As can be seen in the structure of the official dynastic histories (zhengshi 正史), biographies played an eminent role in traditional Chinese historiography and were compiled to an incredible amount for official purposes and also for private use.
The introduction to the biographies section in the descriptive catalogue Siku quanshu zongmu tiyao 四庫全書總目提要 explains that not only Confucians made intensive use of the genre of biographies, but also Daoists, who trace back the "invention" of biography to the Yellow Emperor 黃帝. Looking at the Daoist Canon Daozang 道藏 it can be seen that all three "Caverns" include a biographies section (Jizhuan lei 記傳類), with a vast amount of collections of the stories of the lives of "immortals" or extraordinary persons like Mu Tianzi zhuan 穆天子傳, Han Wudi neizhuan 漢武帝內傳, Liexianzhuan 列仙傳, Xuxianzhuan 續仙傳, to name but a few.
The compilers of the Siku quanshu divided the subcategory of biographies into four parts: Saints and worthies (shengxian 聖賢, 2 books), i.e. Confucius and his disciples; famous persons (mingren 名人, 13 books) like Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181-234), Wei Zheng 魏徵 (580-643), Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770) or Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200); collective biographies (zonglu 總錄, 36 books) like Gu Lienüzhuan 古列女傳, Tang caizi zhuan 唐才子傳, Song mingchen yanxing lu 宋名臣言行錄, Yuanchao mingchen shilüe 元朝名臣事略, or Mingru xue'an 明儒學案; and "miscellaneous" records (zalu 雜錄, 9 books) with a very great narrative part in private memories, like Zhengnanlu 征南錄 "The southern expedition" or Rushuji 入蜀記 "My journey to Shu".
The section of biographies in the Siku quanshu thus includes 60 books, and the cunmu 存目 catalogue of available books describes a further amount of 380 books. Six of these belong to a fifth category, "separate records" (bielu 別錄). These biographies cover the lives of rebels like An Lushan 安祿山 (703-757; Yao Anneng's 姚汝能 An Lushan shiji 安祿山事蹟) or usurpers like Liu Yu 劉豫 (1073-1146), who founded the state of Qi 齊, when the Jurchens occupied northern China (Yang Kebi's 楊克弼 Wei Yu zhuan 偽豫傳 and Cao Rong's 曹溶 Liu Yu shiji 劉豫事蹟).
An overview of the historical development of the literary genre of biographies can be found further below.
Part of Siku quanshu 四庫全書
Part of Xuxiu siku quanshu 續修四庫全書
|1. 聖賢之屬 shengxian Saints and Worthies|
|孔子編年 五卷||Kongzi biannian||(Song) 胡仔 Hu Zi|
|東家雜記 二卷||Dongjia zaji||(Song) 孔傳 Kong Chuan|
|孔子實錄 一卷 (存目)||Kongzi shilu||(Yuan) NN|
|2. 名人之屬 mingren Famous Persons|
