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Speaking to History

The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China

Paul A. Cohen (Author), John Gillis (Foreword)


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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.
List of Illustrations

1. The Goujian Story in Antiquity
2. The Burden of National Humiliation: Late Qing and Republican Years
3. The Plight of Chiang Kai-shek's Taiwan
4. Crisis and Response: The Woxin changdan Fever of the Early 1960s
5. Political Allegory in the 1980s: Xiao Jun and Bai Hua
6. The Goujian Story in a Privatizing China
Conclusion: Cross-Cultural Perspectives

Character List
Paul A. Cohen is Professor of History Emeritus at Wellesley College and Associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University. His books include Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past and History in Three Keys: The Boxers as event, Experience and Myth.
“The narrative, the novel, the drama, picture books and other genres become intertwined with history, with a variety of interpretations of a single story shedding as much light on the present as on the past. . . . [Cohen] has not disappointed.”—Colin Mackerras The China Review
"Paul Cohen shows us again how a master historian works."—Timothy Brook, Professor of History, University of Oxford

"An important work for understanding modern China's desire to shake off its 'century of shame.' It takes us to a deeper level of understanding China's sometimes fragile national psyche."—Ian Johnson, The Wall Street Journal

"Like all of Cohen's work, this is a stunningly insightful analysis. It is, without exaggeration, a tour de force, opening up a new world for understanding Chinese political culture. The book is extraordinarily important."—Keith Schoppa, author of Blood Road: The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China

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