23 February 2018

Xi Shi, Fuchai and the gates of repentance

Xi Shi 西施

Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 says this in The Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn 《春秋繁路》:
King Fuchai of Wu bullied the state of Yue. He made the ruler [of Yue] his subject and took the ruler’s wife as his concubine. Ultimately he brought about his own destruction. His ancestral temples were razed, and his altars of the soil and the grain were destroyed. This certainly was painful. The aged king [Fuchai] drowned himself at Xi. This certainly was regrettable…

… Having shown that self-importance brings about defeat, there still remain
[cases in which] upright remonstrations were presented but not put into action. In the end, all those [who did not heed these upright remonstrations] always suffered destruction…

Wuzi Xu warned King
[Fuchai] of Wu that Yue would inevitably rise again [from its defeat by Wu]. The king of Wu did not heed his advice but instead murdered Wuzi Xu. Nine years later, Yue destroyed the state of Wu.
Dong Zhongshu does not mention the instrument or means by which King Goujian of Yue 越王勾踐 avenged himself and his state upon King Fuchai of Wu 吳王夫差, though Dong does hint at one of King Fuchai’s fatal weaknesses in alluding to the liberties Fuchai took with Goujian’s wife. Goujian possessed two very loyal ministers who continued to serve and advise him even after his military defeat and humiliation by Wu: steward Wen Zhong 文種 and master businessman Fan Li 范蠡. The two of them suggested to Goujian that the state of Wu might become corrupted by taking advantage of Fuchai’s lusts.

Fan Li went to Yue and there procured two local young women renowned for their beauty: Zheng Dan 鄭旦 and her friend Shi Yiguang 施夷光. Shi Yiguang’s parents were poor – her father was a woodcutter and her mother made a living washing raw silk. (Yiguang herself is often shown in traditional Chinese art washing silk beside a stream.) They lived in a hut to the west of a village sout of present-day Zhuji; for this reason she was called Xi Shi 西施 (or ‘Shi from the west’). Fan Li put these two girls through three years of training in etiquette and song-and-dance before sending them to Wu; however, during that time, he himself fell in love with Shi Yiguang.

Upon receiving the two girls, Fuchai was instantly bewitched by Shi and Zheng. Zheng died only a year after arriving in Wu, but Shi – possessed of a beauty that would literally become proverbial – kept a powerful hold on Fuchai, who showered the state of Yue with various gifts and subsidies on her account. It is here that the aforementioned Wuzi Xu 伍子胥 began to remonstrate with the king, objecting specifically to his squandering state funds on a woman from Yue, whose military threat he stressed as Dong Zhongshu recounts above. That advice cost Wuzi Xu his life – Fuchai gave Wuzi a sword and ordered him to kill himself with it; Wuzi obeyed, but asked that his eyes be put out and placed on the gates of the Wu capital so that he could view the approach of the Yue armies.

As it turned out, Wuzi was quite right about Shi, who was loyal both to her home state of Yue and personally to Fan Li. It is said that she convinced Fuchai to build a canal from Gusu to Lake Tai in Yue – ostensibly so that she could take more pleasure-trips with him, but actually so she could pass key tactical information on Gusu to Fan Li. Goujian, coming into possession of this information from his loyal minister, readied an attack on Wu which overran Gusu and obliterated Fuchai’s armies. Fuchai was forced to cut his throat with his own sword, but not before he bewailed the fact that he hadn’t taken the advice of Wuzi Xu, and ordered that his face be covered so he wouldn’t have to be shamed by Wuzi in the afterlife.

Xi Shi’s fate after having seduced Fuchai to his ruin is unclear and unknown. Some sources have it that she lived out the rest of her days happily, living on a fishing boat with Fan Li and sailing around Taihu. Others have it that she returned home to her native village, where she drowned herself in the river where her mother had washed silk. And still others have it that Goujian and his wife forced Xi Shi to drown herself – with Goujian’s wife holding that Xi Shi’s beauty and ability to bewitch powerful men made her too dangerous to leave alive.

In Luxurient Gems, Dong Zhongshu uses the example of the Wu-Yue contention – specifically the wrongful death of Wuzi Xu and the ruin of Fuchai – as one among many examples of destroyed states, to advise rulers against overbearing arrogance and to admonish them to accept loyal criticism. He does not mention the rôle of Xi Shi in assisting King Goujian of Yue’s revenge, however, even though he is not averse to castigating other rulers for their lewd behaviour or their improper treatment of women. I’m still not clear on how to take such an omission: knowing Dong Zhongshu’s subtlety of mind and careful reading of the Spring and Autumn Annals, such an omission may well have been deliberate. His intention was not, after all, to eulogise a blameless girl who was the instrument of a lord’s downfall, but to hold up a mirror to the Han Emperor so that he could avoid a similar fate as Fuchai. The upright official, or zhengguan 正官, of classical times was very much like a prophet in this respect, and Dong Zhongshu’s remonstrances, linked as they are to his personalist cosmology, have more than a hint of the theological about them.

And not only lords can benefit from the story of the Wu-Yue contention. I find my thoughts bending another way during Clean Week. Like Fuchai I have coveted in my heart what was my neighbour’s. Like the King of Wu I have justly earned the enmity of my brothers. I have rejected good counsel; I have sought refuge in the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Like Xi Shi the objects of my passion are without stain; the evil I am mired in is mine alone. In my heart I have done more than destroy a Wuzi Xu; I am guilty of the crucifixion of Christ our Saviour. Even now the soldiers of Yue are at the gates of Gusu; the snares of the world and the Evil One defeat me again and again. The end is at hand; where will I turn?

Such medicine is bitter. The Hebrew Law and Prophets, as the Luxuriant Gems and other classical works of historical commentary, are stern teachers – not easy for me to hear. Yet I must hear them. For Fuchai, the gates of Gusu may have been destroyed by the rampaging Yue, but for us the gates of repentance are yet open.

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