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Friday, June 13, 2008


かいけい のはじ
kaikei nohaji

I think that I've found a yoji that defeats Rikai-chan! In fact, it defeats all of the Japanese teachers at the desks around me. I considered not posting this one, because it's SO Chinese that it's almost irrelevant (not that I mean to equate China with irrelevancy). But its history is really interesting, and it IS included in two of my "Increase your Japanese Power" books, and then... I remembered that the goal of this blog is to give you things to say that elevate you above the average speaker, even the average native-speaker. If you can ever pull this one off, you might have to explain it to the people around you, but they will be awestruck at your knowledge.

1. A crushing defeat or humiliation that instills a deep, burning desire for retribution.
2. The shame of being beaten; the suffering of the hunger for revenge

The first two Kanji are taken from the name of the capital city of the ancient Chinese Kingdom of Yue, which was around during the 春秋時代, or Spring and Autumn Period, (722-481 BC). There was a princess of Yue who married into the neighboring Kingdom of Wu, but decided she didn't like Wu all that much so she left her husband and fled back to her home. King Helu of Wu led a war on Yue over this insult, but he was defeated and mortally wounded. He made his son, King Fuchai of Wu vow to neither forgive nor forget their enemies in Yue until Wu honor was avenged.

This is NOT where the phrase originated. Remember, it's not Wu's shame that the yoji refers to. It's Yue's shame.

See, King Fuchai didn't forget, and he led a successful resurgence against Yue three years later, capturing Yue and it's King, Goujian of Yue. Instead of fully annexing Yue, as his advisors recommended, Fuchai decided to make a peace with them. And apparently, as per the terms of the peace, Fuchai chose to keep King Goujian and his minister Fan Li as slaves. They eventually earned their freedom (after three years) when King Fu Chai fell sick. Fan Li recognized the nature of Fu Chai's illness, and at his urgings Goujian went to offer a diagnosis. After Goujian performed a dramatic "examination," including checking the color and TASTE of Fu Chai's excrement, he assured Fu Chai of a quick recovery. When Fu Chai did in fact recover, he took the exchange as a sign that the two could forgive their old rivalry, and he allowed Goujian to return to power in his own Kingdom. But a man who must eat shit to earn his freedom does not soon forget the taste.

After his release, Goujian spent ten years rebuilding his kingdom's economic and military capabilities. He also undertook a complex campaign of bribery, espionage, and political intrigue designed to weaken the state of Wu on all possible fronts.

For this entire ten year period Goujian slept on sticks, dressed in rags, and ate food suitable for peasants, which he always prefaced by forcing himself to "taste bile." He did this so that he would never forget the conditions of his humiliation, and so that his thirst for revenge would never diminish. This, in itself, spawned this:


がしん しょうたん
gashin shoutan

The chinese write this as 卧薪尝胆 but, notice how "尝" shorts out Rikai-chan? The fact that the Japanese don't use this kanji necessitated the change.

Literal - Sleeping on brushwood and tasting gall.
1. Enduring the unthinkable for the sake of revenge.
2. Pursuing a goal no matter how high the cost.

So with his preparations in place, bile on his dinner table, and King Fuchai away on an expedition, King Goujian led his army to capture the Capital of Wu. He took the city in a blitzkrieg of blood (One of his tactics was to stock his front lines with condemned prisoners who would decapitate themselves at the outset of a battle as a method of intimidation). King Fu Chai fled to a palace in the mountains where he committed suicide after King Goujian refused to negotiate any terms of peace.

Wu became a part of the Yue Kingdom, and Yue became the last great power of the Spring and Autumn Period.

This site has all sorts of information about the conflict, and Chinese history in general.

Now that you know all of that, and have the background to explain not only the 意味 (meanings ) of these yoji but their 由来 (origin) as well, here's how you might be able to use them:

As far as 会稽之恥 and 臥薪嘗胆 go, 'revenge' doesn't have to mean getting back at someone who hurt you. It can be used in situations where a failure, particularly an embarassing one, drives you to retry that goal until you accomplish it... and force it to commit suicide.

I passed the JLPT 3kyuu last year and am gunning for 2kyuu. My passion to succeed is not as powerful, though, as someone who DIDN'T pass 2kyuu last year, and has set their sites on 1kyuu this time around.

Fueled by the shame of my humiliating failure on that last examination, I'm gonna pass the hell out of the next one! Even if it means having no time to chase girls, giving up drinking, or having to pretend that I like my teacher, I'm gonna do this, no matter how much it costs me!


Emi said...

Sorry to say, but I haven't heard of 「会稽の恥」. Umm...very educational.
I like China because Japanese language is based on its history. Thank you for your introduction!

Claytonian said...

I realized, as I looked at what the computer was suggesting, that this is no longer a "pure" 4 character idiom. The Japanese seem to have made the third character into what is pronounced as; 之 seems to be the old 当て字 for の, though maybe it is still used in places like tombs. So anyways, I'm using it as per the modern orthography, but otherwise...


I have suffered crushing defeat that made me thirst for revenge many times at the hands of the grammar form called "the suffering passive". Taking this grammar as an enemy or something, I have undergone tortuous studies. I'll make a blog entry soon about this thing. Then my revenge will be complete.