The tale of Binu (or as she is known more formally, Meng Jiangnu) wailing at the Great Wall has been passed down through generations for two millennia in China; a story that has been told again and again by ordinary people.
In the mythical tale of Binu, a woman’s tears bring the Great Wall crashing down; it is an optimistic tale, not a sorrowful one.
An outline of rolling hills was carved out of the northern sky; between the sky and the hills was the long, curving Great Swallow Mountain Wall.
The Great Wall was in reality a long, unending fence that scaled mountains and climbed hills, stretching into the distance along the mountains contour. It looked like a white coiled dragon, but was actually a fence that straddled mountains; a great many of them, wearing a row of stiff caps and sashes on the peaks, and one of those capped and sashed sections was the Great Swallow Mountain.
The Great Wall of China
The Legend of Meng Jiangnu
The workers on Great Swallow Mountain saw Wan Qiliang’s wife, who, was studded on the top of Broken-Heart Cliff.
Cradling a rock in her arms, she knelt on the cliff and cried. No one could understand how a sickly woman carrying a rock could negotiate those steep hills and narrow rugged paths. Someone said it was a magic frog that had led her there, but not everyone believed him.
Seeing the vultures circling above the woman, someone else said, “Broken-Heart Cliff is so steep and so high, even a frog can’t get up there. It must have been a vulture that took her up”.
Floating clouds drifted over the cliff. Men who were building the wall at mid-slope sometimes saw the tiny figure of Binu when the clouds disappeared. They heard the howling of the wind but not her cries. The porters carrying rocks to higher places gathered on the cliff like clouds, but quickly dispersed.
When they heard at mid-slope that a woman from Blue Cloud Prefecture had dragged a strange trail of water with her, the porters from her home prefecture easily located her by following the water marks. But they shook their heads in disappointment and left when they saw her tearful face.
“It’s not my wife,” each of them said. “I knew my own wife could not endure that much hardship.”
Some people, having heard at the foothills that Wan Qilian’s wife was on the cliff, followed the water trail, still carrying rocks in their baskets, as if running after their own wives. They stopped below Broken-Heart Cliff.
“What a pitiable woman that wife of Wan Qiliang is. She walked a thousand li to deliver winter clothes, but there’s no one to wear them now. Wan Qiliang left nothing behind not even a bone. Look at that winter robe, rolled up on her back. Now there’s no one to wear it.”
All the porters walked past her like floating clouds, except for one called Xiaoman, who had been given an unusual task. Carrying a pair of empty baskets on his pole, he followed the trail up to Broken-Heart Cliff and stopped when he saw Binu. After filling one of the baskets with rocks, he kicked the other one over to Binu.
“You must be Wan Qiliang’s wife. Get into that basket. Shangguan Qing cannot make it up this high, so he told me to put rocks in one basket and you in the other and take you down the mountain.”
Binu looked at the basket, then slowly removed the robe with green piping and put it in the basket.
“Not the robe!” said Xiaoman. “He wants you in the basket.”
Picking up her rock again, Binu said to Xiaoman, “Retribution. This is retribution. Heaven would not permit Qiling to wear a robe that I had taken by force in Five-Grain City.”
Xiaoman had no idea what she was talking about, so he picked up the robe and shook it. “It’s a nice, warm winter robe. Why throw it away instead of that rock? You have no use for the rock now that he’s dead. You cannot change things, no matter how many rocks you offer to the Mountain Deity. Now, hurry up, put on the robe and climb into my basket. I’ll take you down to get Wan Qilian’s tally. That way you’ll receive seven sabre coins.”
Binu kicked the robe away and said again, “Retribution. This is retribution. How could Qiliang possibly wear a robe that was taken by force?”
“Don’t speak to the valleys below. I am talking to you.”
Xiaoman angrily walked over to the cliff’s edge, where he saw a blue mountain mist spreading across the valley.
“There is nothing but the blue mist left. Ever since the accident at Broken-Heart Cliff, the valley has been shrouded in mist, day and night. They say it’s the spirits of the dead. What’s the point of talking to the mist? You can’t take a spirit back with you, anyway.”
Binu pointed down at the valley and opened her mouth, as if to speak, but Xiaoman heard nothing. He saw, instead, her tear-stricken face and drops of sparkling water raining down from her fingers.
“Why all those tears?” Startled by Binu’s mournful face, Xiaoman instinctively covered his eyes and shouted, “I am from Fort Double Dragon at the base of North Mountain. Only a single mountain separates our two villages. I know that people from that region are not allowed to shed tears. When your husband dies, you must cry with your ears, your lips or your hair. How can you shed tears with your eyes? You must cry with your eyes!”
But the tears gushed from her eyes, like spring water spewing across mountains and forests. She appeared to have forgotten the Peach Village Rulebook for Daughters. She cried with abandon and pointed at the valley, while saying something to Xiaoman. But he heard only ear-piercing shrieks.
“A grave, you say? You want a grave?” he tried with difficulty to decipher the words by reading her lips.
