Translations of early sources can be difficult to read and understand without prior background knowledge of the time period. For complete beginners to the time period, it is recommended to first read other introductory material first. Free resources include:
For drafts, I have favored more literal translations wherever possible. While aware that this adds an additional level of difficulty for the casual reader, I stick to this approach for several reasons:
- Rendering material to cater to the specifics of a fluent ‘British English’ or ‘American English’ necessarily leads to a certain amount of twisting of the base material which encourages interpretations that may not be necessarily correct. Attempting to craft a ‘Chinese English’ style better preserves the intended meaning.
- My own knowledge of the source texts is imperfect, and when faced with potential ambiguities on interpretation, I wish to preserve the ambiguity through more literal renderings. This leaves things more open for readers to be aware of my own limitations and more knowledgeable experts can offer suggestions.
- When faced with difficult to understand passages, trying for a more literal rendering is often safer than a forceful guess. If a passage sounds incredibly awkward, the translation is probably imperfect and open to correction by more knowledgeable experts. All corrections are welcome here.
Overall, I consider this material as an “upstream step” in a longer pipeline starting from the source texts down to the casual English reader. This material is primarily aimed at more devoted amateur English speaking scholars, who can use this material in crafting their own more accessible material aimed toward more casual audiences.
For more accessible ‘American English’ style translations that we are more confident with, see our Products.
Classical Chinese historiography is quite different from Western historiography, and requires some explanation.
The Sān Guó zhì is structured using the Jì-Zhuàn “Annals-Biographies” format of Classical Chinese historiography. In this format, historical information is organized by historical figures. Annals (Jì 紀) are organized by ruler, and provide records of the major events in the state’s history, ordered chronologically and identified by year, season, moon, and/or day, depending on level of detail. Biographies (Zhuàn 傳) provide information on important historical figures, providing a sketch of their personality and life using illustrative anecdotes and quotations from their letters and writings, and a summary of their career. Often times Biographies provide details and elaborations on events mentioned in the Annals, and the two are intended to supplement each other in an analogy of horizontal and vertical threads woven together.
Annals reflects claims of legitimacy, and so identification of which leaders are called “Annals” and which are called “Biographies” is not trivial. In Sān Guó zhì, the entries corresponding to the rulers of Wèi are called Annals, while those corresponding to the rulers of Shǔ and Wú are called Biographies; this is a reflection of the official political position of the succeeding Jìn dynasty that they inherited their legitimacy through Wèi. Nevertheless, though the entries of the rulers of Shǔ and Wú are formally called Biographies, they function as de facto Annals for their respective states.
Biographies are organized together thematically, as a way of providing another layer of organization of historical information. These thematic groupings are not standardized and reflect the judgments of the compiling historians; different historians are known to have had different opinions, and competing Annals-Biographies format histories on the same period are known to have used different biographical groupings.
Traditional Chinese historiography did not have a single epoch like the Anno Domini of the Gregorian calendar; years were instead counted using Year Titles 年號 issued by the reigning sovereign. As the declaration of Year Titles was a ruling prerogative, competing states would issue their own competing Year Titles and manage their own calendars. Moons were counted by the phases of the moon. Days were generally identified by a repeating sixty day cycle. In these translations all dates are identified by their Gregorian calendar equivalents.
Figures are often identified by more than one name, depending on context and level of respect.
Family 姓 and Clan 氏 names in antiquity were two different names identifying family lineage. By the Hàn dynasty and after they essentially became synonymous for a single surname identifying family lineage. In Chinese naming the family name comes before the personal name.
Personal name 名 identified the individual. As these names were very personal, they were generally only used by persons themselves as a sign of deference, or by others of senior generation or higher rank. Since, generally speaking, no one outranked rulers, the names of rulers were considered taboo 諱 and were not to be used.
Appellation 字 was another name for an individual, to be used between colleagues and friends or in writing, due to the above mentioned restrictions on personal name. Use of the appellation therefore is generally a sign of intimacy or of respect.
Posthumous names 諡號 were granted to rulers and important figures after their death, as a summary of their life and achievements, and to honor them by avoiding their personal names.
