This is a story that I learned from a well respected scholar of Chinese history and archaeology, K.C. Chang. He was, briefly, my graduate advisor. I am not a scholar of Chinese anything, and I can’t remember if this story had a textual source, but I have a vague feeling it was in a book introduction or review article written by Chang, and the subject matter was Chinese historiography. Historiography is the study of historical writing, in other words, the study of methods in history. When one studies Chinese historiography, one is often looking at very ancient texts, written by ancient Chinese historians. Apparently, “historian” was a job, not necessarily that different from “scribe” in some other ancient contexts, and during some times and in some places, the Chinese historian sat in the court of the Emperor.
Every now and then, I look for the original story, or some version of it, but I can never find it. It is a story with a lesson so important that it should be retold many times. I do not attest to its veracity, but I will stand by its meaning. Lacking a source to refer to, I hereby make up, er, reconstruct, a version of it so I can put it here in this blog post and refer to it later.
The story goes like this.
An Emperor was sitting court, and attended to by one historian and the historian’s assistants, and others. A man had been accused of a crime, and the Emperor was to decide his fate. Those arguing on behalf of the man clearly demonstrated that he had not committed the crime, and should be let go, but the Emperor had taken a dislike to this man, and ordered his immediate beheading. And so, he was beheaded.
The historian recorded this event, and included in the record, made right then and there, a phrase such as “The Emperor had the man wrongly beheaded.”
Made aware of this, the Emperor insisted that the historian, right then and there, “correct” the record to indicate that the Emperor was just in his decision. The historian pointed out that this was wrong, and he could not change the record.
The Emperor ordered the historian beheaded, and so he was, right then and there.
The first assistant historian then took over the job of historian, and recorded, “The Emperor had the man wrongly beheaded. Then, on seeing that the Historian recorded this accurately had that Historian beheaded.”
Becoming aware of this entry to the historical record, the Emperor insisted that the new historian “correct” the record to show that the Emperor was just. That historian refused, and under the order of the Emperor, was promptly beheaded.
The next assistant historian then took over, and recorded that the Emperor had wrongly ordered the beheading of a citizen, then, wrongly ordered the beheading of the historian that recorded that fact, then ordered the beheading of the historian that recorded that fact. This historian fully understood that he would now be beheaded as well.
But he was not. The Emperor saw that his own reputation was becoming more and more severely damaged, and he understood that a line of historians would form at his court to record this, because this was the role of historians at this time and place. The Emperor relented, went on with other business, and the third historian lived.
And this is why we know today of what that Emperor did.