One of the most famous letters in Chinese history was sent by the historian Sima Qian to his friend Ren An. In this letter, Sima Qian bemoans his castration at the hands of an arbitrary emperor after he tried to speak out in defense of a good man. He proclaims that he will devote his life to completing his history, and speaks of the conviction that keeps people writing in devastating tone:
When Xibo, the Earl of the West, was imprisoned at Youli, he expanded the I Ching. Confucius was in distress when he made the Spring and Autumn Annals. Qu Yuan was banished and he composed his poem “Encountering Sorrow.” After Zuo Qiu lost his sight, he wrote the Conversations from the States.
When Sun Tzu had his feet amputated in punishment, he set forth the Art of War. Lü Buwei was banished to Shu but his Spring and Autumn of Mr. Lü has been handed down through the ages. While Han Fei Zi was held prisoner in Qin he wrote “The Difficulties of Disputation” and “The Sorrow of Standing Alone.”
Most of the three hundred poems of the Odes were written when the sages poured out their anger and dissatisfaction. All these men had a rankling in their hearts, for they were not able to accomplish what they wished. Those like Zuo Qiu, who was blind, or Sun Tzu, who had no feet, could never hold office, so they retired to compose books in order to set forth their thoughts and indignation, handing down their writings so they could show posterity who they were.
I too have ventured not to be modest but have entrusted myself to my useless writings. I have gathered up and brought together the old traditions of the world that were scattered and lost. I have examined events of the past and investigated the principles behind their success and failure, their rise and decay, in 130 chapters. I wished to examine into all that concerns heaven and humankind, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, putting forth my views as one school of interpretation. […]
When I have truly completed this work, I will deposit it in the Famous Mountain archives. If it may be handed down to those who will appreciate it and penetrate to the villages and great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret would I have?
(Translated in Burton Watson, Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty, appendix 2)
Sima Qian confides to Ren An that “such matters as these may be discussed with a wise man, but it is difficult to explain them to ordinary people.” From the greatest critic of writing comes the meaning of the Tao Te Ching’s verse, “Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know.” Indeed, life for Sima Qian, must have done you wrong for you to confide in words on paper. And you, you who have never experienced true indignation, never known true suffrage and discontent makes a poor conversation partner.