The Humble Power of ‘Sleeping on Sticks and Tasting Bile’ – Pub’d on China Daily

China Daily recently published my latest column titled The Humble Power of ‘Sleeping on Sticks and Tasting Bile’. Here’s an excerpt:

The year 2020 has unleashed a tsunami of suffering that continues to engulf much of the world, undoubtedly reverberating throughout the lives of everyone across the globe.

In my own personal sphere, I have seen loved ones get furloughed from their jobs under the threat of more permanent layoffs, known friends who contracted COVID-19 (including one hospitalized in serious condition), and watched a restaurant where I marked one of my most memorable evenings with friends close its doors for good. And given that experts have forecast a gloomy outlook for the rest of 2020, it would seem that the global misery wrought by the coronavirus has only just begun.

In trying times like this, I have sought spiritual refuge in stories of resilience amid adversity — such as the tale of Goujian, the king of Yue during the Spring and Autumn period who inspired the Chinese saying woxin changdan, or sleeping on sticks and tasting bile.

It all began when Goujian saw his nation defeated by the Kingdom of Wu, whose king, Fuchai, demanded that Goujian become his royal servant. So the Yue king not only lost his crown but also found himself thrust into the lowest rungs of the palace of his enemy, a prisoner to the whims of a man who had destroyed his country. The demeaning work required of Goujian included mucking out manure as well as acting as a kind of personal stable boy to the monarch, from feeding the king’s horses to leading them whenever Fuchai wanted a ride.

And if you really want to talk about taking crap from someone, consider Goujian’s most legendary deed during his three years serving Fuchai: He tasted the Wu king’s excrement to diagnose illness in a move to gain the monarch’s trust. As repulsive as it sounds, it so deeply moved Fuchai, who saw the gesture as proof that Goujian had wholeheartedly submitted himself in service, that the king set him free.

You can read the full column here and also listen to me read a recording of the piece. And if you like it, share it!

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One Reply to “The Humble Power of ‘Sleeping on Sticks and Tasting Bile’ – Pub’d on China Daily”

  1. In 1986, I accompanied my husband on a business trip to China. One of my memories is of the professors and administrators we met from Tsinghua University. They were so humble and so smart! They seemed to enjoy talking (without rancor) about the jobs they had when they were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. One of them picked apples; another cared for the pigs. They didn’t sleep on sticks now, but they valued their past suffering.

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