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‘Sleep on Brushwood and Taste Gall’

Author  :  REN ZHIYU     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2023-03-11

The bronze sword of King Goujian of Yue on display in the Hubei Museum Photo: Ren Guanhong/CSST

Woxin Changdan, or “Sleep on Brushwood and Taste Gall,” is a Chinese proverb describing someone undergoing self-imposed hardships, nursing vengeance, or enduring hardships to accomplish some ambition. It is derived from the story of the King Goujian of Yue (r. 497–464 BCE), who forced himself to sleep on brushwood and lick a gallbladder everyday to remember the humiliation of his previous defeat by the State of Wu.

Wu and Yue were rival states in south China during the Spring and Autumn period. Fuchai was the son of King Helü of Wu. He became king in 495 BCE, following the death of his father from injuries sustained during an invasion of Yue. In 494 BCE, Fuchai defeated the Yue army and forced them to withdraw to Mount Kuaiji. Fuchai accepted the advice of chancellor Bo Pi, who was bribed by Yue, and made a favorable peace with Yue. Later, Goujian went to the Wu court to serve Fuchai. His hard work earned him the king’s trust, and Goujian was permitted to return to his kingdom after three years.

In 482 BCE, Fuchai successfully challenged the duke of Jin for the status of hegemon in Huangchi. While he was away in the north with his army, Goujian tried to improve his own army. It was said that Goujian had been nursing his bitterness by sleeping on brushwood and by tasting gall each morning. For ten years, he improved his realm’s governance, while personally inspiring his people by working his own fields as his wife made thread and wove by hand. It is said that Goujian also distracted Fuchai from state affairs by sending him the Yue beauty Xi Shi. In 473 BCE, Goujian’s forces defeated Wu. Fuchai was forced to commit suicide and Wu was annexed by Yue.

Goujian’s reign coincided with arguably the last major conflict of the Spring and Autumn period, wherein he eventually led his state to victory. As such, according to some sources, Goujian is the last of the Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn period.

Editor: Ren Guanhong

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