The King of Yue and his wife were made to work as slaves for three years in the State of Wu. The defeated the State of Yue in a battle in 494 B. C. The two states - Yue in today's Zhejiang province on the east coast and Wu to the north around what is today the city of Suzhou (Jiangsu province) - were contending for hegemony over the lower Changjiang (Yangtze) River valley, and after the defeat Yue had to pledge allegiance to Wu.
Fu Chai, the king of Wu, did everything he could to insult the Yue couple. Gou Jian, the King of Yue, was forced to live in a small stone hut beside the tomb of Fu Chai's father who had died fighting Yue. Every time the King of Wu went on tour the made the King of Yue lead his horse, subjecting him to derisive comments from the populace about " our king's groom. " With rancor in his heart, the King of Yue accepted such treatment only because then his state would be allowed to exist. his people would not be bothered, and he might find an opportunity to make a comeback - he hoped.
During his time in Wu, the King of Yue forced himself to always appear humble and respectful. Dressed in a tattered sacking and a battered hat, he industriously cared for the horses. His wife, wearing shabby clothing, fetched water, did the cooking and swept the stables and courtyard.
Fan Li, one of his officials, had come with them, and he too assumed such a mien, never uttering a word of complaint. Those sent by the King of Wu to spy on them found nothing suspicious to report, so gradually the King of Wu began to relax his vigilance.
One day the King of Wu fell ill. The king of Yue asked for permission to see the ailing king to show his loyalty. " I know a little a about medicine, " he told Fu Chai, " and can judge a patient's condition from the flavor of his stool. " He tasted the ailing man's stool and announced that he would soon recover. This act made a big impression on the King of Wu. He had not originally intended to honor his word about keeping Gou Jian for only three years, but now, moved by the latter's seeming loyalty, he decided to release him and even gave him a big sendoff with a banquet.
After Gou Jian returned to Yue, the humiliation that had been forced on him ranked within. Over his bed he hung a gall. before every meal and at bedtime he would taste a bit of its bitter substance. To strengthen his resolve, he gave up his luxurious palace and slept on a pallet of brush wood in a thatched hut. ( These two hardships he imposed on himself have brought into the Chinese language a four-word phrase wo xin chang dan, meaning hardships to strengthen resolve to wipe out national humiliation).
The king of Yue and his wife lived like common people, he working in the fields and she weaving and sewing clothes. He issued a decree exempting farmers from taxes for seven years. Historical writings credit him with helping the poor and recognizing the worth of talented people and scholars. He placed in important positions Fan Li, who had gone with him, and General Wen Zhong, whom he had deputed to administer the state in his absence. Before long Yue began to recoup its strength.
Fan li conceived a brilliant scheme.: Knowing that the King of Wu had a tendency to dissipation and extravagance. Fan Li proposed to further undermine Wu rule with the gift of an enticing woman. Disguised as a merchant, he toured Yue, seeking the most beautiful maidens. He found Xi Shi, the loveliest and most graceful woman he had ever seen, washing silk in a stream in a remote village.
When the plan was explained to her father, he agreed that Xi Shi must do what was wanted. Thus Xi Shi became the most famous of the long line of beauties who traditional Chinese history writing holds responsible for the fall of states. Xi Shi, however, is not remembered as the usual menace but, seen from the viewpoint of Yue, is viewed as a patriotic heroine. Her tale has been celebrated in literature by some of China's greatest writers including the poet Li Bai.
Xi Shi was take to the Yue court and given education with Fan Li as her tutor, and also intensive training in court etiquette and the seductive arts. She and Fan Li fell in love. After three years she was considered ready. General Wen Zhong want to Wu with boatloads of magnificent gifts and asked the King of Wu whether he was interested in accepting this outstanding beauty. The King was, and sadly Xi Shi said goodbye to Fan Li and left to place her talents at the service of her state.
The King of Wu soon became completely infatuated with her. He spent all his days with her and created extravagant entertainment to please her. Xi Shi flattered him and encouraged him in this. She used her influence on him to undermine the position of the old minister Wu Zixu who opposed his relation with her, and to praise and promote Bo Pi, a minister who General Wen Zhong had bought over to Yue's side.
For her the King built Guanwa Palace ( Palace of Beautiful Women ) in an imperial park on the slope of Lingyan Hill, about 15 kilometres west of Suzhou. So elaborate was it, the story goes, that it had strings of real pearls to shade to windows. Next to it he built the promenade of Musical Shoes. Under the marble floor were thousands of earthenware jars which rang like chimes when she walked or danced on it.
For her he dug a special river. Along its banks were many pavilions where musician and dancers would perform. Xi Shi found that long excursions on it were a good way to keep him from government affairs for days at a time. The cost of such extravagances left the people most dissatisfied.
Xi shi sent a secret message to Fan Li that Wu was weakening, and got one back urging her to use her influence to get rid of minister Wu Zixu. She waited her chance until one day in 484 B. C., in disapproval Wu Zixu refused to attend the ceremony to receive another shipment of gifts from Yue. The King of Wu was incensed at this affront to himself, but feared to punish him lest it disaffected others. Xi Shi persuaded him that he should execute the minister as a warning to others. The king gave Wu Zixu a sword and told him to kill himself.
Despite the minister's warnings, Fu Chai still thought the King of Yue was loyal to him.
In 482 B.C. While the King of Wu was away at a conference of rulers to discuss control of the central plain, Yue launched a surprise attack on Wu, inflicting heavy casualties. Nine years later Yue won a decisive victory. When the King of Yue decreed that Fu Chai be sent to lifelong exile so an island in the sea. the latter in shame cut his own throat.
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