The Family Government Of Sima An

During the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) there lived a prominent official named Sima An. Although outshone by the abundance of other skilled military and administrative officials of that age, Sima An was undoubtedly a successful man—he became a provincial governor and held high political offices at least four times during his life. His success derived from his instinctual knowledge of how to steer safely through the treacherous environment of Chinese imperial government politics. He managed to always stay out of the proverbial limelight, all the while unthreateningly amassing prestige, power and money for himself. Sima An, however, did not want to be the only man to benefit from his playbook of political success, and he particularly wanted to share this knowledge with his family. In furtherance of this familial goal, Sima An began scouring the government bureaucracy for any openings, and he managed to plug each vacancy that he found with a seemingly endless supply of brothers. Emperor Wu’s Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), wrote of this man’s curious success in finding government jobs for his siblings, writing, “Because of Sima An’s influence, ten of his brothers at one time held posts paying 2,000 piculs” (Shi Ji 120). An impressive feat, indeed—for both Sima An and his fertile parents.

Written by C. Keith Hansely

Picture Attribution: (Painting from the Ten Kings of Hell series by Jin Chushi (Chinese, active late 12th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).



  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji 30) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson (pages 72-83 of his translation). New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

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