The story “Letter to Jen An” is one full of moral lessons and inspiration. The author, Ssu-ma Chien makes several attempts to convey his inner feelings and experience to the people. As it is apparent, there are several hindrances for the author to fully realize his ambitions. During the time when he sets out to write this exceptionally useful manuscript, disaster strikes. He faces a risk of total elimination and eternal silence by the ruthless dynasty. The historical perspectives show that during turbulent times, rulers have particularly acted with intense brutality in order to defend their power and abundant wealth acquired illegitimately. Apparently, we still applaud leaders who demonstrated outstanding abilities to bring about victory to the people. On the contrary, we condemn those who failed to deliver any victory. Nevertheless, there is an interesting fact that is apparent in the search for victors and villains of our time. We have had outstanding heroes turning into villains and past villains become the greatest of all heroes. The focus of today’s historical recognition is meant to satisfy the cravings of the modern age. For instance, the quest for the recognition of human rights and fight against evil practices in past has caused immense recognition of some historical personalities who were villains during their lifetime. Therefore, the story of “Letter to Jen An” is a clear representation of the turns and twists of historical aspects.
The comprehension of the circumstances of the Ssu-ma is very crucial for the latter generation of readers. For Ssu-ma Chien, the time of his writing is characterized by intense lobby and pursuit of peace by a great tyrant- Shih Huang Ti. This tyrant was the first sovereign Emperor to have ruled China. The greatest of all missions during his reign was the restoration of the Great Peace among the warring states. However, the process was not without pain. As a matter of fact, it was such a terrible moment for millions of people. During the process of restoration of peace, several people were exposed to the harsh authority of Ch’in Dynasty. Some of the struggles and suffering that people went through include mass dislocation, progressive wars as well as forced labor in the massive projects meant for the public. Similarly, the Ch’in Dynasty is infamous for its light and unfriendly approach to education (Birch 95). In fact, we see that books were burned as well as scholars buried. Later, the few scholars during the subsequent reign of the Han Dynasty expounded on the terrible reputation that Shih Huang Ti possessed. The main intention of the scholars in the subsequent reigns was to restore the lost glory of education as well as scholars’ dignity.
The role played by historians is perhaps of greater value than we merely think. Virtually all that we know about the past is in existence through the efforts made by these people. Although we may overlook the suffering; the trying moments that such people may have had to contend with, there is no doubt that immense sacrifice had to be done. In the case of the Ch’in dynasty, we would never have known anything at all. How could it have been possible anyway with all books burnt down and scholars buried? However, we have much information concerning the ruthless Ch’in Dynasty courtesy of a man who has come to be known as the Greatest of all Historians of our time- Ssu-ma Chien. Besides being a historian, Ssu-ma was also an astrologer. Ssu-ma worked in Han court and was thus able to access the record of events that took place during the time (Birch 96). Apparently, he was able to provide the best and concise annals of history that he had managed to gather during his service in the court. Besides the biased conclusions he uses in his historical account, we have a crystal clear picture of the Ch’in Dynasty. Ssu-ma gives an account of the events within the Dynasty. Besides, he delves into the character of various personalities in the dynasty. For instance, through him, we are able to understand the character of the First Sovereign Emperor, the Grand councilor, the General as well as the wrongful succession by Emperor’s favorite son.
In view of the circumstances facing Ssu-ma, it is apparent that misunderstanding controlled the Emperor when Ssu-ma gave his opinion on the defeat of Li ling. No one could oppose the wisdom of a tyrant. As such, when Li Ling encountered an utter defeat, everybody was concerned. More particularly, the Emperor’s food was distasteful after the shocking defeat. Ssu-ma gives an in-depth character analysis of the great soldier; Li Ling. The two worked in the palace although their roles were so diverse such that they never mingled with each other. However, Ssu-ma understood the character of Li Ling just too well. According to Ssu-ma, the manner in which Li Ling conducted his life was not ordinary. He was a gentleman in all aspects and probably more gentlemanly than any other ordinary person. Ssu-ma describes Li Ling as having had such desirable traits as honesty, polite, respectful, humble, moderate, supportive to parents, scrupulous on matters involving money as well as a man who demonstrated immense selflessness. It is the intense love for his country that excited him each day and always what mattered in his life was his service towards his nation. As Ssu-ma puts it, He seemed to have the right bearing of a hero (Birch 97). As a matter of fact, this man could expose himself to a thousand deaths for the sake of his country.
