Two Vassal States Contending for Hegemony
Wu and Yue Contending for Hegemony, a play first staged in 1983, reviews the history of the states of Wu and Yue vying for hegemony during the Spring and Autumn Period and depicts this history from a new perspective. It portrays the suffering of common people and complex human nature.
During the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC), vassal states contended for supremacy. As a result, wars continuously broke out, and people suffered a lot. In that period, the State of Wu and the State of Yue on the southeast coast fought wars for hegemony for more than 20 years. Goujian, the king of Yue (reign: 496–465 BC), made arduous preparatory measures and eventually achieved his vengeance. After years of preparation, he launched a northward expedition against the state of Wu. Finally, Yue conquered Wu, and the chronic warfare ended.
In 1981, Bai Hua, a famous playwright, produced a historical play entitled Wuwang jinge Yuewang jian
( Wu and Yue Contending for Hegemony). Drawing on the essence of traditional scripts, Bai wrote the work with a critical eye. It is rich in poetic flavour. The play reviews the history of Wu and Yue in the Spring and Autumn Period and depicts their vying for hegemony from a new perspective. Different from traditional narratives about Goujian annexing the State of Wu, the play is closer to the historical facts and is characterised by exquisite detail. The play portrays the suffering of common people and complex human nature. It debuted in 1983.
Enduring Hardship to Conquer the State of Wu
During the Spring and Autumn Period, after Duke Huan of Qi (reign: 685–643 BC) achieved hegemony, the States of Jin and Chu rose in succession and tried to seize control of the Central Plains. Around the midpoint of the Spring and Autumn Period, Jin and Chu became the two most powerful vassal states. The State of Wu and the State of Yue, situated in China's southeastern coastal area, were very backward at the time, and their people were viewed as barbarians. Duke Jing of Jin (reign: 599–581 BC), following the advice of Shengong Wuchen, propped up the State of Wu and encouraged them to turn against the State of Chu. Wu then sent armed forces to attack small states that were affiliated to Chu. Chu became weighed down protecting affiliated states, and the king of Chu suffered intensely. To relieve the threat of Wu, he united the State of Yue to constrain Wu. As a result, propped up by Jin and Chu respectively, Wu and Yue developed rapidly and became mortal enemies.
In 496 BC, Yunchang, the king of Yue, died and his son Goujian succeeded to the throne. He Lü, the king of Wu (reign: 514–496 BC), took the opportunity to attack Yue, but was defeated and his toes were chopped off by the Yue army. Wu's troops retreated in defeat and He Lü died. So, He Lü's son, Fuchai (reign: 495– 473 BC), succeeded to the throne. When He Lü approached his end, he ordered Fuchai to avenge him.
After returning to his state, Fuchai conducted drills with his troops every day. Two years later, Goujian learned that Fuchai trained his troops day and night and was preparing to get revenge. Goujian decided to strike first. His senior official, Fan Li, admonished him, but Goujian was determined. Goujian led his army to attack Wu. Hearing the news, Fuchai mobilised his troops to meet the enemy head on. The two armies met each other at Fujiao (today's Wuxian County, Jiangsu Province). Goujian's army was utterly defeated. Goujian fled to Kuaiji Mountain with his troops. Only 5,000 Yue warriors survived. Wu's army pursued them relentlessly and eventually surrounded them tightly on the mountain. Wen Zhong (deceased in 472 BC) and Fan Li, two senior officials under Goujian, persuaded him to bear the humiliation of surrender so they could survive. They also bribed Bo Pi (die in 473 BC), a favoured minister of Fuchai, to try to get him to initiate peace. Wu Zixu (deceased in 484 BC), prime minister of Wu, was opposed to Goujian's request, and advised the king of Wu to kill Goujian so as to remove the cause of future problems. Bo Pi, who was eager to obtain Goujian's money and was jealous of Wu Zixu's merits, spared no efforts in inciting Fuchai to accept Goujian's request. Fuchai agreed to live in peace with the State of Yue on the condition that Yue must acknowledge allegiance to Wu and that Goujian serve as a slave in Wu for three years.
Therefore, accompanied by Fan Li, Goujian went to the State of Wu and worked as a horse keeper. Every day, Goujian fed horses and cleaned carriages in preparation for hunting activities led by the king of Wu. At night, he lodged in a stone house and held vigil at the tomb of He Lü, hoping to go back to his motherland someday. Three years later, Goujian and his followers were allowed to return to their
native state. He slept on a woodpile and ate gall bladder to keep his humiliation in mind and remind himself to take revenge. Fan Li formulated a set of policies to protect the citizens and make the state rich and strong. Goujian personally worked on cultivating land, and his wife wove clothes. He was courteous to the wise, aided the poor and comforted and compensated bereaved families. The general population came to love him, and the State of Yue became richer and stronger.
