Zhuangzi glossary


Wu and Yue

Many characters and anecdotes in Zhuangzi derive from the story of the conflicts between the southern states of Wú and Yuè. This summary compiles information from Wikipedia, supplemented as noted from the commentaries.

Despite legends of their being founded by relatives of the earlier Xia and Zhou Dynasty kings, these southern states were largely disregarded as barbarous during the Spring and Autumn (771-476). Their inhabitants spoke different languages and followed different customs. For example, they cut their hair and decorated themselves with tattoos, as we saw in the story in 1:05 of the man from Song who tried to sell them ceremonial hats. These practices were in violation of the mainstream Chinese belief that the body should be honored and preserved gift from one’s ancestors: in Analects 8.3, when Confucius’ disciple, Zengzi, is on his deathbed, he calls his own students to him and shows them his hands and feet as evidence that he has fulfilled his obligation to his parents. Unlike their northern counterparts, southern rulers did not receive posthumous names after death. Along with the southernmost Chinese state of Chu, they were the first in the sixth century to refer to themselves as “kings,” explicitly declaring independence from the Zhou court.

On the other hand, there were an equal number of forces compelling the northen states to take these southern neighbors seriously. They were advanced in mysterious art of metallurgy, forging weapons that were not only beautiful but stronger due to a higher proportion of tin to copper. Many of these swords were named, such as King Helu's sword Moye (6:05). They had superior navies. For all these reasons, in the heightening competition of the Warring States period (475-221) when Zhuangzi wrote, Wu and Yue became increasingly valuable as potential allies. Early in the sixth century, the state of Jin began to recruit Wu as an ally against Chu. Later in the century, when Wu was ascendant, Chu recruited Yue and an ally against Wu.

The gradual inclusion of these southern states into the Chinese world represented a change in the understanding of what it meant to be Chinese or, as they thought of it, human. Immediately after the man from Song in 1.05, Yao crosses the Fen River and loses his kingdom. The Fen was the south-eastern border of a much smaller China in Yao’s time than this new, ever-expanding world, but the point is that Yao would no longer recognize the kingdom that he founded.

Our story begins in the state of Chu, in 522, when King Ping of Chu executes an unjustly maligned advisor, Wu She (different Wu), whose son, Wu Zixu, flees south vowing revenge. Entering the state of Wu during the reign of King Liao (d. 514), he becomes an advisor to King Liao’s nephew (or cousin) Prince Guang, whom he guides in killing King Liao and assuming the throne in turn as King Helü (r. 514-496).

In 506, Helü, with the help of his younger brother, Fugai, Zixu and Sunzi (author of the Art of War), invades Chu and conquers its capitol, 郢 Yǐng, whereupon Zixu exhumes the body of King Ping, who had died ten years earlier, and whips it to avenge his father. At this point, Wu is temporarily the dominant military force and Helü is considered one of the five hegemons, or strong men able to keep the peace (as listed by Xunzi). In 496, Helü leads an attack on Yue. Helü is wounded and dies, but the attack is carried on by his son and successor, Fuchai (r. 495-473). The story about the traveler recommending the hand-salve in 1:06 is presumably set somewhere in here. Wu scores a decisive victory in 494. The Yue army is decimated and the Yue king Goijian is forced to retreat with his remaining troops. As a result of various intrigues and mixed motivations (Fuchai is eager to finish this war to the south in order to expand northward), Fuchai agrees to take Goujian as a hostage-servant rather than go about the lengthy campaign of conquering the country. Goujian serves Fuchai so faithfully that he earns his trust and, after three years, is allowed to return to his kingdom (about 490).

At this point, Fuchai starts flexing his muscles to the north, attacking Qi and earning himself the title of hegemon. Zixu counsels Fuchai to kill Goujian and make an end of it. Fuchai not only doesn’t listen but becomes enraged and orders Zixu to commit suicide. Zixu does so, but only after requesting Fuchai to hang his eyes from the gate so that he can watch Yue come back and destroy Wu. Meanwhile, Goujian is strengthening Yue and using various means to weaken Wu from within, such as sending the beautiful Xi Shi as a gift to Fuchai as sabotage. In 473, Yue attacks Wu. Fuchai sues for peace but Goujian has learned his lesson, forces Fuchai to commit suicide, and annexes Wu.