Twenty-five Official Dynastic Histories
The first universal history of China was the Shiji (史记) "Records of the Grand Scribe", written by Sima Tan (司马谈) (d. ca. 110 BC) and his son Sima Qian (司马迁) (145-86 BC), who both were "court astrologers" (太史) during the Former Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 8 AD).
The pattern of Sima Qian's historiographic work was unique and should serve as model for the official standard histories of the imperial dynasties for the next two thousand years. The official histories of China are collected in the corpus of the "Twenty-four histories" (二十四史). After the end of imperial China in 1911 the Qingshigao (清史稿) "Draft to a history of the Qing dynasty" (1644-1911) was added to this corpus. The Qingshigao is of course not an "offical" dynastic history because there was no emperor any more acknowledging it as a such. This are the "Twenty-five histories" (二十五史). A further history came into this collection with the Xin Yuanshi (新元史) "New history of the Yuan dynasty" (1279-1368), leading to the title of "Twenty-six histories" Ershiliu shi (二十六史).
Sima Qian used a biographical type (纪传体) of historiography instead of an annalistic year-by-year type (编年体). This has to do with the high value of persons and genealogies in Chinese history. The history of a dynasty is in first line the history of a family and not that of a country.
1. 本纪 Benji, Imperial biographies of rulers/emperors
Although the later dynastic histories follow this pattern, not every book makes use of the full range of these five types: Benji are to be found in each of the official dynastic histories. Shijia (also called 载记) are only to be found in the Shiji, the Jinshu (晋书) "Book of the Jin dynasty" (265-420), and the Xin Wudaishi (新五代史) "New history of the Five Dynasties" (907-960). Tables are not found in all histories from the Houhanshu (后汉书) "Book of the Later Han dynasty" (25-220 AD) to the Jiu Tangshu (旧唐书) "Old book of the Tang Dynasty" (618-907), and not in the Jiu Wudaishi (旧五代史) "Old history of the Five Dynasties". Treatises are not found in the Sanguozhi (三国志) "The Three Kingdoms" (220-280), Liangshu (梁书) "Book of the Liang dynasty" (502-557), Chenshu (陈书) "Book of the Chen dynasty" (557-589), Beiqishu (北齐书) "Book of the Northern Qi dynasty" (550-577), Zhoushu (周书) "Book of the (Northern) Zhou dynasty" (557-581), Nanshi (南史) "History of the Southern Dynasties" (420~589), and Beishi (北史) "History of the Northern Dynasties" (386~581).
The themes of the treatises multiply in the course of the centuries; this chapters are the basis for the upcome of encyclopedias (类书) and the overviews of the political-administrative system of the dynasties (会要). The themes of the treatises range from rituals and state offerings to ritual music, imperial robes and carriages, official measures and the calendar, river conservancy, political economy, penal law, central and local administration, the military, description of strange phenological events, bibliographies, as well as the description of the recruitment system and the state examinations. The Qingshigao is the only one of the official dynastic histories providing treatises about communications (149-152 交通志 ) and foreign relations (153-160 邦交志).
The types of treatises are:
* 禮 li, Rites
The first four official dynastic histories, the Shiji, Hanshu, Houhanshu and Sanguozhi are subsumed under the title "The four histories" (四史).
Although each of the northern and southern dynasties during the time of division have their distinct dynastic history (except the Western Wei [535-556] and Eastern Wei [534-550] whose history is included in the Weishu (魏书) "Book of the [Northern] Wei dynasty" [386-534]) there are two compound histories for the Southern Dynasties (Nanshi) and the Northern Dynasties (Beishi). The so-called Sixteen Barbarian States (十六国 [300~430]) were not officially granted the status of dynasties and are dealt with in the hereditary biographies of the Jinshu and the Weishu. The so-called Ten States (Shiguo 十國 [902~979]) face the same fate and their history is dealt with in the hereditary biographies of the Jiu Wudaishi and the Xin Wudaishi.
According to politial circumstances the "barbarian" dynasties of the Liao (Khitans, 907-1125) and Jin (Jurchens, 1115-1234) were treated with as equal to the Chinese Song dynasty and were written an official dynastic history (辽史) "The history of the Liao dynasty" and Jinshi (金史) "The history of the Jin dynasty"). Surprisingly this was not done for the Western Xia dynasty (西夏, Tanguts, 1038-1227).