Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China / Edition 1

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The ancient story of King Goujian, a psychologically complex fifth-century BCE monarch, spoke powerfully to the Chinese during China's turbulent twentieth century. Yet most Americans—even students and specialists of this era—have never heard of Goujian.
In Speaking to History, Paul A. Cohen opens this previously missing (to the West) chapter of China's recent history. He connects the story to each of the major traumas of the last century, tracing its versatility as a source of inspiration and hope and elegantly exploring, on a more general level, why such stories often remain sealed up within a culture, unknown to outsiders. Labeling this phenomenon "insider cultural knowledge," Cohen investigates the relationship between past story and present reality. He inquires why at certain moments in their collective lives peoples are especially drawn to narratives from the distant past that resonate strongly with their current circumstances, and why the Chinese have returned over and over to a story from twenty-five centuries ago.
In this imaginative stitching of story to history, Cohen reveals how the shared narratives of a community help to define its culture and illuminate its history.

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Editorial Reviews

The China Review - Colin Mackerras
“[Cohen] has not disappointed.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520265837
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 5/11/2010
  • Series: Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul A. Cohen is Professor of History Emeritus at Wellesley College and Associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University. His books include Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past and History in Three Keys: The Boxers as event, Experience and Myth.

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Speaking to History

The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China

By Paul A. Cohen


Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94239-4


The Goujian Story in Antiquity

BEFORE LOOKING AT THE VARIETY of ways in which the figure of Goujian assumed meaning for Chinese in the twentieth century, we need to examine the story itself. In reconstructing the Goujian story, I have not been unduly concerned with the historicity of particular incidents or details. The impact of the story in the twentieth century, as noted in the preface, derived not from its accuracy as history but from its power as narrative. Nor have I attempted to trace the evolution of the story as it wended its way from ancient times on up to the end of the imperial era. This is not an exercise in Chinese literary history. What I want to do in this opening chapter is establish a rough baseline for what was known about the Goujian narrative in the first century C.E., the time when the first full-fledged version of the story (of which we are aware) appeared. To this end, I have consulted, either in the original or in translation, such basic ancient sources as Zuozhuan (Zuo's Tradition), Guoyu (Legends of the States), Sima Qian's Shiji (Records of the Historian), and Lüshi chunqiu (The Annals of Lü Buwei). However, I have relied most heavily on the later (and highly fictionalized) Wu Yue chunqiu (The Annals of Wu and Yue), originally compiled by the Eastern Han author Zhao Ye from 58 to 75 C.E. I have done this for two reasons. First, in comparison with the earlier sources, it is (as David Johnson correctly observes) "far more detailed and coherent" and contains "major new thematic elements." Second, it had a seminal influence on accounts of the Goujian story written during the remainder of the imperial period and was a principal source, directly or indirectly, for many of the versions of the narrative that circulated in the twentieth century.


The setting for the Goujian story was the rivalry beginning in the latter phase of the Spring and Autumn period (722–481 B.C.E.) between the neighboring states of Wu (in modern Jiangsu) and Yue (in modern Zhejiang), two newly ascendant powers on the southeastern periphery of the contemporary Chinese world. In 496 B.C.E. the king of Wu, Helu (alt. Helü), took advantage of the opportunity created by Yue's preoccupation with funerary observances for its recently deceased king to mount an attack. The new Yue ruler, Goujian, at the time only in his early twenties, counterattacked and employed exceptionally brutal tactics to defeat the forces of Wu. Helu was mortally wounded in the fighting, but before dying he summoned his son and successor, Fuchai (alt. Fucha), and asked him to never forget that Goujian had killed his father. Accordingly, after assuming the kingship, Fuchai devoted himself energetically to planning his vengeance against Yue. Goujian saw what was happening and, overconfident after his earlier triumph, asked his trusted minister Fan Li what he thought about a preemptive strike against Wu. Fan Li, observing that Yue was not nearly as strong as Wu, urged the young king to be patient. However, convinced that he knew best, Goujian went ahead and attacked Wu anyway. The year was 494 B.C.E. It did not take long for Fuchai's armies to inflict a severe defeat on Yue at Fujiao (in the northern part of Shaoxing county in modern Zhejiang), forcing Goujian and a remnant army of five thousand men to retreat to Mount Kuaiji (southeast of modern Shaoxing city), where they were surrounded by the forces of Wu.

