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Content created: 2011-09-11
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Letter from Generalissimo Fàn
to Great Minister Wén

Dramatis Personae


Historical Context: Late in the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BC, period 4d), when the Zhōu dynasty was well into its long, slow decline, FÀN Lǐ 范蠡 and WÉN Zhǒng 文种 served the ruler of the kingdom or fiefdom of Yuè for some 20 years. The territory of Yuè lay in what today is Zhèjiāng 浙江 Province, to the south of modern Shànghǎi 上海. It was the southernmost of the states usually considered to be part of the late Zhōu cultural world.

The state of Wú lay to its north, slightly inland from today’s Shànghǎi. (The dialects of Chinese spoken stretching inland from Shànghǎi are still referred to as Wú dialects.)

When Yuè was threatened with invasion by neighboring Wú, it was Wén Zhǒng’s diplomacy and Fàn Lǐ’s military prowess that jointly saved the Yuè kingdom from conquest. As a result, diplomat Wén was promoted to the rank of great minister (dàfū 大夫) and military genius Fàn was made generalissimo (shàng jiāngjūn 上将军).

However after his return to power, the Yuè king became ever more concerned with possible subversion of his authority, seeing enemies among even his most faithful ministers. Fàn accordingly left his service, fearing that the king’s ever more suspicious moods would sooner or later turn upon the two courtiers most responsible for saving the state: Fàn and Wén. Their great talents, no longer needed by the monarch, would come to be seen as threats to him.

After he was safely out of the king's reach, Fàn sent the following letter to his long-time friend and colleague Wén Zhǒng, urging him to desert as well.

The letter did not have its desired effect. Wén did not take Fàn's advice, and not long thereafter was charged with treason and required by the king to commit suicide.

This Letter: The text of Fàn Lǐ’s famous letter is preserved in a later collection called the “Spring & Autumn of Wú and Yuè” (Wú-Yuè Chūnqiū 吴越春秋). Although the original letter may have been longer than the handful of lines surviving today, it is striking that the rhetoric of correspondence between two educated gentlemen in the fifth or sixth century BC closely resembles the way in which they might have addressed each other any time in the next twenty five centuries.

However, the letter is not famous merely for the eloquence with which it is composed or for the flow of its argument or even for its astonishing candor. Rather, modern readers appreciate Fàn’s insight into human character and into the most fundamental flaw of the early Chinese political system: its vulnerability to totalitarian whimsy.


Letter to Great
Minister WÉN Zhǒng 文种
Wèi dàfū Zhǒng shū
1. I have heard that of heaven’s four seasons spring is productive and autumn barren. 吾闻天有四时,春生冬伐。
Wú wén tiān yǒu sìshí, chūn shēng dōng fá.
2. Similarly, a man’s life has times of prosperity and of decline. When good fortune ends, there must be misfortune. 人有盛衰,泰终必否。
Rén yǒu shèngshuāi, tài zhōng bì fǒu.
3. One who knows when to advance and when to withdraw, without losing his righteousness, should be esteemed as a sage, should he not? 知进退存亡而不失其正,惟贤人乎?
Zhī jìntuì cúnwáng ér bù shī qí zhèng, wéi xiánrén hū?
4. Although I am without talent, I do know when to advance and to withdraw. 蠡虽不才,明知进退。
Lǐ suī bùcái, míngzhī jìntuì.
5. When birds on high have scattered, even the strongest bows are put away. 高鸟已散,良弓将藏。
Gāo niǎo yǐ sàn, liáng gōng jiāng cáng.
6. When the cunning rabbits are all gone, even the best hunting dogs are cooked. 狡兔已尽,良犬就烹。
Jiǎo tù yǐ jìn, liáng quǎn jiù pēng.
7. The King of Yuè, with his long neck and beak of a mouth*, his hawk-like eye and his wolf-like feet, 夫越王为人,长颈鸟喙,鹰视狼步。
Fū Yuè wáng wéirén, chángjǐngniǎohuì*, yīngshì lángbù.
8. is a person with whom one can share troubles, but cannot share happiness. 可与共患难,而不可共处乐。
Kě yǔgòng huànnàn, ér bù kě gòngchǔ lè.
9. He is a person with whom one can share danger, but not peace. 可与履危,不可与安。
Kě yǔ lǚ wēi, bùkě yǔ ān.
10. If you do not leave, harm will befall you. This has become clear! 子若不去,将害于子。明矣!
Zi ruò bù qù, jiāng hài yú zi. Míng yǐ!
*-This four-character expression is borrowed today to mean that someone looks brutal and uncouth.

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