|晏子春秋 八卷||Yanzi chunqiu||(Zhou) 晏嬰 Yan Ying (?)|
|杜工部年譜 一卷||Du Gongbu nianpu||(Song) 趙子櫟 Zhao Zili|
|金佗稡編 五十八卷 (鄂國金佗粹編)||Jintuo zuibian (Eguo jintuo zubian)||(Song) 岳珂 Yue Ke|
|忠貞錄 四卷||Zhongzhenlu||(Ming) 李維樾 Li Weiyue, 林增志 Lin Zengzhi|
|諸葛忠武書 十卷||Zhuge Zhongwu shu||(Ming) 楊時偉 Yang Shiwei|
|朱子年譜 四卷||Zhuzi nianpu||(Qing) 王懋紡 Wang Maofang|
|3. 總錄之屬 zonglu Collective Records|
|Gu lienüzhuan (Lienüzhuan)
|(Han) 劉向 Liu Xiang|
|漢末英雄傳 一卷 (存目)||Hanmo yingxiong zhuan||(Sanguo-Wei) 王粲 Wang Can|
|高士傳 三卷||Gaoshizhuan||(Jin) 皇甫謐 Huangfu Mi|
|續高士傳 五卷 (存目)||Xu gaoshi zhuan||(Qing) 高兆 Gao Zhao|
|卓異記 一卷||Zhuoyiji||(Tang) 李翱 Li Ao (?)|
|春秋臣傳 三十卷||Chunqiu chen zhuan||(Song) 王當 Wang Dang|
|廉吏傳 二卷||Lianlizhuan||(Song) 費樞 Fei Shu|
|高僧傳||Gaosengzhuan → Buddhist writings||(Liang) 慧皎 Huijiao|
|續高僧傳||Xu gaosengzhuan → Buddhist writings||(Tang) 道宣 Daoxuan|
|宋高僧傳||Song gaosengzhuan → Buddhist writings||(Song) 贊寧 Zanning|
|廣卓異記 二十卷 (存目)||Guang zhuoyiji||(Song) 樂史 Yue Shi|
|伊洛淵源錄 十四卷||Yi-Luo yuanyuan lu||(Song) 朱熹 Zhu Xi|
|伊洛淵源續錄 六卷 (存目)||Yi-Luo yuanyuan xulu||(Ming) 謝鐸 Xie Duo; (Qing) 張伯行 Zhang Boxing|
|Song mingchen yanxing lu
Song mingchen yanxing lu xuji
|(Song) 朱熹 Zhu Xi, 李幼武 Li Youwu (comp.)|
|名臣碑傳琬琰集 一百七卷||Mingchen beizhuan wanyan ji||(Song) 杜大珪 Du Dagui|
|錢塘先賢傳贊 一卷||Qiantang xianxian zhuanzan||(Song) 袁韶 Yuan Shao|
|慶元黨禁 一卷||Qingyuan dangjin||(Song) 滄州樵叟 Cangzhou Qiaosou|
|昭忠錄 一卷||Zhaozhonglu||(Yuan) NN|
|敬鄉錄 十四卷||Jingxianglu||(Yuan) 吳師道 Wu Shidao|
|唐才子傳 八卷||Tang caizi zhuan||(Yuan) 辛文房 Xin Wenfang|
|元朝名臣事略 十五卷||Yuanchao mingchen shilüe||(Yuan) 蘇天爵 Su Tianjue|
|古今列女傳 三卷||Gujin lienü zhuan||(Ming) 解縉 Jie Jin (et al. comp.; imp. ord.)|
|殿閣詞林記 二十二卷||Diange cilin ji||(Ming) 黃佐 Huang Zuo, 廖道南 Liao Daonan|
|四明文獻錄 一卷 (存目)||Siming wenxian lu||(Ming) 黃潤玉 Huang Runyu|
|嘉靖以來首輔傳 八卷||Jiajing yilai shoufu zhuan||(Ming) 王世貞 Wang Shizhen|
|Ming mingchen wanyan lu
Ming mingchen wanyan xulu
|(Ming) 徐紘 Xu Hong|
|元儒考略 四卷||Yuanru kaolüe||(Ming) 馮從吾 Feng Congwu|
|諸儒學案 一卷 (續修)||Zhuru xue'an||(Ming) 劉元卿 Liu Yuanqing|
|聖學宗傳 十八卷 (續修)||Shengxue zongzhuan||(Ming) 周汝登 Zhou Rudeng|
|皇明輔世編 六卷 (續修)||Huang-Ming fushi bian||(Ming) 唐鶴徵 Tang Hezheng|
|(焦太史編輯)國朝獻徵錄 百二十卷 (續修)||(Jiao Taishi bianji) Guochao xianzheng lu||(Ming) 焦竑 Jiao Hong|
|濂溪志 九卷 (續修)||Lianxizhi||(Ming) 李楨 Li Zhen|
|濂溪志 十三卷 (存目)||Lianxizhi||(Ming) 李嵊慈 Li Shengci|
|皇明名臣言行錄 二十四卷 (續修)||Huangchao mingchen yanxing lu||(Ming) 徐咸 Xu Xian|
|善行錄 十卷 *||Shanxinglu||(Ming) 張時徹 Zhang Shiche|
|廉吏傳 一卷 (續修)||Lianlizhuan||(Ming) 黃汝亨 Huang Ruting|
