5 Extraordinary Writers Abandoned in Their Time

"Records of the Grand Historian" (L) and Qu Yuan (R). (Wikimedia Commons)

By Daniel He

Here’s a look at five writers who in their time faced great hardships and only after death achieved great fame, including Xibo who was made by the king to eat his own son in prison, but whose writings helped overthrow the king after his death, and Sima Qian who decided to accept castration in order to finish the “Records of the Grand Historian.”

1. King Wen of Zhou

Xibo lived during the time of the last Emperor of the declining Shang dynasty. At the time, the kingdom was ruled by King Zhou of Shang. Zhou set up three lords, the Marquis of E, the Marquis of Jiu, and Xibo to help him rule his realm.

According to the “Records of the Grand Historian,” King Zhou ruled as in the idiom, “Calling a stag a horse.” If anyone did not agree with him, or if he thought someone was a threat, he would make sure to kill him. In the poem, “Encountering Sorrow,” the poet, Qu Yuan, mentions that “Zhou cut up and salted the bodies of his ministers; and so the days were numbered for the house of Yin.”

When Xibo heard of such tragedies, he let out a sigh, and according to “The Mandate of Heaven,” another official, the Marquis of Chong, who was deeply jealous of Xibo, fabricated a lie and told the Emperor: “The Earl of the West [Xibo] is secretly hatching a plot against you …  the feudal lords are all turning to him, this is not to your advantage.”

Thus, Xibo was imprisoned at Youli, where he remained for seven years. It was during this time, however, that he produced his greatest writings, expanding upon the I Ching, and creating the 64 hexagrams. He was said to have divination abilities that helped him tell the future using the 64 hexagrams.

One story goes that Xibo had to eat the flesh of his own son in prison.

When Emperor Zhou’s concubine Da Ji heard of Xibo’s divination abilities, she wanted to test if Xibo really had abilities by seeing if he would eat the flesh of his own son made into meat pies. If Xibo did not eat the meat pies then it would prove that Xibo foresaw it and that he really possessed such abilities.

Xibo was indeed able to predict the unfortunate end of his son’s life and his future predicament. In order to avoid death and prevent the country from further destruction by Emperor Zhou, Xibo was left with no other choice than to feign ignorance. He ate the flesh of his own son in order to trick the Emperor.

Thus the Emperor released him on the premise that, “[Xibo] would never have eaten the pies had he known the truth.”

Though Xibo suffered such tribulations, he later used his divination to form a successful plan to overthrow the Shang dynasty. Even though he died before he could accomplish this, his son, later to be known as King Wu of Zhou, would eventually defeat Emperor Zhou at the Battle of Muye and establish the Zhou Dynasty.

2. Sun Bin 

Sun Bin, one of the most brilliant military strategists in history, faced the humiliation of getting his feet amputated before making one of the greatest comebacks of all time.

Sun Bin lived during the Warring Period and studied under the tutelage of Guguizi, a Chinese philosopher, with a fellow classmate named Peng Juan.

Later on, when Peng Juan became the military general for King Hui of Wei state. He framed Sun as a traitor, possibly because he was jealous, thinking Sun was more talented than himself.

Thus, Sun was punished by getting the word “traitor” tattooed on his face and having his feet amputated so that he could never walk again. This is crucial, because without the ability to walk, he could not become a general.

Fortunately, Sun was able to escape, and was able to meet General Tian Ji of the Qi state, where he was welcomed warmly. There, the Duke of Qi, realizing Sun’s talent in military strategy appointed him to be General Tian Ji’s chief adviser.

After two battles, Sun Bin was famous enough to be remembered for the rest of history. In the first battle against his former classmate Pang Juan, Sun outmaneuvered Pang Juan with an ambush and Pang Juan took his own life while being shot at by hundreds of arrows, acknowledging his own doom.

