Ancient inscriptions on tortoise shells and ox scapula, together with inscriptions on ancient bronze objects, the pictographic Chinese character shi (史) represents a hand holding a writing brush or a hand holding a bamboo slip, referring to a court official in charge of keeping historical records. Explanation of Script and Elucidation of Characters by Xu Shen (58?-147) in the Eastern Han Dynasty goes: “Shi is the person who keeps records of events. A hand in the middle implies maintaining justice.” Same in sound, two differently-written Chinese characters shi (史 history) and shi (事 events) are from the same origin, and those who keep notes of what happens are called shi (史 record keeper) and what they write down is shi (事 records). Later, what the officials in charge of keeping records of historical incidents or events or collections of these incidents or events as well as comments about them are also called shi (史), which literally means history. According to Xu Shen, the original pictograph representing the Chinese character shi looks like a hand kept in the middle, which means keeping records of historical incidents or events objectively without lending favor to any side of an issue. Great emphasis was once placed on keeping records of history, and during certain periods, even the sovereign rulers were not allowed to interfere with the work of officials in charge of keeping records of historical incidents or events. On the one hand, by keeping records of historical incidents or events, such officials posed a deterrent to rulers, who had to be careful about what they said and what they did. On the other hand, by keeping records of or commenting on historical figures or events, lessons could be summed up or examples be set up, which rulers could draw on and learn from. This tradition constitutes an important aspect of Chinese people’s humanistic and rationalistic spirit.
These people were depressed and unable to achieve their ideals. Thus, they wrote down the things that had happened, so that later generations could understand them. (Sima Qian: A Letter of Reply to Ren An)
Reasons for the rise and fall of all states since antiquity can all be found in books; reasons why hundreds of emperors did good or evil deeds can also be read in classics and history books. The examples recorded of how licentiousness invited disasters and good deeds brought about fortune are omnipresent like our own shadows, and they are as obvious as the sun and moon and as evident as a painting. (Zhao Pu: Memorial Urging Emperor Taizong to Withdraw Troops)