|東林點將錄 一卷 *||Donglin dianjiang lu||(Ming) 阮大鋮 Ruan Dayue (?) or 王紹徽 Wang Shaohui|
|印人傳 *||Yinrenzhuan||(Ming/Qing) 周亮工 Zhou Lianggong|
|明名臣言行錄 九十五卷 (續修)||Ming mingchen yanxing lu||(Ming) 徐開任 Xu Kairen (comp.)|
|洛學編 四卷 (續修)||Luoxuebian||(Qing) 湯斌 Tang Bin|
|(欽定)宗室王公功績表傳 十二卷||(Qinding) Zongshi wanggong gongji biaozhuan||(Qing) imp. ord.|
|(欽定)外藩蒙古回部王公表傳 十二卷||(Qinding) Waifan Menggu Huibu wanggong biaozhuan||(Qing) imp. ord.|
|(欽定)續纂外藩蒙古回部王公表傳 十二卷 (續修)||(Qinding) Xuzuan waifan Menggu huibu anggong biaozhuan||(Qing) imp. ord.|
|(欽定)八旗滿洲氏族通譜 八十卷||(Qinding) Baqi Manzhou shizu tongpu||(Qing) imp. ord.|
|(欽定)勝朝殉節諸臣錄 十二卷||(Qinding) Shengchao xunjie zhuchen lu||(Qing) 舒赫德 Šuhede, 于敏中 Yu Minzhong et al. (imp. ord.)|
|朱子年譜 六卷 (存目)||Zhuzi nianpu||(Qing) 朱世潤 Zhu Shirun|
|理學宗傳 二十六卷 (續修)||Lixue zongzhuan||(Qing) 孫奇逢 Sun Qifeng|
|明儒學案 六十二卷||Mingru xue'an||(Qing) 黄宗羲 Huang Zongxi|
|東林列傳 二十四卷||Donglin liezhuan||(Qing) 陳鼎 Chen Ding|
|儒林宗派 十六卷||Rulin zongpai||(Qing) 萬斯同 Wan Sitong|
|道命錄 十卷 (續修)||Daominglu||(Qing) 李心傳 Li Xinchuan (comp.); 程榮秀 Cheng Rongxiu (rev.)|
|疑年錄 四卷 (續修)||Yinianlu||(Qing) 錢大昕 Qian Daxin|
|疇人傳 五十二卷 (續修)
|(Qing) 阮元 Ruan Yuan; 羅士琳 Luo Shilin (suppl.)|
|疇人傳三編 七卷 (續修)||Chourenzhuan sanbian||(Qing) 諸可寶 Zhu Kebao|
|疇人傳四編 十一卷 (續修)||Chourenzhuan sibian||(Qing) 黃鍾駿 Huang Zhongjun|
|元祐黨人碑考 一卷 (續修)||Yuanyou dangren beikao||(Ming) 海瑞 Hai Rui|
|元祐黨人傳 十卷 (續修)||Yuanyou dangren zhuan||(Qing) 陸心源 Lu Xinyuan|
|宋元學案 百卷 (續修)||Song-Yuan xue'an||(Qing) 黄宗羲 Huang Zongxi (comp.)|
|明儒言行錄 十二卷||Ming ru yanxinglu||(Qing) 沈佳 Shen Jia|
|清儒學案 *||Qingru xue'an||(Rep) 徐世昌 Xu Shichang|
|忠節錄 六卷 (續修)||Zhongjielu||(Qing) 張朝瑞 Zhang Chaorui|
|國朝先正事略 六十卷 (續修)
國朝先正事略補編 二卷 (續修)
|Guochao xianzheng shilüe
Guochao xianzheng shilüe bubian
|(Qing) 李元度 Li Yuandu (comp.)|
|(清)學案小識 十五卷 (續修)||(Qing) Xue'an xiaoshi||(Qing) 唐鑒 Tang Jian|
|國朝先正事略續編 (中興將帥別傳) 三十卷 *||Guochao xianzheng shilüe xubian (Zhongxing jiangshuai biezhuan)||(Qing) 朱孔彰 Zhu Kongzhang (comp.)|
|國朝耆獻類徵初編 *||Guochao qixian leizheng chubian||(Qing) 李桓 Li Huan|
|吳中人物志 十三卷 (續修)||Wuzhong renwu zhi||(Qing) 張昶 Zhang Chang et al.|
|楚寶 四十五卷 (續修)||Chubao||(Qing) 周聖楷 Zhou Shengkai|
|清史列傳 *||Qingshi liezhuan||(Qing)|
|碑傳記 *||Beizhuanji||(Qing) 錢儀吉 Qian Yiji|
|續碑傳集 *||Xu beizhuanji||(Qing) 繆荃孫 Miao Quansun|
|碑傳集補 *||Beizhuanji bu||(Qing) 閔爾昌 Min Erchang|
|碑傳集三編 *||Beizhuanji sanbian||(Rep) 汪兆鏞 Wang Zhaoyong|
|4. 雜錄之屬 zalu Miscellaneous Records|
|(孫威敏)征南錄 一卷||(Sun Weimin) Zhengnanlu||(Song) 滕甫 Teng Fu|
|驂鸞錄 一卷||Canluanlu||(Song) 范成大 Fan Chengda|
|吳船錄 二卷||Wuchuanlu||(Song) 范成大 Fan Chengda|