After Sun left the army, he went on to write “Sun Bin’s Art of War,” a Chinese work based on military strategy and philosophy. It has often been connected to a similar version of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.” Sun Bin would later be remembered as one of the greatest military geniuses in Chinese history.

3. Han Feizi 

Han Feizi, one of the greatest legalist philosophers of law in Chinese history, was born a prince of the late Han dynasty during the end of the Warring States period. As he saw his kingdom decline from corruption and lack of governance, he tried to give the King of Han advice, but the king would not heed his words.

Soon, his works on legalist thought reached the King of Ch’in, who would later unify China and all its warring states. The King of Ch’in was greatly interested in his works. Han arrived in the Qin State in 234 B.C. to negotiate as an envoy of Han, and during this time, the Qin Emperor offered him a government position in his own court.

Coincidentally, the Prime Minister of Ch’in was a peer of Han Feizi when they were younger. The Prime Minister of Ch’in was afraid Han would gain favor with the Emperor. Thus, on suspicions that Han would never be fully loyal to Ch’in because of his native Han origins, the prime minister persuaded the Ch’in Emperor to have him investigated and thrown into prison.

It was during this time in prison that he wrote “The Sorrow of Standing Alone,” and “The Difficulties of Disputation.”

However, he was never able to get out of jail. The Prime Minister of Ch’in gave Han Feizi poison when he was in jail.

His works however, would be used in the future by many governments, including the Ch’in emperor himself, to use as a handbook for policy-making.

4. Qu Yuan

Qu Yuan lived during the latter half of the Warring States period as a ruling member of the Kingdom of Chu. In his early years, he is thought to have been a favored minister of King Huai of Chu.

However, Qu Yuan supported the resistance of the Ch’in Kingdom and thus made many enemies who did not agree with him. Because many other ministers feared that resisting Ch’in would eventually cause them to lose power and authority themselves, they planned against Qu Yuan and successfully made him lose favor with the King of Chu. He was exiled and the King lost a trustworthy adviser.

After Qu Yuan was banished, he wandered around Southern Chu and created many poems including his most famous work, “Encountering Sorrow” (Li Sao). The poem tells about the story of an official who is driven out of the court by scheming ministers and eventually wanders in exile. The poem reveals the official’s disappointment and his anguish when he learns that the King could not understand his true intentions.

Eventually, in 278 B.C., the Chu State fell into the hands of the Ch’in. Qu Yuan, after hearing about it, drowned himself in the Milou River.

His elegies created a new literary genre that eventually would be imitated by many writers for the next few centuries.

Nowadays, many countries including China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, hold the Dragon Boat Festival in honor of Qu Yuan on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar.

5. Sima Qian 

Sima Qian, also known as the Grand Historian, faced the most degrading punishment of his time: castration. After castration, it is said that one would not be considered a man, and would be looked down upon by all in society.

In 99 B.C., General Li Ling led 5,000 soliders to battle with the northern barbarians and was eventually defeated. His is thought to have defected and was named a traitor by Emperor Wu of Han. Sima, aware of Li Ling’s loyalty and sacrifice for the country, defended Li Ling’s actions in court, but the emperor took it as an insult.

Because he was believed to have deceived the emperor, Sima was ordered to face the law and was given two options: either suffer the death penalty or be castrated. In that time, honorable men would rather have death than to suffer the humiliation and shame of castration.

However, due to his mission of finishing the “Records of the Grand Historian,” a record covering more than two-thousand years of history, and his promise to his father that he would complete the records, Sima Qian decided to endure the disgrace in order to complete what he needed to finish before he could die.

In his work, he wrote of himself, “ With what can I stand again before the grave mound of my father and mother? Though a hundred generations pass, my defilement will only become greater.”

By no means did it happen the way he predicted. Not only is he renown as the greatest historian in Chinese history, but also his “Records of the Grand Historian” (Shi Ji) is considered a literary masterpiece and possibly the first record of general history in the world.

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