IN 492BC, at the end of the “Spring and Autumn” period in Chinese history, Goujian, the king of Yue in modern Zhejiang, was taken prisoner after a disastrous campaign against King Fuchai, his neighbour to the north. Goujian was put to work in the royal stables where he bore his captivity with such dignity that he gradually won Fuchai’s respect. After a few years Fuchai let him return home as his vassal.
Goujian never forgot his humiliation. He slept on brushwood and hung a gall bladder in his room, licking it daily to feed his appetite for revenge. Yue appeared loyal, but its gifts of craftsmen and timber tempted Fuchai to build palaces and towers even though the extravagance ensnared him in debt. Goujian distracted him with Yue’s most beautiful women, bribed his officials and bought enough grain to empty his granaries. Meanwhile, as Fuchai’s kingdom declined, Yue grew rich and raised a new army.
Goujian bided his time for eight long years. By 482BC, confident of his superiority, he set off north with almost 50,000 warriors. Over several campaigns they put Fuchai and his kingdom to the sword.
The king who slept on brushwood and tasted gall is as familiar to Chinese as King Alfred and his cakes are to Britons, or George Washington and the cherry tree are to Americans. In the early 20th century he became a symbol of resistance against the treaty ports, foreign concessions and the years of colonial humiliation.
Taken like that, the parable of Goujian sums up what some people find alarming about China’s rise as a superpower today. Ever since Deng Xiaoping set about reforming the economy in 1978, China has talked peace. Still militarily and economically too weak to challenge America, it has concentrated on getting richer. Even as China has grown in power and rebuilt its armed forces, the West and Japan have run up debts and sold it their technology. China has been patient, but the day when it can once again start to impose its will is drawing near.