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The Chinese Trojan Horse

Ancient World

The Chinese Trojan Horse

China's Terracotta Warriors


By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB


Today I would like to share a story which I heard from my Chinese tutor: the tale of Gou Jian and the Chinese Trojan Horse.

This story is so famous that, even now, the Chinese have a saying which references this ancient episode: 臥薪嚐膽 “sleeping on sticks and tasting gall”. In this article I will show you how king Gou Jian used intelligence and wit to fight a much stronger adversary, following the teaching of Sun Tzu, who wrote that all warfare is based on deception.

Historical Background

Our tale takes place in the latter years of the Spring-Autumn period (771-476 BC) in the Zhou Dynasty. Although there was an emperor in China at that point, the feudal lords remained powerful. There had been a long dispute between the powerful state of Wu, ruled by Fu Cai, and a weaker state named Yue, ruled by Gou Jian. Yue eventually lost the war, and King Gou Jian surrendered and became his enemy’s slave, but he never stopped thinking of revenge. Fu Cai considered killing Gou Jian a number of times, and most of his advisors were in favor of executing the king of Yue, but Gou Jian escaped death by feigning madness. He even tried to seem more useful by pretending to have some medical knowledge and, when Fu Cai was sick, he actually tasted his enemy’s feces!


You probably are wondering how this story is simlar to the Greek tale of the Trojan Horse. It involves the concept of the “Beauty Scheme”, which is mentioned in Zhuge Lian’s work The Thirty-six Stategems. The strategem consists in sending attractive women out to seduce and distract your enemy’s key officers. Thus, after Gou Jian was set free, his chief advisor Fan Li sent a beautiful woman named Xi Shi to become his rival’s concubine. Xi Shi was so beautiful that, according to the legend, while leaning over a balcony to look at the fish in the pond, the fish were so amazed at her, that they forgot to swim and sank to the bottom.

When Fu Cai met Xi Shi, he soon forgot matters of state, even though his chief aide advised him not to accept this gift. He ignored this advice, and later he even ordered the advisor to kill himself. Fu Cai eventually spent vast sums of money on the construction of palaces for Xi Shi, and in this way she ended up destroying the enemy from within, just like the Trojan horse.

I mentioned earlier in the article the saying “sleeping in a bed of straw and drinking from a gallbladder”. The saying originates with Gou Jian, who to keep the memory of his humiliation at Fu Cai’s court fresh, refused all earthly pleasures, sleeping every night on a bed of straw with a snake’s gallbladder hanging over it. This made it certain that his resolution to seek revenge would never falter!

Gou Jian pretended to be loyal to his master for twenty years, but he secretly prepared his nation for war. To increase Yue’s population, men and women were only allowed to get married if their ages weren’t too far apart. He also lowered people’s taxes to ease the burden on his citizens.

The Duke of Yue bided his time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to attack. When Fu Cai left on an expedition against an enemy state, Gou Jian was ordered to meet him with his army and aid him in the campaign, but he did the opposite, attacking Wu and killing the crown prince. When he heard news of this unexpected attack, Fu Cai had no option but to fight his old opponent. After a three-years siege, the city was taken and the duke committed suicide.

After the victory, Gou Jian refused to consider mercy, and he slew a multitude of officers and scholars from Wu, even those who had pleaded for Gou Jian’s life when he was a slave.


André Bastos Gurgel
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.

Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.



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