Sima Tan (traditional Chinese: 司馬談; simplified Chinese: 司马谈; pinyin: Sīmǎ Tán; Wade–Giles: Ssu-ma T'an; c. 165–110 BCE) was a Chinese astrologist, astronomer, and historian during the Western Han dynasty. His work Records of the Grand Historian was completed by his son Sima Qian, who is considered the founder of Chinese historiography.

Sima Tan
Born165 BCE
Longmen, Han dynasty
(now Hejin, Shanxi)
Died110 BCE (aged 55)
Occupation(s)Astrologist, astronomer, historian
RelativesSima Xi (father)
Sima Qian (son)

Education & career


Sima Tan studied astronomy with Tang Du, the I Ching under Yang He, and Daoism under Master Huang.

He was appointed to the office of Court Astronomer (Chinese: 太史令; pinyin: tài shǐ lìng) at age 25 in 140 BCE, a position which he held until his death. Although Sima Tan began writing the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), he died before it was finished; it was completed by his son, Sima Qian.

An essay by Sima Tan has survived within the Records of the Grand Historian. In this essay within the larger work, Sima Tan describes six philosophical lineages or "schools" (家 jiā):

A follower of Huang-Lao, an early Han form of Daoism, Sima Tan's descriptions of the schools are biased towards Daoism. They don't name anyone under them; the categories were intended to promote the Dao-school (jia), i.e. Daoism. After their categories had become popular, imperial Archivists Liu Xiang (77–6BCE) and Liu Xin placed the figures, using them as categories in the imperial library a hundred years after Sima Qians death. They become categories of texts in the Book of Han.

The year of Sima Tan's death (110 BCE) was the year of the great imperial sacrifice fengshan (zh:封禅) by Emperor Han Wudi, for which the emperor appointed another person to the rank of fangshi, bypassing Sima, probably causing him much consternation.

See also



  • Sima Qian (1993). Records of the Grand Historian of China – Qin Dynasty. The Research Centre for Translation. Translated by Watson, Burton (hbk ed.). Hong Kong, ZH; New York, NY: The Chinese University of Hong Kong; Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-08168-5. ISBN 0-231-08169-3 (pbk ed.)
  • de Bary, W.T.; Bloom, I. (1999). Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 1 (2nd ed.). New York, NY.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Graham, A.C. (1989). The Disputers of the Tao. La Salle, IL: Open Court.