Binu and the Great Wall, by Su Tong

Binu and the Great Wall, by Su Tong

(English edition, Canongate U.S. 2008)

Style and premise puzzling to Western readers

Su Tong is the writer of the immensely depressing novel Rice, which is about poor Chinese people who make each other even more tormented than they already are, and ends more wretchedly than it begins. His novel, Binu and the Great Wall, (translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt) has much the same effect on the reader, but not only due to the unsympathetic characters and unsettling plot.

Taxing tone and imagery

The text of the bleak and puzzling novel is made difficult to digest by odd use of tone. For example: Binu meets a group of aggressive women who are about to be sold as slaves in a “people market”, who comment on her appearance: “Look at her delicate moth eyebrows, her phoenix eyes and her willowy waist, a classic beauty.“ (p.66) Here, the baseness of the situation and the malevolence of the protagonists are not reflected in their language. In another example, Binu reminds her captor of his mother, grandmother and sisters. “As he cried, he called out ‘Mother! Grandmother! Sister!’ Binu, who was still gagged, did not respond, and the boy anxiously tore the gag from her mouth and cried out again, ‘Mum!’” (119) There, formal “Mother” becomes informal “Mum” in the space of one paragraph. These inconsistencies occur throughout the story.

Rice, by Su Tong
Rice, by Su Tong

Sometimes the idioms are so mixed up it makes one’s eyes water: “Binu’s face, bathed in tears, was illuminated by the white light of suffering, which stung her eyes.“ (p.119) Characters may, in a single incident, move through a whole range of emotions, seemingly without motivation. At one point, Binu is first “embarrassed and enraged, and hides her mouth with her sleeve”, then she “screams, and her lips move a few times, she covers her eyes with her sleeve”, then “her lips were moving but nothing came out. All [they] heard were fragile, baby-like sobs”, and finally she “sits on the ground and cries, her tears flying in all directions”, her “wails drawing the attention of gate guards.” (pp.193,194) Screams, sobs, cries, and wails all in a few paragraphs.

A classical myth

The tale of Binu is the retelling of one of China’s classical myths that has been passed down through generations for millennia. It is the subject of classical Chinese opera in the Romeo and Juliet vein, and in 1955, legendary Chinese actress Ivy Ling Po starred in a film of the story called “Meng Jiangnü’s Wail Shattered The Great Wall”. The story of Binu, or Meng Jiangnü as she is also known, dates from the time of Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, a Chinese sovereign and cultural hero who is considered in Chinese mythology to be the ancestor of all Han Chinese. Huangdi reigned from 2697 BC to 2598 BC, and many legends are told about his reign.

The Temple of Meng Jiangnü in Chan hai kouan [Shanhaiguan], Great Wall of China, taken in 1907 by Edouard Chavannes, now in Musée Guimet, Paris (www.culture.gouv.fr)
It being a myth, the reader encounters story-telling devices such as repetition, pattern-like occurrences and fantastical creatures and happenings. The tale contains a talking, blind frog which is the spirit of a dead woman looking for her son, an emperor who moves overland in a giant, golden ship, and boys who are roam a forest like magical deer. These devices do not make the novel more palatable, rather, it makes the style even more laboured.

More than a touch of Taosim

This novel is as much about the habits, beliefs, geography and peoples of ancient china as Binu’s travails. The subtext of the novel is in effect a description of a Taoist life, characterised strongly by Chinese fatalism. Binu is buried alive, locked up with a coffin, kept as a slave fit only for shedding tears, beaten up, stuck in a pillory, robbed and taken for a prostitute. All this, she suffers, not fighting back, only crying and resigning herself to her fate.  In the end, blinded and lamed, she crawls to the mountain where she thinks her husband is working on the Great Wall, dragging along a rock. The fact that her tears bring down the Wall is scant consolation since by then, she knows her husband is dead, and then she too, dies.

Not knowing much about Taoism, I found myself unmoved by Binu’s tribulations and irritated by her fatalism and eagerness to die.  The first Taoist writings date from the 5th century BC by Laozi. Under Communism, Taoism was denounced as fatalistic, superstitious and passive. It was neither progressive nor moral enough to be of use. However, the many influences of Taoism are still evident (medicine, qi gong etc). Most people in China will encounter these concepts in their daily lives.

