Binu and the Great Wall, by Su Tong – Review

Review updated Feb. 10, 2022

👉Back to Getting the Hang of the Chinese Novel

Su Tong wrote the immensely depressing novel Rice, which is about poor Chinese people in the 1930s who make each other even more tormented than they already are, and it ends more wretchedly than it begins.

Rice, by Su Tong

The Tale of Meng

Thankfully, Binu and the Great Wall is decidedly less in-your-face harrowing. Tong’s Binu and the Great Wall is his retelling of one of China’s classical myths, “The Tale of Meng” or Meng Jiang Nü (Chinese: 孟姜女; pinyinMèng Jiāng Nǚ) . The tale has many variations, and is now counted as one of China’s Four Great Folktales, the others being the Legend of the White Snake (Baishezhuan), Butterfly Lovers, and The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid (Niulang Zhinü). Chinese folklorists in the early 20th century discovered that the legend existed in many forms and genres and evolved over the last 2,000 years. A reconstructed temple dedicated to Meng, called the Temple of Lady Meng Jiang or the Mengjiang Girl Temple, still exists in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province, China, today.

Tong Zhonggui (Chinese: 童忠贵; pinyin: Tóng Zhōngguì; born January 23, 1963), known by the pen name of Su Tong (苏童; 蘇童; Sū Tóng) is a Chinese writer. He was born in Suzhou and lives in Nanjing. (Source: Wikipedia)

The novel follows the myth for the most part, at least in terms of highlights, and the myth goes as follows:

“According to Chinese legend, the Meng family – consisting of an old childless couple, lived next door to the Jiang family – also an old childless couple – in Jiangnan. One year, Old Man Meng planted a gourd vine. The vine grew over to the neighbours’ side of the fence and bore a gourd there. The Jiang and Meng families decided to split the gourd. When they cut the gourd in half, the old people found a chubby girl child inside. The childless old folk were surprised and delighted. Both the Meng family and the Jiang family wanted the child for their own and started arguing over her. After mediation by neighbours, it was decided that this daughter would belong to both families. She was named Meng Jiang Nu, (“nu” means woman) and the two families raised her together.

When Meng Jiang was grown, she decided to marry a young man named Fan Xiliang. Unfortunately, on their wedding day, soldiers came to take Xiliang away to build the Great Wall. The life of a forced labourer on the Great Wall was rife with deprivation and starvation. When a year passed without any news from Xiliang, Meng Jiang decided to go look for him. She reached the Great Wall after an arduous journey only to be told by the conscripted labourers that Xiliang had been worked to death. The dead workers were buried under the Great Wall. Upon hearing this news, Meng Jiang began to wail loudly and hit the wall. A huge chunk of the Great Wall collapsed, revealing countless mounds of human bones. Meng Jiang Nv bit her own finger tip, testing each skeleton with her own blood, praying for a sign – if the skeleton absorbed the blood, it was her husband’s. When she finally found Xiliang’s bones, she clung on to them and wept.

The angry Emperor of Qin Dynasty (221 B.C. – 206 B.C.) came to survey the damage done to his project. But when he saw Meng Jiang, the cause of the damage, he was enchanted by her beauty and wanted to marry her. Meng Jiang said she would only marry him on three conditions – first, her former husband was to be given a grand burial; second, the emperor and his court must go into mourning for Xiliang; and third, she wanted to visit the ocean. Much as the emperor hated the idea of officially mourning a commoner, he agreed so he could gain this rare beauty. After Meng Jiang got her third wish, she scolded the Emperor bitterly and cast herself into the ocean. The Emperor sent his men to dredge the ocean but the waves chased them away. It so happened that the Dragon King of the Sea and his daughter the Dragon Princess felt sympathy for Meng Jiang and spirited her away to their underwater Dragon Palace. Then they commanded their army of shrimps and crabs to raise a storm, repelling the Emperor’s men.”

The Myth of Meng Jiang Nu (Source of text & image: vistourchina)

Bearing this in mind, one should also remember that Chinese fiction writers sometimes disguise their criticism of anything Chinese, as Science Fiction or Fantasy, or as a myth or fairytale embedded in the text. (Read the explanation here.) What you read may in fact refer to something outside of the text.

Very hard to read

Even knowing the context, the story of Binu and the Great Wall is difficult to digest for Western readers, because of the frequent odd shifts in tone and style. 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.”

Binu and the Great Wall, by Su Tong, 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. (This reminds me of Mai Jia’s “Rong Jinzhen” character in his novel Decoded, ranting at God.)

This kind of depiction, which is common in the novel, would be regarded as just unimaginably badly written if it were in an English novel. The reasoning is that readers empathize with characters who are like them, and this seems like a description of an actor in a Chinese opera, so there is very little chance of the average English reader understanding and therefore liking the character. Therefore, the writing would be seen as ineffective or flawed.

A depiction of Taoist life

The novel is as much about the habits, beliefs, geography and peoples of ancient China, as is is about Binu’s suffering. The subtext of the novel is probably a description of a Taoist life, characterized 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 and endures, 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, dragging along a rock.

The fact that her tears brings down the Great Wall is scant consolation, since by then, she knows her husband is dead, and then she too dies. Binu, by her inaction, seems to embody the Taoist wu-wei philosophy, yielding to greater forces and thereby achieving perfection and harmony with nature. However, this may be over-simplifying the characterization and the intent of the author.

Regardless of the gloomy ending that matches the myth, one has to wonder what Tong meant with this retelling and the ending as it is. If this is an intensive kind of mimesis, then one could say that it depicts life in China at some point prior to the book’s publication in English in 2008. It can be that the story about supernatural powers and imaginary creatures is presented as normal and plainly visible, in order to convey criticism of the establishment and established beliefs. Which beliefs, which parts of the establishment or which occurrences Tong had in mind, I would not be able to guess, nor would I dare to.

About M. Bijman

Avid reader, longtime writer of book reviews and literary analyses. Interested in literature, creativity and cognition, language and linguistics, musicology, and technology. Occasionally writes poems and bits of music.

0 comments on “Binu and the Great Wall, by Su Tong – Review

Say something

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s