This was a critical point in the sequence of events. Goujian, facing certain defeat, was fully prepared, we are told, to fight to the finish, but his high officials remonstrated with him, arguing the case for a less suicidal course. In the interest of saving Yue from extinction, they contended, Goujian should do everything possible to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict, mollifying Fuchai with humble words and lavish gifts and even evincing his willingness to go with his wife to Wu as slaves of the Wu king. Swallowing his pride, Goujian, with much misgiving, acquiesced in this strategy. It was also decided that Fuchai's grand steward (taizai), Bo Pi (alt. Bo Xi), well known for his greed and lust, should be secretly bribed with beautiful women and precious gifts in order to gain internal support for Yue at the Wu court.

Goujian's servitude in Wu, together with his wife, began in the fifth year of his reign (492 B.C.E.). Fan Li accompanied them while the other top official of Yue, Wen Zhong, remained at home to look after the state's governance during the king's absence. During the ceremonial leave-taking that took place prior to Goujian's crossing of the Zhe River (the modern Qiantang River) into Wu, his official counselors, in an effort to console and encourage him, pointed to the historical precedents of King Tang of the Shang dynasty, King Wen of the Zhou, and other sage rulers of antiquity, all of whom had experienced great setbacks and painful humiliations in their day, but had ultimately managed to turn defeat into accomplishment and calamity into good fortune so that their merit was passed down through the ages. Goujian was encouraged not to berate himself or view his predicament as the result of personal failings; rather, he should endure humiliation for the sake of Yue's survival.

Upon reaching the Wu capital and being brought into the presence of Fuchai, Goujian immediately knelt to the ground and performed a ketou before the Wu ruler. He then acknowledged the shame he felt over his actions in the fighting against Wu and expressed his profound gratitude to Fuchai for sparing his life and permitting him, as a lowly slave, to sweep the dirt from the palace. He also asked Fuchai's forgiveness for his part in the death of the Wu king's father.

Fuchai's prime minister, Wu Zixu, unable to contain his fury over the scene unfolding before him, admonished Fuchai, stating his disbelief that, in light of Goujian's wanton behavior at Mount Kuaiji, the king did not have him killed forthwith. Fuchai responded that he had heard that if one put to death someone who had surrendered, misfortune would be visited on one's family for three generations. His reason for not killing Goujian was not that he felt any affection for him but, rather, that it would be an offense against Heaven. The grand steward, Bo Pi, now stepped forward and, after criticizing Wu Zixu for his small-mindedness and lack of comprehension of the larger principles for ensuring a state's safety, spoke in support of the Wu king's position. In the end, Fuchai did not have Goujian killed; instead, he issued orders that the king of Yue was to serve as a carriage driver and tend to the horses. Goujian, his wife, and Fan Li were domiciled in a humble stone cottage in the vicinity of the palace.

In their daily lives, Goujian and his wife wore the coarse clothing of working people. The husband collected forage and took care of the horses; the wife brought water for the animals to drink, cleared away the manure, and washed out and swept the stables. They went on in this fashion for three years, showing not the slightest sign of anger or resentment. When Fuchai climbed a tower in the distance to spy on them, he saw Goujian, his wife, and Fan Li seated by a mound of horse manure. He was greatly impressed that, even in these straitened circumstances, the proper protocol was observed between ruler and minister and the proper etiquette carried out between husband and wife. He turned to Bo Pi and remarked that Goujian was a man of integrity and Fan Li a dedicated and upright minister, and that he felt sad on their behalf. Bo Pi expressed the hope that the king of Wu would display a sage's heart and feel compassion for these poor, miserable souls. Fuchai then announced that he had made up his mind to pardon Goujian. Three months later he chose an auspicious day on which to issue the pardon and asked Bo Pi what he thought of the idea. The granting of grace was always rewarded, Bo Pi responded, and if Fuchai dealt generously with Goujian now, Goujian would be sure to repay his kindness in the future.

