China as a nation has the longest and most complete recorded history in the world. The Chinese people can use history to judge contemporary affairs. Liu Zhiji (661 – 721 AD), an official historian from the Tang Dynasty, said, "The purpose of history is to record achievements, point out mistakes, promote the kind and suppress the wicked. So the achievements and mistakes of one dynasty can become the glory and shame that will be passed down for thousands of years." (Shi Tong
, A Survey on History) Along these lines, it is then imperative that historians truthfully record history.
There were official historians dating back to even during the Yellow Emperor's (Huangdi) time around 2600 BC. Ju Song and Cang Jie were two of the Yellow Emperor's official historians. They were responsible for creating the Chinese characters. It was said that through observing the shapes of natural objects and imitating their sounds and forms, Cang Jie created the pictograms and pictophonetic characters. By understanding what meanings certain natural objects can convey, he created the ideograms.
"History means recording things in an impartial and truthful way." (Shuo Wen Jie Zi
, Explaining Simple and Analyzing Compound Characters). These words clearly describe the requirements for historians dating back to ancient China. Furthermore, there was a rule regarding the recording of history, that an emperor was not allowed to read the official historical records of the current dynasty.
After Wei Zheng (580 – 643 AD), an official in the Tang Dynasty who was famous for his criticisms of the emperor, passed away, Emperor Taizong of Tang, Li Shimin (598 – 649 AD), said, "People used bronze to make mirrors that can help people tidy their clothes. With history as a mirror, one can see the rise and decline and the prosperity and demise of dynasties. With individuals as mirrors, one can assess what one has done correctly and incorrectly. As Wei Zheng has gone, I have lost a perfect mirror." From these words, we know that Emperor Taizong used history and other people's words to assess what mistakes he had made. In the second year of the Zhen Guan Period, 628 AD, which represents the period when Emperor Taizong governed China during the Tang Dynasty, he appointed two imperial chroniclers (Qi Ju Lang) to record the emperor's words and deeds. In the tenth year of the Zhen Guan Period in 637 AD, Chu Suiliang (597 – 658 AD) was appointed chronicler, responsible for recording the words and behavior of the emperor.
The book of Shi Guan Za Lu
(a history book) recorded a story about Li Shimin and Chu Suiliang (whose father was Chu Liang, one of the eighteen scholars in Emperor Li Shimin's Literature Center). One day, the emperor wanted to read the Diaries of Activity and Repose
(Qi Ju Zhu) about himself, so as to learn what mistakes he had made in order to correct them. He said, "Can the emperor read the things that you have recorded?"
Chu Suiliang replied, "The position of Qi Ju Lang is the same as the official historian of the emperor in the past. They record everything, good or bad. I have not heard of an emperor who wanted to read these things."
The emperor then asked, "If I have done something wrong, will you definitely noted it down?" Chu responded, "That is my due responsibility. I will note down every word and act of yours."
Liu Ji, who was a Men Shi Lang (an official who was responsible for taking care of the emperor and conveying the emperor's orders and instructions), said, "Even if you had ordered Chu Suiliang not to record it, the people in the nation will record it."
The emperor asked Fang Xueling (another famous official and scholar), "Why can't an emperor read the history of his dynasty?"
Fang replied, "Historical records include both good and bad. If historians are worried that what they have recorded may offend the emperor, they may thus want to modify the historical record. So there is such a rule of not allowing the emperor to read the historical record of the current dynasty."
Emperor Taizong answered, "But my wanting to read the record is different from the other emperors in the past. If the record is about my achievements, I do not want to mention it. My mistakes should, of course, be recorded, but I just hope that you can tell me the mistakes so that I can pay attention to my words and acts and not repeat those mistakes."
Chinese history is so complete, in part because of the many historians who dared to impartially record history, even when they were penalized or even lost their lives for doing so. Because of this rule, that the emperors could not read the history of their respective dynasties, historians could truthfully record history. It is because of this rule that we can today see the real records of history, know the virtues of the ancients, the treachery of the wicked, and see the rise and fall of the various dynasties.