How to Read

Reading is a guide into a cluster of ideas, texts and language offering a New Sinological appreciation of some of the living, if contradictory, traditions within Chinese cultural, political and social life.

  • Proem: Each word in Reading, such as Verdict or Loyalty, features a Proem, or a short introduction that offers and overview of the subject. The Proem can be read in isolation as a simple note on the word or concept under consideration.
  • Essay: For readers wishing to delve deeper, the Essay that follows has short introduction followed by sections with English sub-headings marked with relevant Chinese expressions. These Essays provide an in-depth study of the subject.
  • Texts: For the reader who wants to delve beyond the essay into Chinese sources, Texts provides these materials arranged in the order that they are introduced or discuses in the Essay (in the Essay there are also links to these texts). Each Text is prefaced by an Editorial Note, followed by the text in Chinese, and sometimes in English translation with notes where relevant.
  • Vocabulary: provides a list of key words, expressions and terms touched on in the Essay and in the Texts arranged according to the Clavis of the site.
  • Bibliography: this contains references to relevant scholarly works and other materials, as well as recommended reading.

In his book-length discussion of a famous incident related to Goujian, the King of Yue 越王勾踐 during the Warring States period (r. 496-465 BCE), and the set expression, or proverb that encapsulates Goujian’s desire to extract revenge on his foes, ‘sleeping on brushwood and tasting gall’ 臥薪嘗膽,[1] the historian Paul Cohen observes the ‘resonance between story and situation, between a narrative and a contemporary historical condition that prompts those living in it to attach a special meaning to that narrative.’

Cohen says that from early times in China ‘people have demonstrated a strong affinity for stories dressed in historical garb.'[2] Moreover, such stories are enmeshed in perceptions and cultural attitudes, as well as historical consciousness, not so much as a result of direct prompts, but as integral to the way history, time and events are appreciated and recalled (more will be said about how education and propaganda in the People’s Republic frame and impose such stories, while ignoring or rewriting others).

As Cohen says of the Goujian story of biding time to seek revenge:

… most Chinese simply accept the existence of the story-situation relationship as a given. It is not, in other words, something that they have a high degree of self-consciousness about. The notion that stories even from the distant past can speak in meaningful ways to what is going on in the present is something that has been inculcated in them from childhood. They pay attention to such stories, therefore, for the guidance or inspirational value they may offer in the present, but there is little likelihood of their stepping back and interrogating the distinctive importance of the story-situation relationship as such, either in China or in other cultural settings.[3]

Countersuperstition is not less a superstition: under the old regime town walls were venerated; under the new one they are under attack. The fury of the iconoclasts is a negative measure-ment of the permanence of the sacred powers that ruled feudal society. The tragedy is that the sacred powers dwell not in those innocent stones, whose beauty is sacrificed in vain, but in the minds of the wreckers. Seen in this light, the Maoist enterprise appears hopeless; the regime may well change China into a cultural desert without succeeding in exorcising the ghosts of the past: these ghosts will continue their paralyzing tyranny so long as the regime is unable to identify them within itself. But will it ever be capable of such clear vision? Certain foreign Sinolo-gists guilty of having noted traces of the traditional way of thinking in the Maoist systems, are the focus in Peking of surprising hatred out of all proportion to their limited audience or influence.

This shows, I’m afraid, how little the Maoist authorities are ready to re-examine critically the old clichés in which they have locked the concepts of ‘old and new’, ‘feudalism’ and ‘progress’, ‘reaction’ and ‘revolution’. By refusing to examine the nature and identity of its revolution in depth, the People’s Republic condemns itself to marking time, to struggling in the dark, producing such periodic sterile explosions as the Cultural Revolution. It can have little hope of liberating itself from the slavery of the past as long as it hunts it among old stones, instead of denouncing its active reincarnation in the ideology and political practices of the new mandarin.

Simon Leys, ‘Peking’, in Chinese Shadows


[1] This set expression dates from the Song dynasty, but ‘the story’ related to Goujian’s defeat at the hands of the rival state of Wu is far more ancient. As Cohen says:

After resuming his rule over Yue, Goujian, a different man from the head-strong, self-indulgent youth of only a few years before, governed in a respectful and circumspect manner, practicing strict economy and avoiding extravagance. Knowing that taking revenge against Wu was something that required elaborate preparation and could not be accomplished overnight, he worked incessantly, never resting his mind or body. When overcome with sleepiness he would use the sharp smell of knotweed (Polygonum) to keep his eyes from closing. When the soles of his feet were cold, he would soda them in even colder water to lift his spirits. In the winter, when it was freezing, he would often carry ice and snow in his arms, while in the heat of summer he would hold a hot brazier in his hands. Although the proverb woxin changdan (‘to sleep on brushwood and taste gall’) that became so closely associated with the Goujian story in the late imperial era does not appear to have come into use until the Song dynasty, already in ancient times we are told that Goujian hung a gallbladder in his room, licking it every time he went in or out in order to guard against complacency and to remind himself of the bitter suffering he had undergone. [Paul A. Cohen, Speaking to History: the story of King Goujian in twentieth-century China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, pp.8-9.]

[2] Cohen, Speaking to History, p.xvii. My own account of ‘Loyalty’ takes a measure of inspiration from Cohen’s exhaustive study. For my 2011 review-essay of Cohen’s book and my embrace of it in the context of New Sinology, see Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 71.2 (2011): 351–364, at:é-on-Cohen.HJAS_.71.21.pdf

[3] Cohen, Speaking to History, p.xx.