An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Regional State of Yue 越

Nov 1, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

Yue 越 was a regional state of the Zhou period 周 (11th. cent.-221 BC). It was not one of the Chinese states of the Yellow River plain but a native, semi-"barbarian" state on the southeast coast, in modern Zhejiang. Yue dominated the southeastern part of the Zhou empire during the last decades of the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent.-BCE), before it was conquered by the state of Chu 楚. The territory of Yue was located in the northern part of the modern province of Zhejiang, in the southern parts of the Hangzhou Bay.

Map 1. The regional state of Yue 越 (c. 500 - 333 BCE)
Map according to Tan Qixiang 谭其骧 (1987), Zhongguo lishi ditu ji 中国历史地图集. Yue was located around the Hangzhou Bay, its capital was in today's Shaoxing, Zhejiang. The king of Yue competed with that of Wu and was counted among the five hegemonial lords. Yue, even if prevailing over Wu, was in the end conquered by the state of Chu from the middle Yangtze area. Click to enlarge.

The kings of Yue claimed descendency from the mythological emperor Yu the Great 大禹 and saw themselves as a branch of the Xia dynasty 夏 (17th-15th cent. BC). The family name of the ruling dynasty of Yue is either rendered as Si 姒 or as Yu 芋. Capital of Yue was Guiji 會稽, located near the mountain of the same name, in the vicinity of modern Shaoxing 紹興, Zhejiang. The names of the kings of Yue have not survived until the reign of Yunchang 允常, who lived during the time of Helü 闔閭 (r. 514-496 BCE), king of Wu 吳, who had made his country of powerful realm and claimed hegemony over all the regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯). Yue is first mentioned as an ally of the state of Chu against Wu. From that time on, Wu and Yue were arch-enemies. In 506, when King Helü of Wu invaded Chu, Yue used this chance and attacked the capital of Wu. The son of King Yunchang was King Goujian 句踐 (r. 496-465).

Immediately after Goujian's accession to the throne, King Helü of Wu attacked Yue, but Goujian sent out a corps of death-defying warriors that made "hara-kiri" in front of the enemy. The baffled army of Wu was thereupon attacked and lost the battle of Suili 檇李 near the capital of Wu. King Helü was wounded and died soon thereafter, but he had his son Fucha 夫差 (r. 495-473) swear to take revenge. For this purpose Fucha implemented a strict training for his troops. King Goujian of Yue, fearing the coming invasion, planned a pre-emptive attack, yet his military expert Fan Li 范蠡 warned him with the words that war was always the last choice. Yet King Goujian was very confident and attacked Wu, but his army was defeated in the battle of Fujiao 夫椒.

King Goujian withdrew with 5,000 troops to his capital Guiji, which was soon besieged by King Fucha's army. Fan Li could not but suggest to his lord to offer unconditional surrender to the king of Wu, presenting to him his whole people as serfs and his queen as a concubine to the victor. King Fucha on his side was very pleased to have humiliated the enemy in such a way and did not pay attention to warnings from the side of his advisor Wu Zixu 伍子胥, who explained that Yue had been fallen to Wu because of Heaven's will, and it was not necessary to abase the defeated enemy even further. King Fucha should, he said, annihilate the enemy in order to forestall rebellions in the future.

Deeply hurt, King Goujian planned to kill his queen, to destroy his jewels and to die in battle, yet baron Wen Zhong 文種, who had taken over the shameful duty to pronounce the submission, comforted his king with the words that it would be possible to win over the counsellor of Wu, Bo Pi 伯嚭, with the help of an immense fortune and beautiful girls offered to him. Wen Zhong was happy enough to be able to convince the king of Wu that it sufficed to pardon King Goujian without taking his wives. The army of Wu withdrew, and Wen Zhong consoled King Goujian with examples from history which proved that many persons had suffered hardship and later rose to glory and power. The king was so depressed that he ploughed the soil in person, had his wife wave clothes, and abstained from eating meat and wearing beautiful clothes. He refused to govern and asked Fan Li to act as a regent, yet Fan refused and entrusted Wen Zhong with government affairs. Fan Li himself and baron Zhe Ji 柘稽 went to Wu to serve as hostages to ensure peace. Two years later they returned.

A few years later, when Yue had recovered from the defeat, King Goujian planned a military campaign to take revenge, yet baron Peng Tong 逢同 explained that Yue would not bare a war at such an early point of time. It would be better to use the political situation and to ally with the state of Qi 齊 in the north, with Chu in the west, and the powerful country of Jin 晉 in the northwest. King Fucha of Wu had enemies on all sides and challenged the rights of the venerated royal house of Zhou. A joint attack of these three states would be the only chance for Yue to take revenge for the humiliation by Wu.

