Review updated Feb. 10, 2022
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.
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; pinyin: Mèng 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.
The novel follows the myth for the most part, at least in terms of highlights, and the myth goes as follows:
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:
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.