In 482 BC, the State of Wu finished building a canal, connecting the Yishui River in the north with the Jishui River in the west. They converged at Huangchi (today's Fengqiu, Henan). Fuchai told the feudal princes in the Central Plains to meet at Huangchi. At the gathering, Wu and Jin vied with each other to be the leader of the alliance. Wu ended up gaining the upper hand. The meeting at Huangchi helped Wu realise its goal of seeking northward hegemony but also ended up marking the beginning of the end of its empire.
When Fuchai was attending the meeting, Goujian led his troops to attack the capital of Wu. As a result, the crown prince of Wu was captured. Fuchai immediately withdrew his troops back to his state when he heard about this development. After their long journey, the Wu warriors were so exhausted that they could not resist the attack. Fuchai ended up sending Bo Pi to Yue with lavish gifts in an attempt for peace. Goujian knew that Wu, though defeated, was still strong and that he could not annex it at the moment, so he agreed to make peace with Wu. Therefore, the Yue troops withdrew from Wu.
Four years later, Yue attacked Wu once again. The Yue troops won three successive battles, striking a heavy blow to Wu. In 475 BC, Yue went on a punitive expedition against Wu. Yue seized Wu's capital and besieged its palace Gusu Tai. The Yue army besieged the State of Wu for three years. The Wu troops were seized with such a panic that they fled in great disorder. Fuchai ended up killing himself with his own sword. Goujian annexed the State of Wu and became the last hegemon of the Spring and Autumn Period.
Casting Meritorious Ministers aside after the Triumphant Return
The historical drama Wuwang Jinge Yuewang Jian consists of seven main scenes. Its author, Bai Hua, is a celebrated playwright and poet, who has written poetry, prose and novels since middle school. In 1961, he was transferred to the Shanghai Haiyan Film Studio, where he worked as a scriptwriter. In 1964, he worked as a scriptwriter for the Modern Drama Troupe in the Wuhan Military Region. His masterworks include Mama Ya Mama !
( Mother, Mother!) and Ai, Ninggu Zai Xinli ( Love, Solidified in the Heart). Wuwang Jinge Yuewang Jian is a historical stage play, directed by Lan Tianye and starring Lü Qi, Zheng Rong, Xiu Zongdi, Tong Di and Guo Jiaqing.
In the play, Fuchai is determined to avenge his father He Lü, who was killed by the king of Yue, Goujian. Fuchai led his troops to attack Yue and defeated Yue's troops. Goujian begged to surrender to the king of Wu, who, incited by Bo Pi, a senior minister of Wu, accepted Yue's surrender. Goujian, together with his queen and his counsellor Fan Li, went to Wu, where they worked as slaves. Goujian fed horses for the king of Wu and won the latter's trust. Three years later, the king of Wu, setting aside the dissuasion of Wu Zixu, allowed Goujian and his followers to go back to Yue.
Back in his territory, Goujian was constantly focused on avenging his insult. He adopted the suggestions of Wen Zhong and Fan Li, his two counsellors, and formulated strategies for rejuvenating his state. Goujian wore simple gowns and ate simple meals and observed the conditions that the general population were living and working in. He won the support of his people and brought about unity throughout the state. The people of Yue were determined to hit back at the State of Wu. Senior Minister Wen Zhong offered advice to weaken the State of Wu though. He had a plan to bribe Bo Pi with a large sum of money to sow discord between the king of Wu and his adviser Wu Zixu, make active preparations for war and wait for an opportunity to wipe out the State of Wu and corrupt Fuchai with seductive women.
Fan Li paid a personal visit to Zhuluo Village (in today's Zhuji City,
Zhejiang Province) in order to look for women to manipulate Fuchai. He met Xi Shi, a beautiful woman who was involved with silk. Fan Li explained the situation to Xi Shi. Greatly moved, she wanted to help avenge the insult imposed by Wu. Goujian was entranced by her beauty. Fan Li made a prompt decision to send Xi Shi to Wu. Fan Li also reminded Goujian of the great cause of rejuvenating the State of Yue. Fortunately, Goujian came to his senses and returned to his mission of enriching his state and increasing his military force. Several years later, Goujian took a mass pledge and raised an army to suppress the State of Wu. The common people swarmed to the riverbank to see their king and the troops off. An old villager sent his second son to the army. This young man was named Zhonggeng. The old man proposed a toast to Goujian's troops and wished them a victory. Goujian poured the wine into the river, drank the river water together with his warriors and crossed the river to begin their eastward march.
