THERE are so many legends about the Great Wall, one of the world’s greatest architectural masterpieces, but of these mythical stories, “Tears that Bring Down the Great Wall,” stands out as the most famous and widely spread folktale.
This story, sometimes called “Lady Meng Jiang’s Bitter Weeping Brings Down the Great Wall,” is also one of the “Four Great Chinese Folktales.”
The others are “The Butterfly Lovers,” “Legend of the White Snake,” and the “Cowherd and Weaver Girl.”
People often credit Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC), the First Emperor of a unified China, as the builder of the Great Wall. But construction of the wall actually started during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (476-221 BC), long before Qin Shi Huang’s time.
And it was later rebuilt several times.
But, the First Emperor did order additional construction and the connection of various sections of defensive walls to form the Great Wall in northern China to fend off nomadic invaders.
To build this gigantic wall, thousands of able-bodied men around the country were forced to work on the construction site under extremely harsh conditions as corvee (unpaid) labor. And Lady Meng Jiang’s husband was one of them.
Many versions of the story have been told and retold over the time, with different plots, twists and conclusions. But generally, it goes like this:
During the years of China’s First Emperor, a young lady called Meng Jiang was just married to handsome young man living in her neighborhood. But before their honeymoon was over, Meng Jiang’s husband was snatched away from their home by government officials and was then sent to the remote north of the country to build a long, defensive wall.
Weeks turned into months and soon winter descended, but the newly wed young lady hadn’t heard anything from her husband and she missed him so badly.
One night, she dreamed of her husband. In the dream, the young man looked gaunt and he shivered terribly in the bitter cold wind. He called out to his wife, telling her how cold he was.
So, next morning, Lady Meng Jiang made up her mind to travel to the construction site of the Great Wall to meet her husband there and bring him some warm clothes.
After a long, hard journey through rivers and mountains, Lady Meng Jiang finally reached the Great Wall.
But, she couldn’t find her husband, and soon she learned from others that her husband had already died.
But where’s his body or bones? No one could tell her for sure. Someone said her husband and several other laborers could had been buried in the wall after they died.
Hearing that, Lady Meng Jiang was so heartbroken that she began to wail loudly at the foot of the Great Wall.
She wept incessantly for three days and nights. Then suddenly, a section of the wall near her collapsed, exposing a pile of white bones.
But she still couldn’t identify which bones were her husband’s, so she bit her fingers and dropped her blood onto the bones there. She believed that her blood would only soak her husband’s bones.
Soon after Lady Meng Jiang collected her husband’s bones, she was dragged to front of the First Emperor, who had just arrived on the scene after being told that part of the Great Wall had crumbled because of a weeping young widow.
At first, the emperor was furious, but when he saw Lady Meng Jiang, he was immediately attracted by her beauty. So, instead of punishing her, he asked to take her back to the imperial palace to serve him as a concubine.
The young widow agreed, but on three conditions.
First, a grand funeral should be held for her late husband; second, top officials, including the emperor himself should be present at the funeral; and third, a high platform to be built on the sea near the Great Wall, where she could make a sacrificial offering to the deceased.
Reluctantly, the emperor granted the widow’s three requests.
But , when Lady Meng Jiang got her third wish and ascended to the top of the seaside platform alone, she began to scold the emperor furiously for his tyranny and his cruel policies of oppressing the people and exhausting the nation’s resources.
Then, she threw herself into the sea.
The emperor immediately ordered his soldiers to jump into the sea to catch her.
Just then, the Dragon King of the Sea and his princess, who sympathized with the brave young woman, rushed to the scene and quickly escorted her away to their underwater palace.
Meanwhile, they also made great waves to stop the emperor’s soldiers from chasing Lady Meng Jiang.
No one has seen the lady or her body ever since.
The basic plot of “Tears that Bring Down the Great Wall” came from earlier tales.
In one such story, a young woman wailed over the corpse of her husband, who was killed in battle, at the foot of the city wall.
The sincerity of her grief moved all onlookers to tears. And her incessant weeping eventually caused a corner of the wall to collapse.
Also, different versions of Lady Meng Jiang’s story often offer different interpretations.
Some versions extoll the virtue of fidelity, some lament over the sadness of parting in life and death and others point to the spirit of fighting tyranny.
Since the 18th century, Lady Meng Jiang’s story has been rendered into ballads, dramas, operas, movies, novels, songs and many other art forms.
Regardless, Lady Meng Jiang remains a household name.
CHINA boasts a very long history and a rich cultural heritage. Many ancient traditions are still very much alive.
Some, such as taichi and Chinese Chess, are ubiquitous.
Others, like Suzhou embroidery and Thangka art, are preserved in specific regions or practiced by different ethnic groups.
In this column, writer Peter Zhang and arts editor Chen Jie will offer readers insight into some of the most popular living cultural practices in the country, as well as some of the fascinating stories behind each of them.
This series of articles is also intended to help readers obtain a better understanding of traditional Chinese culture and the people who helped create it.