Any historian approaching the subject of traditional Chinese biography may be confident of at least one fact: he will be overwhelmed. The sheer volume of this material available in the Chinese sources is exceedingly large.

In discussing Chinese historical writing, it is customary to point first to the chengshih, the so-called “standard histories,” dealing with all of Chinese history down to 1644. There are twenty-five histories, all bulky, in this “official” group. All contain large collections of biographies, elaborately sorted out: loyal officials, villainous officials, imperial concubines, writers, hermits, virtuous wives, and filial sons. In the History of the Ming Dynasty, that portion which is biographical in nature runs to 197 out of a total of 332 chapters–in actual pages about sixty percent of the whole. We encounter the same phenomenon outside of the “standard histories”–in local histories, for example, of which there may be several for one small district. All of this material I shall call “historical biography.”

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