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foreword 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 King Goujian everywhere he looked: in operas, school texts, and every form of mass media. That a figure who lived two thousand five hundred years ago should be remembered at all is remarkable, but that King Goujian has been upheld as a model for modern collective and personal behavior is truly astonishing, at least to those of Western background whose revered figures remain distanced . As Paul Cohen’s book demonstrates in great detail, the king who survived utter humiliation to rebuild his kingdom and defeat his enemies has been a compelling, if sometimes invisible, presence in the mental life of modern China. The tale of the ancient king is complex and not without its ambiguities, but at its center is the striking image of Goujian, the king of Yue, who, utterly defeated by the powerful ruler of the neighboring kingdom of Wu, x i survives and ultimately triumphs over humiliation by submitting himself to the practice of “sleeping on brushwood and tasting gall” (woxin changdan ). This extended ritual of self-denial and self-renewal at least symbolically allowed the kingdom of Yue to regain the strength necessary to defeat its rival and subsequently became a rallying cry in each of modern China’s moments of defeat and humiliation from the late Qing period onward. For over one hundred years, it served the purposes of dynastic as well as nationalist renewal, used by both the political left and right, providing an apparently inexhaustible resource for private as well as public goals. King Goujian ’s overcoming defeat and humiliation proved relevant to the defenders of the old empire as well as their republican rivals. It was central to both Guomindang and Communist Party ideologies during the struggles against the Japanese. And when Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan, the story went with him and translated readily into the struggle between the island and the mainland. Woxin changdan remained a powerful reference even after Chiang’s death in 1975, but it also buttressed Mao’s eªorts to strengthen the People’s Republic of China against its cold war antagonists. But “sleeping on brushwood and tasting gall” did not end when both Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China put aside their immediate hostilities and redirected their energies to economic development. Today, woxin changdan is no longer practiced in preparation for war, but it is still invoked in preparation for exams and business competitions. It has migrated from public to private discourse to become a part of the drive to rebuild the two Chinas on capitalist principles of competitive individualism. Always a part of popular culture, especially the opera, the story of King Goujian finds expression in comics, film, television, and, most recently, tourism, which has made of the ancient capital of Yue, Shaoxing, a place to visit for those who know its story. No doubt this book will inspire foreign visitors, for, as Paul Cohen argues, the story of Goujian deserves to be known in the West, not so much for its narrative merits, but because it has played such a vital role in contemporary history, events that have aªected the lives not just of Chinese but of the entire world. The value of Paul Cohen’s book lies in his willingness to cast aside the blinkers that historians have willingly worn since the establishment of their academic discipline in the second half of the nineteenth century. Since that time, stories like that of King Goujian have been left to the literature expert or the folklorist. Ever since history and belles lettres parted ways, historians have treated that which they regard as fiction as entertaining but insignificant. Universities police these disciplinary boundaries, makf o r e w o r d x i i ing it di‹cult for scholars to make connections that might illuminate their subjects. There was a similar divorce between history and memory...


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