Had a satori moment some years back when paleaswater was showing me some Chinese opera based on the novel A Dream of Red Chambers. If you haven't read it (and you should, but the novel is long and life is short) understand that there are two main heroines in it, among a host of fascinating women (and one of what a Chinese-kei commenter on a ML called 'a horrid little boy.' He holds the lightbulb and the world revolves around him.) Dai Yu is delicate, sensitive, self-absorbed, passionate (I'd say hysterical, but I'm trying to avoid psychiatric terminology), aesthetic, willful, and no one ever considers her poor nerves (except said horrid little boy, who's exactly like her. They should have married and been like the Carlyles-- 'that way only two people were made miserable instead of four.') She's Heathcliff's Cathy; she's an emo teenager; she's a pain and obviously I have no sympathy for her.
Then there's Bao Chai, who's sensible, down to earth, considerate, long-suffering and practical. Like most such people, she's left to deal with other people's messes, like her impossible brother and cantankerous relations and the vagaries of the horrid little boy himself. Dai Yu has vapours and takes to her bed so no one will bother her; Bao Chai copes while everyone comes and complains to her, though it was perfectly clear to me that she'd rather be in her rooms reading and writing poetry instead of waiting on tiresome aunties. Bao Chai may be an ideal of Chinese female virtue, but she's also the kind of person any westerner wants around because they deal with trouble, they don't make it. And alas, life as well as literature runs more to Dai Yus ('I am a misunderstood free spirit and now I'll have my revenge by showing just how spesshul people like me are and how dull and inferior ordinary people are to Me') than Bao Chais. (Who wants a hero(ine) who's decent and sensible? Petulant!Alec and kills-on-command!Richard 4evah, not commonsense Nicholas and Philip.)
And I was saying something of this sort to paleaswater, who said that Dai Yu is a heroine in China precisely *because* she's selfish and self-willed and concerned only about Wonderful Me. The western commonplace is the eastern rarity. Which proves you can read all the foreign literature you want, you're still seeing it with Your Culture's instincts.
Which brings us to Gou Jian.
The ha ha 'historical' Gou Jian, or atanyrate the Gou Jian of the traditional story (that better?) didn't have, from my POV, much to complain about. He attacked Wu, he was defeated, he was all gungho to resist to the death but his advisors begged him to submit to Fu Chai and humble himself, on the off chance that his country might survive if he did. There's no edict and oaths to Zhou in this one-- becoming Fu Chai's slave is Gou Jian's own proposal, which Fu Chai accepts. Gou Jian and his queen and Fan Li all go off to Wu in a comfortable cart and set up a menage a trois in a comfortable little house; Gou Jian has to drive the king's carriage and his queen has to muck out the stables, but we have no cangues or pillories or Brute 2.5's or rapes by Jin ambassadors. Even the dung-tasting has a context. It's Fan Li's idea: Fu Chai is sick and Fan Li, with his mystical magical diviner's powers, knows he'll get better on a certain day, so he tells Gou Jian to sample the king's excrement and tell him as much. It's not even an unheard-of method but one with precedents for medical diagnosis, and extraordinarily filial sons will do it to ascertain the state of their father's health. Fu Chai is of course impressed by Gou Jian's devotion; he's also, in a telling story, impressed by the way Gou Jian and his queen and Fan Li still maintain the proper social relations between king and courtier and husband and wife even while sitting outside their little house surrounded by stacks of horse dung. Cohen doesn't say what these actions are; he does say Fu Chai climbed a tower to spy on the royal prisoners in secret.
So Fu Chai takes the king and queen into the palace and eventually, on a propitious day, sends them back to Yue, and cedes land to Yue as a gift to them. To my thinking, not a bad bargain: but I was early imbued, not only with notions that sin necessarily invokes punishment, but with stories of Fortune's Wheel and the fall of kings to beggardom and imprisonment ('Call no man happy until he's dead' Croesus, f'rinstance) and occasional return to a happy state. Gou Jian however at once begins to plot revenge for his humiliation. What's his beef, one wonders? He started the war; he deserved to die for being defeated; becoming a slave was *his* idea in the first place, as a way of saving his neck. Why's he so het up that Fu Chai a) accepted his own proposal and b) let him live, in reduced circumstances but hardly with barbaric ill-treatment? Rank ingratitude, we calls it.
As Japanese translators are wont to say, there are three things that matter in understanding a text: context, context, and context. I am missing context.
One notices that our Woxin ups the ante in ways that are congenial to western thinking. Yue is pretty much forced into war with Wu while the old kings are still alive; Gou Jian is hubristic in thinking that one victory means he can conquer the whole kingdom, but then again, the argument that Wu Zi Xu won't let the matter rest carried a lot of weight to my mind. The slavery is slavery and the hardship is hardship; Gou Jian is given quite enough personal reasons to desire revenge on Wu.
And one reason that I'm not sure is them or me or both. Possibly the worst thing Fu Chai does to Gou Jian, by our lights, is to make him deny himself-- make him adopt a pretence that not only negates his autonomy but affects his actual selfness, because the act can't be as perfect as it is unless Gou Jian really means it in some part of himself. Gou Jian resisting in the stocks still has his will and autonomy, and the universe continues to unfold as it should. (It's dumb, because counter-productive, but still admirable and what trad heroes are supposed to do.) Gou Jian in the feather recitation is just bearable for its sheer over-the-topness. ('And if you buy this I have some land in Florida you might be interested in.') Gou Jian saying 'The Great Lord lacks salt' to Wu Zi Xu makes this Canadian's blood run cold. That's the bit I can't bear to rewatch. Gou Jian isn't the same afterwards. Fu Chai and Wu Zi Xu have done something unforgivable by my society's standards-- they've destroyed the hero's selfness. I'm still not certain that it's unforgivable by the producers' standards; and fairly clearly, what was traditionally considered unforgivable is something else entirely.
I continue to read.