Speaking to History by Paul A. Cohen University of California Press, HK$431 To keep his resolve finely honed, Goujian slept on brushwood and licked a gall-bladder every day to remind him of the bitterness of his humiliation. Goujian was king of the historical state of Yue, now in Jiangsu province, in 496BCE, until his territories were annexed by Fuchai, the ruler of neighbouring Wu. Goujian was forced to serve as the victorious king's slave for three years. But he bided his time and finally won his way into Fuchai's good graces by visiting the ill monarch, tasting his stool and urine, and determining his oppressor would not die from illness. He returned to Yue and his throne, but it was in the lesser role of feudal lord and he was forced to pay tribute to the Wu state. He plotted to bring about its downfall. Eventually the state was weakened enough for Goujian to invade and conquer. The story has influenced the Chinese through the years, from Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek to Qing dynasty officials and emigrants at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay, writes Paul A. Cohen in Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China. Cohen, professor of history emeritus at Wellesley College and an associate at the Harvard Fairbank Center, says the Goujian story informs Chinese political culture and many other subjects. His book is essential reading for any serious student of comparative Chinese studies. He writes of the tale's 'versatility, its all-purpose character' and how 'it counselled hope when things were at their bleakest'. 'It was an optimistic story that promised national success, so long as the Chinese people did not forget the humiliations of the past and worked tirelessly to build up the country so it could exact revenge for the wrongs it had suffered,' he says. There is insight into China's way of dealing with its sense of humiliation at the hands of foreign invaders. Inferiority and superiority complexes are often close cousins and feelings of pride can switch quickly into a sense of insecurity. The government often says the feelings of the Chinese people have been hurt by negative commentary, which illustrates, in some way, how humiliation is often never very far from people's thinking in China. More than just looking at the remarkable story of Goujian and its impact on Chinese consciousness, the book is also an illustration of what Cohen calls 'cultural insider knowledge'. The Goujian story is widely known inside Chinese society and these narratives are part of a person's sense of belonging to a culture, as well as helping to define that specific culture. These stories are often missing from historical accounts, but they do give a valuable insight into what people felt about contemporary historical events and how they described those events. In the 1920s, the Goujian story became an important part of Kuomintang rhetoric. The newly restored Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou had a banner with the proverb woxin changdan ('sleep on thorns and taste gall') draped across the entrance, and the phrase formed part of cememonies during National Humiliation Day. In 1960, in the aftermath of the Anti-Rightist Campaign, amid growing tensions with the Soviet Union and the Great Leap Forward, Goujian began to preoccupy historians and writers in China, particularly the themes of self-reliance and 'working hard to strengthen the country'. One of the country's top playwrights, Cao Yu, wrote a five-act play on the story called The Gall and the Sword, while writer Xiao Jun was also interested in the subject. Goujian's story is influential but this is not a simplistic book and Cohen highlights the complex interpretations made of the theme.