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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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 . . .

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