When Goujian learned of Fuchai's plans, he was delighted. But he was also worried that something would go awry, and so he asked Fan Li to look into the matter by means of divination. Fan Li, after so doing, reported that he saw harm arising out of the situation and did not predict a happy outcome. As if on cue, Wu Zixu now approached the king of Wu and, arguing as he had before, urged him to have Goujian killed, lest Fuchai repeat the calamities suffered by the Xia and Shang dynasties. After taking into consideration the opposing advice of his high officials, Fuchai finally announced that when he had recovered from the illness that had long been plaguing him, he would pardon the king of Yue in accordance with the recommendation of his grand steward.

One month later, Goujian summoned Fan Li and observed that in three months' time Fuchai had not gotten better. He asked Fan Li to use his divination arts to foretell the likely outcome of the Wu king's illness. Fan Li reported back that Fuchai was not going to die and that on a specified date (jisi) his illness would abate. He urged the king of Yue to take careful note of this. Goujian, announcing that his survival during captivity was entirely owing to Fan Li's stratagems and recognizing that the time had come for him to act decisively, asked Fan Li to suggest a plan. Fan Li outlined a strategy that he said was certain to succeed. Goujian should request permission to inquire after the condition of Fuchai's illness. If permitted to see the king, he should then ask leave to taste Fuchai's stool and examine his facial color. After so doing, he should kneel to the ground and offer his congratulations to the king of Wu, informing him that he would soon get well and would not die. When this prognosis proved correct, Goujian need have no further worries.

The following day Goujian asked Bo Pi to arrange an audience with Fuchai so that he could ask about his health. Fuchai summoned Goujian into his presence. As it happened, at the very moment Goujian arrived at the palace, the Wu king had just moved his bowels and Bo Pi was carrying the stool out when he encountered Goujian at the entranceway. Goujian greeted Bo Pi and asked if he might taste Fuchai's stool in order to make a prognosis concerning his illness. He then proceeded to stick his finger into the container and taste the stool, after which he went inside and announced to the Wu king: "The captive servant Goujian offers his congratulations to the great king. The king's illness will begin to improve on jisi. On renshen of the third month he will be completely well." Fuchai naturally wanted to know how Goujian knew all this. Goujian explained that he had formerly studied with an expert who made prognoses on the basis of the smell and taste of fecal matter and had learned about the correspondence between the taste of stool and the taste of cereal grain. When the taste of a person's stool was not in harmony with the seasonal taste of grain, the person was certain to die, but when the two were in harmony the person would live. He informed Fuchai that he had just tasted the king's stool and that the taste was bitter and sour. Since this taste was in keeping with the taste of grain in spring and summer, he knew that the king would make a full recovery. On hearing this, Fuchai was overjoyed and announced to Goujian: "Truly you are a man of virtue." He pardoned him on the spot and told him he could leave the stone cottage and move into the palace, but he was still to tend to the horses and carry on with his other duties as before.

Fuchai's illness began to improve exactly as Goujian said it would. Stirred by Goujian's loyalty and honesty, the Wu king ordered a banquet to be held with Goujian seated in the place of honor. On the following day Wu Zixu, appalled at Fuchai's conduct, went to the palace to admonish him. He warned the king about people who were outwardly friendly but harbored harmful designs in their hearts. He then went into a lengthy account of the real motives behind Goujian's behavior. Goujian "has started out by drinking the great king's urine, but he will end up eating the great king's heart; he has started out by tasting the great king's stool, but he will end up devouring the great king's liver." The very existence of the state of Wu hung in the balance, Wu Zixu remonstrated. Fuchai must open his eyes to what was taking place. Having heard enough, Fuchai advised his prime minister to forget the entire matter and not to mention it again. He then went ahead with his plan to pardon Goujian, escorting him personally through the Serpent Gate on the south side of the capital and asking him, on his return to Yue, to always bear in mind his goodwill in forgiving him. Goujian performed a ketou and vowed before Heaven that he and his high officials would forever remain loyal to the Wu king and never turn against him. He performed another ketou. Fuchai raised him up and helped him into his carriage. With Fan Li holding the whip, they drove off.

