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  • Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China
  • Geremie R. Barmé
Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China by Paul A. Cohen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Pp. xxiv + 354. $25.95 paper.

In recent years the global reach of the hurt feelings of the Chinese people has attracted increasing attention, as well as a good measure of popular (and, in private, diplomatic) derision. “The feelings of the Chinese people” (Zhongguo renminde ganqing) is a phrase invoked by both the party-state and writers of various persuasions (and constituencies) to protest against perceived slights to the People’s Republic and its interests. It serves also as a ready indictment of “the West” for its historically biased treatment of “China” and “the Chinese” today.

In December 2008, Joel Martinsen of the Beijing-based media group Danwei reported that a Chinese blogger writing under the name Fang KC had scanned the electronic archives of sixty years of the People’s Daily—from 1946 through to 2006—and discovered that nineteen foreign countries and international organizations had, up to that point, officially “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” Of these, most had inflicted injury not just once but on numerous occasions.1

In his overview of these findings, Martinsen noted that: from 1985 Japan had hurt Chinese feelings no fewer than forty-seven times (and that was before the controversy over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in September 2010!); the U.S.A. had done so twenty-three times, starting [End Page 351] in 1980, when Los Angeles flew the flag of the Republic of China; NATO no fewer than ten times, mostly in relation to the bombing of the Belgrade embassy in 1999; India seven times, starting in 1986, and generally in the context of border disputes; France five times, starting in 1989; the Nobel Committee four times (again, this was prior to awarding Liu Xiaobo the Peace Prize in October 2010); Germany three times, starting with a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1990; and so on.

All told, one-fifth of the world’s populations has to a greater or lesser extent “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”2 It is this mixture of abiding victimhood and the sense of humiliation clad in a ready pose of high dudgeon and hauteur that seems to characterize many Chinese articulations of nationhood today. As William Callahan suggests, using one of Raymond Williams’s signature concepts in his analysis of the People’s Republic of China as a “pessoptimistic nation”:

Rather than simply being “a land of contradictions” that suffers from “national schizophrenia,” I think it is necessary to see how China’s sense of pride and sense of humiliation are actually intimately interwoven in a “structure of feeling” that informs China’s national aesthetic. “Structure of feeling” is a useful concept because it allows us to talk about the interdependence of institutional structures and very personal experiences.3

In his 2009 book Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China, Paul Cohen concentrates on one story from ancient Chinese history, and the expression (chengyu 成語) that encapsulates it, to investigate and reflect upon what we could call “the deep structure of Chinese sentiment” (pace Lung-kee Sun, author of the controversial book The Deep Structure of Chinese Culture).4 In so [End Page 352] doing Cohen chronicles the permutations of a story that has resonated powerfully throughout China’s modern history, one that touches the core of “the feelings of the Chinese people.”

The story of King Goujian 勾踐 dates from the Warring States period (722–481 b.c.e.). Goujian of Yue (located in the area of modern Guiji outside Shaoxing, Zhejiang) invaded the neighboring Kingdom of Wu in 494 b.c.e. Repulsed and eventually besieged, Goujian, on the advice of his counselors, agreed to the enemy’s terms and in 492 subjected himself to humiliating bondage to the victor. For three years the fallen king suffered, returning to the defeated land of Yue only when his captors deemed him no longer a threat. In reality, during the hard years of subjugation Goujian cultivated and...


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