After three years of fierce battles, Yue eventually seized Gusu (today's Suzhou), capital of Wu. Fuchai committed suicide by cutting his own throat on Gusu Tai. After the defeat of Wu, Fan Li, knowing that Goujian was a man who could share bad times but not good times together, escaped with Xi Shi on a boat. Winning victory, Goujian extorted excessive taxes and levies and carried out large-scale construction. In his resplendent and magnificent imperial palace, ceremonial flags and weapons stood in great numbers, and beauties were as plentiful as clouds. Goujian indulged in wine and women. Soon, he sent his queen into exile and ordered Wen Zhong to commit suicide. He also kept the common people beyond the palace gates, who had shared his woes with him.
A Golden Partner Ensuring Eternal Artistic Appeal
In 2014, the Beijing People's Art Theatre rehearsed Wuwang Jinge Yuewang Jian once again. It was co-directed by the 88-year-old Lan Tianye and Liu Xiaorong, a young director. This time, Wang invited Wang Liping, a famous composer, to write music for the play and 85-year-old Bai Hua continued as the playwright, making some updates.
The historical drama also featured a new cast. A great many young and middle-aged professional actors and actresses joined in, such as Pu Cunxin, Lu Fang, Zou Jian, Bao Dazhi and Huang Wei. Zou Jian, a young actor from the Beijing People's Art Theatre, took on the role of Goujian. In recent years, Zou Jian has played a leading role in several grand dramas. He has his own understanding of the role of Goujian. He does not portray Goujian as a king who swallowed his humiliation and bore a heavy load, aroused all his effort to make his state prosperous and later became a wise king. Instead, Goujian, portrayed by Zou Jian, was a crafty, two-faced king adept in political trickery. The roles of famous officials Fan Li and Wen Zhong have been performed by Pu Cunxin and Bao Dazhi, respectively, both of whom are professional actors. Human nature is highlighted in their performances. The stage design reproduces the magnificent historical scenes and romantic appeal. Featuring a synthesis of reality and dramatisation, the play is a perfect blend of classic and modern aesthetic styles.
On October 23, 2015, Wuwang jinge Yuewang jian, was staged in Shanghai at the 17th China Shanghai International Arts Festival. Thirty-two years after its debut in Beijing, this drama was now staged in Shanghai, Bai Hua's hometown. Bai Hua stated: “I am lucky to see this drama. This indicates that the play has some monumental meaning. However, this does not mean that I am commendable. Instead, it means a commemoration in the sense of the traditional culture of the Chinese nation. This is of vital importance.” Bai Hua gave some examples to illustrate that Goujian, the king of Yue, was capable of being a great man, for he could swallow humiliation and endure hardships to accomplish his ambition. However, after he succeeded in restoring his state, he isolated himself from his people. “What Goujian was concerned about was not his people but his throne. That's why he turned out to be a failure.”
Bai Hua's works are full of poetic flavour. Wuwang Jinge Yuewang Jian is undoubtedly an exquisite literary piece. The following lines from Xi Shi are Bai's favourites in the work: “I am fed up with the uproar of heavy traffic on the street, I am afraid of hearing a cry when someone suffers a wrong. Standing high above the masses, I will feel dizzied. I have no wild wishes. I love forest- clad mountains and limpid streams, thatched cottages, bamboo forests and pathways full of green grass. On my table there are always fragrant flowers, and birds twitter outside the window. I live on a simple diet. I drink a clear spring as wine. I see no government officials. I hear no battle cry. In the front range there is my friend and in the back hill, my neighbour. I would like to get married with a farmer who is good at singing, playing music and composing prose. He will plant rice seedlings at the edge of the field while I weave skirts with thin silk in a thatched cottage. I can see him from the window and he can hear my singing.” Bai Hua said this is what happiness means to him.
The battle for hegemony between the king of Wu and the king of
Yue vanished in the glint and flash of dagger-axes and swords. For thousands of years, the story of Wu and Yue contending for hegemony has been widely read, and Goujian's courage while he endured hardships with his people to restore his state is much admired. The historical drama by the Beijing People's Art Theatre, gives a new expression to Goujian. According to the drama, Goujian, after accomplishing both success and fame, became corrupt and degenerate. This ending is thought-provoking. After 30- odd years of polishing and accretion, this unconventional historical drama has been listed among the outstanding plays of the Beijing People's Art Theatre.
Wu and Yue Contending for Hegemony staged by Beijing People’s Art Theatre