Classical Taoist philosophy was a reinterpretation and development of an ancient nameless tradition of nature worship and divination. Taoists called their approach to action wuwei (literally, “no-action”), the origin, some believe, of typical Chinese fatalism and passivity.

Taoists believe that artisans understood the secret of art and the art of living. Binu’s husband is an artisan who has a special skill in tending nine mulberry trees, which Binu finds particularly admirable – and which forms a major part of their sexual attraction to each other (89).

Chinese utopian writings also often bore a Taoist stamp. The novel is full of scenes of rivers, valleys and mountains that are described in glowing, sentimental terms. “There were plenty of white butterflies in Pingyang Prefecture, but the women had never seen such a dense cloud of them. They flew low, with traces of the warm southern sunlight on their wings, looking like a colourful sash with white piping on its way towards Great Swallow Mountain.”

Some Taoists believed that spirits pervaded nature (both the natural world and the internal world within the human body). In the novel, the spirits of deer in the forest inhabit lost boys, who are hunted. “She thought she was seeing things, so she rubbed her eyes and looked again. No mistake. The boy’s figure had disappeared, and a deer now stood on Qinsu’s coffin.” (p.181) The spirit of a dead woman lives in a dumb frog which hops along with Binu and foretells the future.  When Binu is desperate, she flees to a river, or lies in the ground, or is kept warm with oat stalks. “Binu looked down at Qinsu’s coffin and saw that it was framed by the fruits of a fine harvest. The night was over, and the coffin lid was covered by newly harvested oats on which translucent, crystalline dewdrops rested.” (p.165).

To Taoists, the essence of life can be appreciated by observing the flow of water, which takes the path of least resistance and most natural flow.  The novel’s recurring theme is Binu’s cataclysmic flow of tears. Like a river, her tears run, flooding houses, towns and eventually bringing down the Great Wall of China.

In Taoism, every action reduces the range of one’s options. Not taking premature or unnecessary actions keeps all of one’s options open, so that the most appropriate action remains available. Binu frequently opts for taking no action at all, other than crying. “She was about to answer when she recalled the warning to control her tongue, so she merely pointed to the north….Binu knew that telling the truth would only bring her trouble, but she didn’t know how to lie, so she bit her tongue and kept silent…She opened her mouth but was once again reminded of the warning from the woman so she covered her mouth with her sleeve…” (pp.188, 189)

No connect, no comprehension

Even realising, eventually, that the characters act according to Taoist beliefs does not make this novel more pleasant to read. Perhaps the answer lies in the process of writing itself, in which the author hopes to engage a readership in a shared understanding, drawing heavily on the thoughts and feelings prevalent in the audience they imagine they are addressing. I felt that Su Tong had made no attempt to connect with Western readers and in so doing, failed to satisfy them.

However, this novel, like his others, has received critical acclaim from his primary market, Chinese readers.  Su Tong has been hailed as China’s most provocative young writer. Binu and the Great Wall has been described by the press as “spellbinding and shocking—a tour de force”. The author himself has been quoted as saying “My books don’t sell,” and “nobody reads anymore”. Based on my readings of Binu and the Great Wall as well as Rice, I am not surprised.


About the Author

Su Tong, 2011 (Photo: The Guardian)
Su Tong, 2011 (Photo: The Guardian)

Su Tong (simplified Chinese: 苏童; traditional Chinese: 蘇童; pinyin: Sū Tóng, (born January 23, 1963 in Suzhou is the pen name of Chinese writer Tong Zhonggui (童忠贵 Tóng Zhōngguì). He was born in Suzhou and is now based in Nanjing. He entered into the Department of Chinese of Beijing Normal University in 1980 and started to publish novels in 1983. He is now the vice president of Jiangsu Writers Association. Known for his controversial writing style, Su is one of the most acclaimed novelists in China. He has written seven full-length novels and over 200 short stories, some of which had been translated into English, German, Italian and French. He is best known for his book Wives and Concubines in the West, published in 1990. The book was adapted into the film, Raise the Red Lantern by director Zhang Yimou. The book has since been published under the name given to the film. In 2009, he was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize for his work The Boat to Redemption, the second Chinese writer to win the prize. In 2011, Su Tong was nominated to win the “Man Booker International Prize”.

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