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Speaking to History

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

Paul A. Cohen
With a Foreword by John R. Gillis
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Speaking to History
    Book Description:

    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. InSpeaking 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94239-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    John R. Gillis

    WHILE WESTERN CULTURES HAVE THEIR HEROES—Moses, King Arthur, Joan of Arc, George Washington—none are comparable to King Goujian, whose story circulates widely within China and is also known to many Chinese living in other parts of the world. Yet the tale of this ancient monarch is virtually unknown to Western scholars of twentieth-century China. Paul Cohen had not been aware of its significance until he began studying popular Chinese responses to national defeat and humiliation. Initially he found inspirational references to Goujian in both late imperial and early republican literature. But soon he was discovering the story of...

    (pp. xvii-xxii)
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
  7. ONE The Goujian Story in Antiquity
    (pp. 1-35)

    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.¹ 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.² 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...

  8. TWO The Burden of National Humiliation: Late Qing and Republican Years
    (pp. 36-86)

    PATRIOTIC CHINESE IN THE LATE QING and republican periods referred endlessly to the humiliations(guochi)their country experienced at the hands of foreign imperialism beginning with the Opium War. Indeed, in the republican era they even established days of national humiliation or shame(guochi ri)to mark the anniversaries of these painful episodes.¹ Such days, along with the sensitivity to national humiliation they reflected, constituted a major form of collective remembering and became the implicit or explicit focus of a vastguochiliterature. Given the persistence of this open wound—a sense of grievance that not only failed to abate...

  9. THREE The Plight of Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan
    (pp. 87-135)

    FOR THE COMMUNISTS, SUCCESSIVE VICTORIES in the Sino-Japanese War and the ensuing civil war (1945–1949) created a fundamentally new historical situation in which the major humiliation of foreign imperialism had become a thing of the past. But for Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, after their retreat to the island province of Taiwan (which had been restored to China in 1945 after Japan’s defeat), the most salient change, arguably, was that the area under direct government control had drastically shrunk. The Guomindang still faced the task of eliminating foreign imperialism (now in the guise of the Soviet Union) and its Chinese accomplices.¹...

  10. FOUR Crisis and Response: The Woxin changdan Fever of the Early 1960s
    (pp. 136-176)

    IN THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA, numerous intellectuals, including some of China’s most prominent literary figures, gave serious attention to the story of Goujian, beginning for the most part around 1960.¹ In the aftermath of the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Lushan Conference, the rift with the Soviet Union, and in the latter phases of the Great Leap Forward and accompanying famine—all events of the late 1950s and early 1960s—the Wu-Yue conflict and Goujian’s part in it became for a few years a major preoccupation of Chinese writers.² The well-known historian Wu Han and others introduced the story in newspapers,...

  11. FIVE Political Allegory in the 1980s: Xiao Jun and Bai Hua
    (pp. 177-202)

    ALTHOUGH THE GOUJIAN STORY DOES NOT appear to have had a significant impact during the Cultural Revolution decade, it never disappeared entirely. Indeed, at a critical moment in the Qinghua University drama of summer 1968, when worker-propaganda teams forced the warring student factions on the elite Beijing campus to end their fighting and form an alliance, Kuai Dafu, the humiliated leader of the more radical student group, made a long speech to his followers urging them to persevere, taking part of his text directly from Goujian: “Sleep on a wooden plank, eat bile, gather forces for ten years, review the...

  12. SIX The Goujian Story in a Privatizing China
    (pp. 203-227)

    ON THE FIRST NIGHT OF THE LUNAR New Year of 2004 (January 22), Hu Xiaolong, a twenty-seven-year-old inhabitant of a village in the county-level city of Dujiangyan, some fifty kilometers northwest of the Sichuan capital, Chengdu, went on a murderous rampage, using a dagger and a cutter for chopping pig fodder to kill fellow villager Zhou Guohong and two other members of the Zhou household.

    The motive was revenge. Twenty years earlier, when a large number of fish had died in a stream running through the village, Zhou Guohong’s younger brother, Zhou Yuanfu, then just over ten years of age,...

  13. Conclusion: Cross-Cultural Perspectives
    (pp. 228-240)

    ONE OF THE MOST REMARKABLE things about the Goujian story as it has operated in China from the late Qing to the present has been its versatility, its all-purpose character. When I first encountered the story, it was in connection with the humiliating experience of foreign imperialism; indeed, the more I read in materials from the late Qing and republican years, the clearer it seemed that this was one of China’s premier nationalist narratives at the time.¹ It counseled hope when things were at their bleakest. It was an optimistic story that promised national success, so long as the Chinese...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 241-288)
    (pp. 289-302)
    (pp. 303-338)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 339-354)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 355-355)