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A Thousand Pieces of Gold
Growing Up Through China's Proverbs
The Loss of One Hair From Nine Oxen
When I was thirteen years old, my parents told me that I was to leave school at fourteen and get a job because they no longer wished to pay for my education. Desperate to go to university, I begged Grandfather Ye Ye to intercede on my behalf. One evening after dinner on one of my rare visits home from boarding school, Ye Ye cornered Father, and they had a private conversation. Afterward,Ye Ye refused to elaborate but merely related that Father had been unsympathetic. Further schooling would only strain their budget because a daughter should never be too well educated. It would spoil any slim chance I might have of making a suitable marriage. "No sane man," according to Father, "would ever want a bride with a Ph.D." Therefore, as far as he and my stepmother were concerned, my education was a matter as trivial as jiu niu yi mao, "the loss of one hair from nine oxen."They had made their decision, and the subject was closed.
"The loss of one hair from nine oxen" is a phrase taken from a poignant letter written by the historian Sima Qian (145-90 B.C.E.) to his friend Ren An. The letter was written in 93 B.C.E., three years before Sima Qian's death.
Sima Qian was the taishi (Grand Minister of History or Grand Historian) during the reign of Emperor Wu (157-87 B.C.E.) of the Early Han dynasty. As such, he was responsible not only for keeping historical records but also for regulating the calendar and doing research on astronomy. Such positions were handed from father to son, and the Sima family had been Grand Historians for many generations. Sima Qian's father, Sima Tan, had also been Grand Minister of History. Even as a boy, Sima Qian was groomed to step into his father's shoes one day.
It had been Sima Tan's dream to write a comprehensive history of China. With that in mind, he collected many ancient tales and historical writings, which he shared with his son. He encouraged the young Sima Qian to embark on three separate journeys to explore the length and breadth of China. Like the Greek historian-traveler Herodotus, with whom he has often been compared, Sima Qian apparently also traveled far and wide; he reached the Kundong Mountains of Gansu Province in the west, the battlegrounds of Julu in Hebei Province in the north, Confucius's birth-place of Qufu in Shandong Province in the east, and the Yangtze River in the south. While lying on his deathbed in 110 B.C.E., Sima Tan extracted a promise from his son that he would one day fulfill his father's unrequited dream of writing a comprehensive history of China.
Sima Qian was appointed Grand Minister of History in 107 B.C.E. Three years later he finally assembled enough material to begin the laborious writing process. In those days paper had not yet been invented. Characters were written with a brush or carved vertically with a knife onto narrow strips of bamboo (or wood). He began writing in 105 B.C.E., but disaster struck six years later.
At that time China was frequently troubled by raids from nomadic tribes (called Xiongnu or Huns) living in the desert areas northwest of China (present-day Mongolia). In retaliation, Emperor Wu would dispatch military expeditions into the desert to harass them. In 99 B.C.E.the young, dashing, and usually victorious Han commander Li Ling led a force of 5000 men in a daring raid deep into enemy territory in an attempt to capture the Hun ruler. Vastly outnumbered, Li Ling was defeated and finally surrendered after he ran out of food and arrows. On hearing this, Emperor Wu became furious. In the case of defeat, the monarch expected his military ocers either to die in battle or to commit suicide and avoid capture. Surrendering to the enemy was considered cowardly and despicable. He proposed punishing Li Ling by confiscating his property and imposing death sentences on his family members to the third degree (parents, siblings and wife, and children).
Sima Qian, who knew and admired Li Ling, tried to defend him in court. By doing so, he enraged Emperor Wu even further. The monarch cast Sima Qian into prison for daring to speak up on behalf of a "traitor" who had surrendered to the enemy.Then, a year later, he accused the historian of trying to deceive the ruler and sentenced him to death. In those days it was possible for disgraced ocials either to buy their way out of their death penalty or to voluntarily submit to castration. For those with insufficient funds, tradition dictated that death was far preferable to mutilation, and only the most cowardly chose to live under such shame.
Unable to come up with the money to redeem himself, Sima Qian chose castration over death in order to complete the writing of his book, Shiji. After the procedure was done, he became tormented by guilt for having selected this "lowest of all punishment." Not wishing to appear spineless and unmanly, he wrote to his friend Ren An to justify himself and to explain the rationale behind his decision.
Ren An was the governor of Yizhou, now called Sichuan Province. In Sima Qian's famous letter, which may never have been sent to its intended recipient, the ancient historian mentions that Governor Ren himself had recently also fallen out of favor with the emperor and was being accused of major crimes.The entire letter is composed of 2401 Chinese characters and was probably written in 93 B.C.E. Below are four segments, which I have selected and translated ... A Thousand Pieces of Gold
Growing Up Through China's Proverbs
. Copyright © by Adeline Yen Mah. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.