biographies (pdf).

Table 3. 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