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Nobody would want to reckon with failure and defeat. However, it is imperative to look at the efforts made by an individual before condemning them for their failure and lack of achievement. Li Ling was a man who never regarded his own life as having any worth. His sole concern was the safety and peace for his countrymen. Nothing was so painful for Ssu-ma than the hate and criticism that Li Ling faced for the single defeat his army suffered even after devoting all their efforts wholeheartedly. It was completely unacceptable for the Emperor and the judges to water down the efforts made by Li Ling. Ssu-ma could not help but defend the hero. Li Ling had done anything possible to ensure that victory was obtained during the clash with the nomads. The challenge that Barbarians faced in spite of their renowned fierceness was unheard of. With only 5000 men in his army, Li Ling mustered the courage to face a million men. With intense ferocity, Li Ling fought the massive army for more than ten days killing a multitude of men. But for the reinforcement from the neighboring lords, Li Ling would have defeated them completely (Birch 98). For the days that Li Ling dominated in the war, excitement and jubilation was rife in all and sundry. In fact, when a messenger brought the news of the victory in the court, there were celebrations by the Lords and princes.
Perhaps the moral lesson learnt from Ssu-ma can be seen in his audacity to support Li Ling. Ssu-ma exalted Li Ling for the efforts he had made towards maintenance of safety throughout China. The Emperor was not patient with the sincerity exuded by Ssu-ma. The fact that Ssu-ma was in favor of Li Ling was taken as criticism to the second General, Li Kuang-li. It was interpreted as indulgence in pleading for the fallen General. The subsequent prosecution by the judges and eventual punishment tell it all. Ssu-ma chose to remain steadfast in the truth. However, this was met with intense animosity from the Emperor and the court judges who condemned him into castration. Ssu-ma was a very bold person. He could not be deterred by the brutality demonstrated by the Emperor. Apparently, Ssu-ma knew well that Li Ling had devoted his entire life for the sake of Chinese people. He therefore chose to say the truth about the great hero of the time. It may seem completely out of order and violation of the norms if one contradicts the will of the Emperor (Birch 98). Similarly, painful punishments can be applied for people who go against the intention of the Emperor. However, this did not hamper Ssu-ma from standing for the truth. He chose to suffer but stand for the truth.
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Ssu-ma’s story offers a lot of education to people. To start with, Ssu-ma demonstrated that one should stick to what they believe in despite the odds. Even though Ssu-ma knew that the Emperor would punish him, he did not fear standing for the truth. Secondly, we learn from this story that the opinion of the many does not always mean that it is the right one. The lords and princes had celebrated the news of initial victory. However, when defeat struck, they blamed Li Ling. Ssu-ma’s fate was worsened by his poor condition. He could not afford to pay a fine to secure his release or the punishment. His colleagues, friends and relatives avoided him and he was left all alone without anybody to stand by him. The lesson learnt from this experience is painful. However, Ssu-ma demonstrated that one can stand even in the face of misfortune and pursue the truth. Li Ling deserved recognition and not the scorn he got. He deserved honor and not the disrespect and rebuke he was given. The fact that Ssu-ma decided to face the dehumanizing treatment of castration rather than the death penalty is a good lesson to us. We should never be afraid of the shame that may engulf us after we choose to pursue a worthy cause. We should always strive to be heard and explain our cause to everyone willing to listen. As it later emerged, Ssu-ma was a hero. He chose to face challenges head- on without fear; the disrespect he was to encounter due to his castration was intense, but not as compared to the concealment of the truth of proper recognition of Li Ling.
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The letter can be interpreted in diverse ways. However, these interpretations are dependent upon the reader and their attitude towards Ssu-ma and the other people. The letter generally addresses the challenges faced by truthful individuals in their quest for justice in the society. There are several aspects we can learn about Ssu-ma from the letter. To start with, he had a very humble background. He says of himself, “My father never earned tally and patent of nobility; as annalist and astrologer I was not far removed from the diviners and invokers, truly the plaything of the Emperor, kept like any singing girl or jester, and despised by the world” (99). From the letter, we see that Ssu-ma was never considered a person of value by anybody. The same was true for his opinion. The people in power during the Ch’in Dynasty could not risk tarnishing their dignity by castration. Such was a shameful punishment could only be subjected to low class people and not the great officers. However, Ssu-ma was not concerned with what he stood to lose. He wanted the truth to manifest at all times even if it meant getting the worst corporal punishment.
Of course, there were various options available for Ssu-ma. However, he did not choose foolishly. He says, “Had I chosen to submit to the law and let myself be put to death, it would be no more important than the loss of a single hair from nine oxen, no different from the crushing of an ant. No one would have credited me with dying for a principle; rather they would have thought that I simply died because I was at my wit's end and my offence allowed no other way out. And why? They would think so because of the occupation in which I had established myself” (99). We see that Ssu-ma was never bothered by the intensity of the punishment. He was only concerned with his principles. He also wanted to have time to make these principles known to the people who came after him. The selfless commitment into suffering on his part was not motivated by desire for money; it was meant to make known the evils of the Ch’in Dynasty. As for Ssu-ma, vulgar people would term him cowardly. However, he knew that men sensitive to understand would applaud him. His motivation was from several people who beat all odds to be heard (Birch 101). Ssu-ma’s efforts helped him gather the fragments of ancient history together and arrange them in the best order.