As they arrived at the ferry crossing, Goujian raised his face toward Heaven, sighed, and remarked that he had not expected to live to cross the Zhe River again. During the crossing, he and his wife, overcome with emotion, covered their faces and wept, as the people of Yue greeted them joyously and the high officials of the state stepped forward to welcome them and offer their congratulations.

Goujian's return to Yue took place in the winter of the seventh year of his reign (490 B.C.E.). The king of Wu had restored to Yue a piece of land one hundred li in circumference, with the boundaries carefully specified. Goujian remarked to Fan Li that for three years, as a prisoner of Wu, he had submitted to constant humiliation and that it was only because of his prime minister's wise counsel that he had been able to survive and eventually return to his native land. Now it was his wish to restore stability and calm to Yue and build a new capital on Mount Kuaiji. He asked Fan Li to take full charge of the undertaking. Fan Li ingeniously incorporated into the new capital's design a number of features that appeared to signify Goujian's continued loyalty to Fuchai. For example, in the construction of the outer wall, he left a portion of the northwestern side (the side facing the state of Wu) open in order to signal to Wu that Yue remained subordinate to it and had not built the wall for defensive purposes. But in keeping with Goujian's ultimate goal of vanquishing Wu and becoming overlord (ba), Fan Li also secretly incorporated certain features reflective of this goal into the capital's design.

After resuming his rule over Yue, Goujian, a different man from the headstrong, self-indulgent youth of only a few years before, governed in a respectful and circumspect manner, practicing strict economy and avoiding extravagance. Knowing that taking revenge against Wu was something that required elaborate preparation and could not be accomplished overnight, he worked incessantly, never resting his mind or body. When overcome with sleepiness he would use the sharp smell of knotweed (Polygonum) to keep his eyes from closing. When the soles of his feet were cold, he would soak them in even colder water to lift his spirits. In the winter, when it was freezing, he would often carry ice and snow in his arms, while in the heat of summer he would hold a hot brazier in his hands. Although the proverb woxin changdan ("to sleep on brushwood and taste gall") that became so closely associated with the Goujian story in the late imperial era does not appear to have come into use until the Song dynasty, already in ancient times we are told that Goujian hung a gallbladder in his room, licking it every time he went in or out in order to guard against complacency and to remind himself of the bitter suffering he had undergone.

Since Goujian knew that Fuchai liked to wear comfortable, loose-fitting garments, he conceived the idea of dispatching people into the hills to gather kudzu vines (ge) and then having women use the fibers to weave cloth to present to the Wu ruler as a means of currying his favor. His ministers all thought this was a good idea, and orders were given to carry it out. But before the project was consummated, it had already come to Fuchai's attention that Goujian, since returning to Yue, had shown himself completely content with his circumstances. He was so impressed with Goujian's behavior that he decided to confer more land on him, augmenting Yue's territory to eight hundred li in circumference. To repay the king of Wu for this kindness, Goujian sent him one hundred thousand bolts of hemp cloth (gebu), nine wooden containers of honey, seven multicolored square-shaped vessels, five pairs of fox pelts, and ten boats constructed of bamboo. Fuchai, who had always regarded the remote and insignificant state of Yue as possessing little if anything of value, was struck by this tangible expression of Goujian's loyalty and consideration.


Excerpted from Speaking to History by Paul A. Cohen. Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. The Goujian Story in Antiquity
2. The Burden of National Humiliation: Late Qing and Republican Years
3. The Plight of Chiang Kai-shek's Taiwan
4. Crisis and Response: The Woxin changdan Fever of the Early 1960s
5. Political Allegory in the 1980s: Xiao Jun and Bai Hua
6. The Goujian Story in a Privatizing China
Conclusion: Cross-Cultural Perspectives

Character List


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