This chance came when Wu attacked Qi in the north and so deprived its homeland of the necessary protection against the south, where Yue was located. Wu Zixu had warned King Fucha of Wu, but this warning proved unnecessary because Qi was defeated in the battle of Ailing 艾陵, and Yue did not attack its enemy. At that time an open hostility between the two main politicians of Wu had become apparent. Bo Pi slandered Wu Zixu and accused him of planning a conspiracy against King Fucha. In the end Wu Zixu was forced to commit suicide with a sword.

King Goujian of Yue continued preparing his country for the conquest of Wu. The moment of attack came when King Fucha had assembled the regional rulers in Huangchi 黃池 in order to be proclaimed hegemonial lord (ba 霸). His country of Wu was deprived of all elite troops at that moment. King Goujian invaded Wu with a large and well-trained army, conquered the capital and killed King Fucha's heir apparent. Fucha hastily returned to Wu and asked for peace. King Goujian, well aware that time was not ripe yet, accepted King Fucha's offer of submission.

In the next years the king of Wu fought wars with Qi and Jin and was several times attacked by Yue. King Goujian even besieged King Fucha in his capital Gusu 姑蘇 (modern Suzhou 蘇州, Jiangsu). King Fucha sent out Prince Gongsun Xiong 公孫雄 to ask for pardon. While King Goujian considered displaying the mildness of a victor, Fan Li insisted on not throwing away the chance for which the King Goujian had waited for so long. Still in a gracious mood, King Goujian offered to King Fucha to spare his life and to present him with a small tract of land, yet Fucha refused and killed himself. Both kings admired the loyalty of late Wu Zixu, but Bo Pi was not spared his fate and was executed.

King Goujian then crossed River Huai 淮 northwards and assembled the regional rulers at Xuzhou 徐州 to be proclaimed hegemonial lord. He was for the first time officially given the title of regional ruler by King Yuan of Zhou 周元王 (r. 475-469) and was also awarded the the title of hegemon (bo 伯, i.e. ba). He transferred his capital seat northwards to Langya 琅琊 (near modern Jiaonan 膠南, Shandong). As a gesture of mildness he returned some towns to the states of Chu, Song 宋, and Lu 魯 that the king of Wu had occupied earlier. At that time Fan Li quitted the service of King Goujian, while Wen Zhong only retired. He was accused of planning a rebellion and forced to commit suicide. Fan Li lived on as a hermit in Qi.

The power of the state of Yue waned under the rule of King Yi 翳 (r. 412-376), who moved the capital back southwards to Wu 吳 (modern Suzhou 蘇州, Jiangsu). The last king of Yue was Wuqiang 無彊 (r. 357-333), an eight-generation descendant of King Goujian. King Wuqiang contended for power with the states of Chu and Qi. The king of Qi was able to pursue him to attack Chu in the west that was less well prepared for an attack, and whose downfall was also expected by the states of Han 韓, Wei 魏, and Zhao 趙 in the north. Yet King Wei of Chu 楚威王 (r. 339-329) was able to destroy the army of Yue, and King Wuqiang was killed in battle. Chu occupied the territory of Yue and so controlled the whole southern part of China. The relatives of King Wuqiang tried to revive the kingdom and some even adopted the title of king.

The dynasty lived on in the person of Yao 搖, who was chieftain of the Min tribes of Yue 閩越 in the late 3rd century BCE. He provided troops for the war against the empire of Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and was therefore by Emperor Gaozu 漢高祖 (r. 206-195 BCE), founder of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), rewarded with the title of king of Yue. There were also the supreme chief of the Eastern Yue 東越.

The name of the old state of Yue was many times used for the territories of imperial princes, and in combination with Wu (Wu-Yue 吳越, 907-978) for one of the Ten States 十國 (902-979) of the south after the collapse of Tang empire 唐 (618-907).

Table 1. Rulers of the regional state of Yue 越
Capitals: Guiji 會稽 (modern Shaoxing 紹興, Zhejiang), Langya 琅琊 (near modern Jiaonan 膠南, Shandong), Wu 吳 (modern Suzhou 蘇州, Jiangsu)
dynastic title personal name time
Yunchang, King of Yue 越王允常
Goujian, King of Yue 越王句踐 Si Tanzhi 姒菼執 496-465
Luying, King of Yue 越王鹿郢 Si Shiyu 姒鼫與 or Shi 鼫 465-459
Bushou, King of Yue 越王不壽 Si Yugu 姒育姑 459-449
Weng, King of Yue 越王翁 Si Zhugou 姒朱句 449-412
Yi, King of Yue 越王翳 412-376
Zhihou, King of Yue 越王之侯 Si Zhuqi 姒諸咎 376-375
Chuwuyu, King of Yue 越王初無余 Si Mang'an 姒莽安 375-365
Wuzhuan, King of Yue 越王無顓 Si Tanzhumao 姒菼蠋卯 365-357
Wuqiang, King of Yue 越王無彊 357-333
333 Yue conquered by Chu 楚 and Qi
Shiji 史記, 41, Yue wang Goujian shijia 越王句踐世家.
Luo Shilie 羅世烈 (1992). "Yue 越", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1468.