|攬轡錄 *||Lanpeilu||(Song) 范成大 Fan Chengda|
|入蜀記 六卷||Rushuji||(Song) 陸游 Lu You|
|西游錄 *||Xiyoulu||(Jin-Yuan) 耶律楚材 Yelü Chucai|
|西使記 一卷||Xishiji||(Yuan) 劉鬱 Liu Yu|
|使西域記 一卷 (存目)||Shi Xiyu ji||(Ming) 陳誠 Chen Cheng|
|粵閩巡視紀略 六卷||Yue-Min xunshi jilüe||(Qing) 杜臻 Du Zhen|
|使西紀程 二卷 (續修)||Shi Xi jicheng||(Qing) 郭嵩燾 Guo Songtao|
The imperial reprint series Siku quanshu 四庫全書 quite correctly identified these as fiction and refrained from including them into the collection (with a few exceptions that are found in the subcategory of tales among the Masters and Philosophers). The more scholarly genre of biographies is first used in the book Yanzi chunqiu 晏子春秋 (as jiazhuan 家傳 "family or personal report") or the book Kongzi sanchao ji 孔子三朝記 that recorded the conversation between Confucius and Duke Ai of Lu 魯哀公 (r. 494–468 BCE) during three audiences.
When Pei Songzhi 裴松之 (372-451) commented on the dynastic history Sanguozhi 三國志 and Liu Xiaobiao 劉孝標 (462-521) on the collection Shishuo xinyu 世說新語 (that is focusing of the conversations and lives of various scholars of the 3rd and 4th centuries CE), both made use of a vast array of biographies.
From the beginning, historians discerned between different types of biography. The first criterion was ruler or subject, the second legitimate or (semi-)legitimate ruler, and the third the type of political, social and moral function. Biographies of rulers are generally mixtures of narrative parts, describing youth, personal character and life, and a chronicle part that lists the political decisions and activities. Biographies of local potentates that (illegally) seized the title of king or emperor were always separated from those of the rightful rulers.
"Normal" persons were not always, but often characterized by a general term and thus part of "collective" biographies of, for instance, benevolent or competent officials (xunli 循吏), cruel officials (kuli 酷吏), magicians and diviners (fangji 方技), Confucian scholars (rulin 儒林), writers (wenyuan 文苑), scholars or thinkers living in seclusion (yinyi 隱逸), women of outstanding moral behaviour (lienü 列女), persons displaying filial piety (xiaoyi 孝義) or loyality (zhongyi 忠義), or rebels (zeichen 賊臣) and traitors (jianchen 姦臣). Other collective biographies assemble the vitae of officials serving in a particular state institution, like the Hanlin Academy 翰林院 or the Censorate (yushitai 御史臺). Yet other types of collective biographies joined scholars with the same ideas, persons with similar careers, or those coming from the same town or region.