Temple names 廟號 were granted to exceptional rulers given permanent positions in the Ancestral Temples to receive sacrifices while the dynasty endured; other rulers without temple names were cycled out to a side area to receive less frequent sacrifices in order to make room for more recent rulers.
Individuals could also be identified by their government office titles in order to avoid using personal names.
Biographies commonly begin by identifying a person’s surname, personal name, appellation, and registered ancestral home territory. This was the territory in which the family was registered, and was not necessarily the individual’s place of birth. This was especially true for the children of government officials, as government officials were frequently appointed outside their registered ancestral homelands in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
Common Government and Bureaucracy Terms
For a more complete explanation of bureaucracy, it is recommended to read the summary paper “The Hundred Offices.”
Royalty and Nobility
The legitimate ruler of the realm Under Heaven 天下 was called Heaven’s Son 天子. The official title was Emperor 皇帝.
During Hàn, close male-line relatives of the Emperor could be given fief as a King 王 (also commonly translated as Prince), and more distant male-line relatives of the Imperial Family could be Duke 公 or Marquis 侯. People not of the Imperial family could gain noble ranks of twenty levels. The twentieth and highest level was a Ranked Marquis 列侯, which came with a fief. The nineteenth and second-highest level was a Marquis Within the Passes 關內侯, which did not come with a fief. Nobility held no actual political power over their fief; they only collected an income based on a share of the tax revenue of the fief, measured in households.
Levels in the Imperial bureaucracy was identified by a rank given in dàn, a unit of measure for grain. In ancient times these were probably literal salaries, but by Hàn they were no longer literal. The two highest levels of the bureaucracy were the Three Excellencies, at 10,000 dàn, then the Nine Ministers at Central 2000 dàn. Central 2000 dàn was slightly above True 2000 dàn, which was slightly above 2000 dàn, which was slightly above Equivalent 2000 dàn. Below this the dàn values of ranks decreased down in an irregular fashion to 100.
The Empire was often stylistically called “Under Heaven” 天下 or “Within the Seas” 海內 or “Nine Provinces” 九州.
The Empire was divided into Provinces 州, provinces divided into Prefectures 郡 or States 國, those divided into Counties 縣, counties divided into villages 鄉, and villages divided into precincts 亭.
The head of a province was either a Governor 牧, ranked at 2,000 dàn, or an Inspector 刺史, ranked at 600 dàn. A Governor outranked the heads of the prefectures and states and had executive authority over the province. An Inspector was ranked lower than the heads of the prefectures and states, only holding censorial abilities and command over provincial armies.
The head of a prefecture was an Administrator 太守, the head of the prefecture containing the Imperial capital was an Intendant 尹, and the head of a state was a Chancellor 相. These were ranked at 2000 dàn. The distinction was that a state doubled as a fief for a King of the Imperial family. Originally these vassal Kings held power over their fiefs, but after the Rebellion of Seven States the Kings were stripped of their power, only collecting income from a share of the state’s tax revenue and nothing more. The name Chancellor was a holdover from when they were actual Chancellors in service to the King.
The head of a county was a Magistrate 令 for a large county or a Chief 長 for a small county, or a Chancellor if the county was a fief for a Marquis. A county, village, or precinct could be a fief for a Marquis.
The commander 將 of an army 軍 was called a General 將軍. In addition to regular Generals in the capital, there were so-called Miscellaneous Generals, identified by a campaign identifier or unique motto, used for specific campaigns and military actions. The regular Generals in the capital included, in order of rank, General-in-Chief 大將軍, General of Elite Cavalry 驃騎將軍, General of Chariots and Cavalry 車騎將軍, and General of the Guard 衛將軍. Most Generals were in the range of various 2,000 dàn ranks.
Beginning from the final years of Hàn, Regional Commanders Wielding Staff 持節都督 began to be appointed to command provincial military affairs. The Staff of Authority was a symbol allowing the holder to act as representative of Imperial authority first, and only give report afterward. It was given in three levels: Envoy Wielding Staff 使持節, Wielding Staff 持節, and Lent Staff 假節.
(This page last updated 2021 May 17)