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

Paul A. Cohen is Professor of History Emeritus at Wellesley College and Associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University. In his book, Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China (UC Press, October 2008), he analyzes the relationship between past story and present reality in modern day China, where they still repeat tales from 25 centuries ago. Furthermore, Paul blogs about other tales and riddles in the blog below.

By Paul Cohen

My last book—History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (1997)—dealt with one of the rare episodes in Chinese history that practically all Americans have at least heard of.  The book I’ve just published—Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China (2008)—takes as its core theme an ancient story that is virtually unknown to Americans (except those of Chinese descent), even serious students of the time period covered.  Yet Chinese imbibe the story of King Goujian with their mother’s milk—the story is “in our bones,” a colleague from China confided to me not long ago—and it spoke to them powerfully throughout the last century.  I call this remarkable phenomenon “insider cultural knowledge,” which I identify as a kind of knowledge, encountered the world over, that is largely confined to a culture’s members, among whom it circulates widely in the form of stories learned from earliest childhood.  Why such stories remain sealed up within a culture, often completely unknown to outsiders (including those with substantial knowledge of the culture), is one of the riddles I explore in Speaking to History.

Another riddle, only slightly less puzzling, has to do with the relationship between past story and present reality that in China, as elsewhere, has exerted such power.  Why are peoples, at certain moments in their collective lives, especially drawn to narratives—commonly derived from the distant past—that resonate strongly with their present historical circumstances and speak to these circumstances in compelling ways?  This mating of story to history, abundantly demonstrated in the career of the Goujian saga during China’s turbulent twentieth century, forms a stratum of veiled meaning the illumination of which is one of the main tasks I set for myself in the book.

A larger point to be made about the connection between past story and present history is that it serves as a potent instrumentality for defining a culture’s boundaries, both objectively and subjectively.  Narratives like the Goujian story that are widely known among a culture’s members constitute a form of symbolic sharing that is absolutely key both to the culture’s objective existence and to an individual’s subjective sense of belonging to that culture.  Although missing from conventional historical accounts, such stories are important because of what they tell us about the interior world of a culture at particular moments in time, how those inhabiting this world felt—and how they talked and wrote—about the predicaments facing them, individually and collectively.  What is so astonishing is that, in spite of their importance, Western students of twentieth-century China (including myself) have in the past shown little awareness of their existence.  My hope is that, in Speaking to History, by focusing on one such story and the rich variety of ways in which it functioned over the course of a century, I have been able to convey some sense of what we have missed.