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preface arthur miller once observed in regard to his 1953 drama The Crucible : “I can almost tell what the political situation in a country is when the play is suddenly a hit there—it is either a warning of tyranny on the way or a reminder of tyranny just past.”1 The reason for Miller’s observation, of course, is that his play, although dealing with the late-seventeenthcentury witch hunt in Salem, Massachusetts, was also a thinly disguised reflection of the playwright’s outrage at the witch hunt of his own day (McCarthyism ), thus making it serviceable as a metaphor for political oppression wherever or however it might occur. This resonance between story and situation, between a narrative and a contemporary historical condition that prompts those living in it to attach special meaning to that narrative, is what this book is mainly about. Although such narratives can in theory be ancient or modern, fictional or factual, indigenous or foreign, the most potent ones are often those that derive from a culture’s own past. Certainly this has been true in the case of China, where, from ancient times to the present, people have demonstrated a strong a‹nity for stories dressed in historical garb. The tale of Goujian (r. 496–465 b.c.e.), king of the southeastern state of Yue in the Eastern Zhou period, provides an intriguing example of just such a story, one that, in a wide array of circumstances, spoke to Chinese with exceptional force throughout the twentieth century. Although I first encountered the story x v i i while reading materials pertaining to national humiliation (guochi) in the first half of the century, it did not take long for me to discover that the narrative related to many other concerns as well. Prior to the late Qing, the main vehicles for transmitting the Goujian story, apart from the ancient texts themselves, were opera, historical romance, and other forms of literary endeavor (oral and written). After the turn of the twentieth century, however, the story began to be disseminated by a wide range of other means, including the newspaper and periodical press, school primers, mass education materials, spoken drama, and, later on in the century, radio, film, and television. Although the story’s core structure has persisted with little change from its first emergence in ancient times right up to the present day, like most ancient Chinese historical narratives, it evolved over time, some elements being reworked, others dropped, and still others added.2 A favorite diversion of opera fans that was not part of the original story, for example, is the alleged romance between Fan Li, Goujian’s top minister, and the ravishing beauty Xi Shi. The text of the story, in other words, in contrast with the relatively stable texts of a Chekhov play or a Jane Austen novel, was a soft or pliable one. In fact, to even speak of a “text” in the case of the Goujian saga is probably misleading. Oral transmission was still strong in China during the period when the story first emerged. And in subsequent times, much as in the trail of stories inspired by so many other historical figures about whom there is little reliable information ( Joan of Arc comes to mind), the narrative was recycled almost continuously in response to the requirements of diªerent audiences, diªerent historical moments, and diªerent authorial predilections.3 The importance of the recounting of Goujian’s life and career for Chinese during the past century and more, it is clear, has resided less in its embodiment of historical truth than in its many-faceted allure as a story. During the so-called century of humiliation, lasting from the Opium War (1839–1842) to the Communists’ 1949 victory in the civil war, a broad spectrum of Chinese, ranging from high Qing dynasty o‹cials (Lin Zexu and Zeng Guofan) and major twentieth-century political leaders (Chiang Kai-shek) to lowly immigrants detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay or struggling to make ends meet in the Philippines , found the Goujian story unusually compelling and, when faced with seemingly intractable personal or political problems, often looked to it as a source of inspiration and encouragement.4 Even in the very diªerent environments that prevailed after the Communists came to power and the p r e f a c e x v i i i Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, the story continued to be...


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