Fan Li was originally a native of Wan, in the Kingdom of Chu. He was not a man concerned with the details of etiquette. Often, he did things beyond the expectations of other people. People of his homeland called him, “Fan Li the Crazy”. When Wen Zhong came to be the magistrate of Wan, he heard of the Fan Li’s reputation. He sent subordinates to summon Fan Li. The subordinates said, “That Fan Li is the famous crazy man of this land. Nothing he does makes any sense.” Wen Zhong smiled, “When a man try to do something different, other people always say that he is mad. When he has a superior opinion, the common of wit will call him stupid. How can you understand Master Fan Li?” So Wen Zhong went to visit Fan Li himself, but Fan Li avoided him. Fan Li expected that Wen would not give up so easily, so he borrowed some proper clothes from his brother. When Wen came back, Fan Li was ready. The two talked and found that they had much in common.
They both felt the kingdoms were weak. The kingdom of Chu was large, but chaotic. The only kingdoms which could rise to command the rest were located at south-east. Wen Zhong resigned his position and went to the kingdom of Wu with Fan Li. At the time, the king of Wu’s favourite was Wu Zhixu. The two lived in the capital for a few month and saw that Wu Zhixu was indeed a wise man. They were not necessarily better than him.
After some discussion, they decided that although Yue was a smaller kingdom, but they could put their talents to use there. Goujian received them warmly and gave them both high positions.
Then Goujian ignored the advise of Wen Zhong and made war with Wu. His army was defeated by the shore of Chiang Tang River. Goujian was surrounded at Kuaiji Mountain and almost died along with his kingdom, but he listened to the advise of Fan Li and Wen Zhong and bribed the Prime Minister of Wu. Fuchai then listened to the Prime Minister instead of the wiser Wu Zhixu and agreed to a peace treaty. Goujian lived in Wu as a hostage for a few years, but he was released later. Then Goujian slept only on beds made of thorny branches and tasted the bitter juice of beef gall bladders to remind himself of the humiliations he suffered. He used Wen Zhong’s Nine Methods to subvert Wu and strengthen Yue.
The Nine Methods were. One, pay respect to the gods and spirits. Two, give Fuchai vast amount of money so he will feel secure as well as becoming soft in luxury. Three, borrow food from Wu and return seeds which will not grow, causing famine in Wu. Four, give Fuchai beautiful women such as Xi Shi and Cheng Dang, so Fuchai would be paying more attention to the beautiful women rather than the affairs of the state. Five, give Fuchai engineers so he started building expensive palaces which drained the economy of the country. Six, bribe the ministers of Wu. Seven, distance Fuchai from his wise ministers. The wise Wu Zhixu was eventually forced to commit suicide as punishment of a false charge of treason. Eight, hoard food so the kingdom of Yue will have great reserve available. Nine, make weapons, train soldier and wait for the chance.
Eight methods have succeeded, but the ninth had run into great difficulty. Everyone could tell that the eight warriors of Wu were better than anyone Yue could produce. Fan Li told Wen Zhong the results of the contest. Wen Zhong frowned, “Brother Fan Li, the sharpness of their swords is a major problem, also the way their swordsmen worked together in groups in accordance to Sunzi’s Art of War.” Fan Li said, “Yes, decades ago, when Sunzi helped the King of Wu. They destroyed Chu, the most powerful kingdom in the world at the time. In his book, it’s said, “If I concentrate my forces and the enemy’s forces is fragmented into ten parts then I can use my unified one to attack his ten fragments. Then I will outnumber my enemy and the battle will be over.” Wu used this principle to achieve local superiority against our swordsmen.”
When they talk they arrived in front of Goujian. Goujian was staring at the gift sword. After a long while, Goujian lifted up his head and said, “Minister Wen. Years ago, Wu had the husband-wife team of sword smiths, Gan Jiang and Mo Ye. Yue had Ouyezi. Now, all three have died. Wu still have great sword smiths, yet we have no one to succeed Ouyezi.”
Wen Zhong said, “I have heard that Ouyezi had two students. One is named Feng Huzi, the other is called Xue Zhu. Feng Huzi is in the kingdom of Chu. Xue Zhu is still in Yue.”
Goujian became glad and said, “Summon him. And order someone to go to Chu with gold so we can get Feng Huzi here as well.”
The next morning, Wen Zhong reported that he already sent someone to Chu. Meanwhile, Xue Zhu was already here. Goujian granted Xue Zhu an audience and asked, “Your master Ouyezi once followed my father’s order and forged five swords. How do you grade those five swords?”
Xue Zhu said, “I have heard my master said that he forged five swords for the king. Three large swords and two small swords. They are Trembling Reed, Pure Edge, Defeater of Evil, Fish Intestine and the Great Tower. Now, the Trembling Reed is in Chu. Defeater of Evil and Fish Intestine are in Wu. Your Majesty still have Pure Edge and Great Tower.”
Years ago, the Prince Helu of Wu heard of the swords and asked Goujian’s father for some of the swords. Goujian’s father feared the might of Wu and gave Helu Trembling Reed, Defeater of Evil and Fish Intestine. Using Fish Intestine, Helu assassinated his cousin the king and took the throne. Trembling Reed fell into a river and was acquired by the King of Chu. King of Qin heard of this and asked for it. Even after a few wars, the King of Chu still refused to give it up.
Xue Zhu said, “My master said, of the five swords, Defeater of Evil is of the highest grade. Pure Edge and Trembling Reed are next. Fish Intestine is lower and Great Tower ranks last. When Great Tower was forged, the alloy was not pure, so it was only a sharp sword and not a truly precious sword.”
Goujian said, “Are you saying my Pure Edge and Great Tower are not as good as Fuchai’s Defeater of Evil and Fish Intestine?”
Xue Zhu dare not admit that Goujian’s swords was inferior, but Goujian knew the answer anyway.
Fan Li said, “You have the skill of your master. You can forge a few swords of your own. They might not be inferior to those owned by Wu.”
Xue Zhu said, “I cannot forge swords anymore.”
Fan Li asked, “Why?”
Xue Zhu held up his hands. On both his hands, the thumb and the index fingers were gone. He said sadly, “Thumbs and index fingers are required for forging swords. I am a cripple.”
Goujian said, “Did you enemy cut away your fingers?”
Xue Zhu said, “No, my fellow student did it.” “Your fellow student? You mean Feng Huzi? Why did he doe it? Ah! It must be that you have greater skill than he. He became jealous and cut away your fingers.” Xue Zhu remained silent.
Goujian said, “I was thinking about inviting Feng Huzi from Chu, but now I see he won’t come because he fears your vengeance.”
Xue Zhu said, “Your Majesty is indeed wise, but Feng Huzi is no longer in Chu. He is in Wu.
Goujian said, “He…He’s in Wu? What’s he doing there?”
Xue Zhu said, “Three years ago, Feng Huzi came to my home and took out a precious sword for me to inspect. I was astounded. That sword was forged by my master for Chu. It is named the Flowing Fabric. The blade was full of runes that flowed like water. I heard from my master that he forged three swords for Chu. That was one, the others were Dragon Spring and Ching Ah.”