In the oldest book catalogues (Qilu 七錄 and the bibliographic chapters in the Suishu 隋書 - see Jingji zhi 經籍志 - , the Jiutangshu 舊唐書 and Xintangshu 新唐書; still used in the Song period catalogue Suichutang shumu 遂初堂書目) the section of biographies is called zazhuan 雜傳 "miscellaneous biographies", referring to the stand-alone character of these books, in contrast to the biographies embedded in history books.
The introduction to the subcategory of zazhuan in the Suishu bibliography is comparatively long. It explains that during the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) countless biographical information was recorded and storied in the royal archive (tianfu 天府) as well as in those of the regional rulers or the branches of ducal houses (mengfu 盟府). Even various offices had their own archives, where the careers (with ups and downs) of individual office-holders were recorded. For average people from "among the masses", moral conduct was the focus of biographies. Based on these records the local administration would be able to recommend "worthy and competent" persons (xian zhe neng zhe 賢者能者) for promotion. This system of recording the circumstances of all officials' lives followed a recommendation by Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (179-104 BCE) to Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) and was brought to perfection by Sima Qian 司馬遷 (c. 145-c. 90 BCE) and Ban Gu 班固 (32-92 CE), authors of the first two official histories.
These official biographies were enriched by collections of normal biographies, the first of which, called Liexiantu 列仙圖 "Chart of the many immortals", was written by Ruan Cang 阮倉. The librarian and bibliographer Liu Xiang 劉向 (c. 77-c. 6 BCE) compiled the collective biographies Liexianzhuan 列仙傳 "Biographies of immortals", Lieshizhuan 列士傳 "Servicemen/scholars" and Lienüzhuan 列女傳 "Eminent women". During the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) the genres of biographies of honourable elderly persons (qijiu 耆舊) and persons of moral integrity (jieshi 節士) became fashionable, along with such on persons known for their virtues (mingde 名德) or "worthies of the past/exemplarious worthies" (xianxian 先賢).
From the 3rd century on more and more phantastic elements crept into the genre of biographies, so that it became necessary to discern between historiography and fiction. This is in fact done in the Suishu bibliography, whose biographies section begins with "worthies" of all regions of China, continues with "eminent scholars" (gaoshi 高士) and such living in seclusion and filial and loyal persons, then begins a section of family chronicles (jiazhuan 家傳), one of eminent women, and a short one on Buddhist monks, and ends with phantastic collections or "immortals" and other supernatural persons.
The structure of the subcategory of biographies in the Jiutangshu and Xintangshu is quite similar to this model, but in the latter book the biographies of women are grouped at the end of the section. Even the bibliography in the alternative history Tongzhi 通志 which is compiled with great care, follows this principle. It introduces a new category of persons following a quite new channel of career: examination graduates (kedi 科第).
From the early Song period 宋 (960-1279) on the term zazhuan is replaced by the term zhuanji. The bibliography Junzhai dushu zhi 郡齋讀書志 shows how heterogenous the subcategory of biographies can be. It includes fictional stories like Huangdi neizhuan 黃帝內傳 "Esoteric biography of the Yellow Emperor", Han Wu neizhuan 漢武內傳 "Esoteric biography of Emperor Wu of the Han", biographies of Confucius and his descendants like Kongzi biannian 孔子編年 and Dongjia zaji 東家雜記, an official register of eminent families of the Tang period 唐 (618-907), Yuanhe xingzuan 元和姓纂, and also serious research on family names like Xingyuan yunpu 姓源韻譜 (arranged phonetically) by Zhang Jiuling 張九齡 (678-740).
The bibliographic chapter in the statecraft encyclopaedia Wenxian tongkao 文獻通考 includes very different books in the biographies section: Quite a large amount of books in this subcategory belong to a type of writing that might be called "personal memories" and concentrate on singulary events, like the participation in a military campaign, an inspection tour or a mission to a foreign country, like Ping Shu shilu 平蜀實錄 "Veritable records of the pacification of Shu" or Xuanhe shi Jin lu 宣和使金錄 "Memories from a mission to the Jin empire during the Xuanhe reign". Other texts belong to the genre of "miscellaneous histories", like Li Zhao's 李肇 (Tang) Guoshibu (唐)國史補 or Li Deyu's 李德裕 (787-849) Ci Liushi jiuwen 次柳氏舊聞.