“Where am I supposed to find a grave in the valley? This is the great Wall, not Peach Village. You can’t dig a grave wherever you like. There is a potter’s field on the western slope, and that is where all those who died at Great Swallow Mountain are buried. Quick, get into the basket and let me take you there. You can dig a grave for Wan Qiliang.”
Binu’s cracked lips were also brimming with tears, as her cries turned to wails. Her voice was unworldly. Xiaoman suddenly heard something clearly.
“Bones,” she murmered. “Bones, where are the bones?”
“What bones are you talking about? You think you are going to retrieve his bones? You won’t find them. Over a dozen men died in the landslide at broken-heart Cliff, and they are all buried under the rubble. With the wall built on the top of them, they have become part of its foundation.”
Beginning to lose patience, Xiaoman pulled out a ball of hemp and said, “No more crying. Do you know what it is? Shangguan Qing told me to gag you with it. There’s a rule here that, no matter how sad you may be, you cannot cry, not at North Mountain, and not here. General Jianyang hates the sound of weeping, he says it disturbs the workers and delays the work.”
Xiaoman tipped the basket over and pointed to its opening. “Get in, or I’ll be in big trouble. Big Sister, please don’t get me into trouble. You are the wife of Wan Qiliang, and we are from the same area. I’d rather not handle you as if I were moving rocks, so please get in there of your own accord.”
Binu pushed the basket aside and turned away. Xiaoman picked it up and stood in front of her, obviously ready to put his pole to use if necessary.
“We are all unfortunate people,” he said angrily. “You are not the only woman whose husband died, and you are not the only one who wants to cry. My three brothers and I came here together, and now I am the only one left. Yan can cry all you want, but do you know how many people will suffer because of it? I am going to count to three, and then I’ll pick you up if you won’t get in the basket on your own.”
Pointing his pole at Binu, he began to count. Binu stopped crying at the count of one, and struggled to her feet at the count of two. When he counted three, Xiaoman, realized that she was preparing to jump off the cliff. Dropping his pole, he rushed over, grabbed her and carried her back to the basket.
She was light as a feather, but abundant water from her body splashed him in the face. He was rubbing his eyes, which had been forced shut by the tears, when he heard a crackling noise coming from his basket. It was the sound of the willow rotting away from the assault of tears.
“Don’t cry. Your tears are ruining my basket. Without it, we can’t get down, and you’ll have to jump. Then what will I do? I’ll have to jump with you.”
He could not keep his eyes dry, but quickly discovered that the tears were his own. He strained to keep his eyes open, while looping the pole through the basket handles; they snapped off the instant he tried to lift the pole.
“Didn’t I tell you not to cry? See, you’ve ruined the handles of my basket. Now how can I take you down?”
He raised his pole, but it fell to the ground. Then he saw a familiar face, ancient like that of his mother and sad like that of his sister. The woman sat in the basket, like his mother or his sister, crying to him. A watery sky spread out in her eyes and rain began to fall. Xiaoman sat down on his pole and sobbed.
From the valley beneath Broken-Heart Cliff the souls of the dead arose and spread through the air like a fog. The valley was bathed in a tearful white light; the wind and clouds sobbed in mid-air; trees and grass cried on the hills; tears flowed from rocks, from dark green bricks, and from yellow earth on the wall.
A hawk skimmed past Xiaoman’s head, sending drops of cold water down on his forehead; he assumed they were hawk’s tears. He heard the baskets crying to each other; it was impossible to tell which basket cried louder, which was sadder.
The sun shimmered.
Xiaoman was about to search for the sun’s tears when he heard a northern wind rise up and send a gust of yellow sand rolling across the mountains and over the ridges.
Through the flying sand, he saw Wan Qilian’s wife crawl out of the basket and untie the gourd at her waist. He saw her final arrangements for the gourd, and how it tumbled over the wall and rolled down the steep hill.
He could not tell whether she had offered the gourd to the valley or to Qilian’s soul. For the first time in his life, he heard a gourd crack open and saw an eruption of bright shiny tears gush from it, like bolts of lightning. He saw the tears plunge into the valley; Great Swallow Mountain trembled and the Great Wall shook imperceptibly.
An indescribable terror overcame Xiaoman, for he sensed that the mountain was on the verge of splitting open. He cried out to Binu, who was standing at the edge of the cliff, “The Mountain is crumbling. Don’t stand here. Come back to the basket.”
Binu knelt in the sand and wind, and banged against the wall. Finally she was able to cry out, “Qiliang, Qiliang, Qiliang, come out.” She pounded and pounded. “Qiliang, Qiliang, come out or let me in.”
The wall, the store of arrows and the beacon tower all resounded to the pounding of the grieving woman. The rocks and the dirt let out muffled rumbles. Wind was now coming from every direction, hitting Xiaomin in the face with yellow sand that was sharper than knives.
Terrified, he picked up a basket and ran down the slope, but threw it away when he saw that it was now filled with frogs from the ponds and rice fields of Blue Cloud Prefecture that were croaking in a hoarse but unified voice.
He shouted at Binu, “Big Sister, please don’t cry. You cannot cry. The frogs are here to cry in your place.”
He snatched the pole and kept running down the hill. Flowing yellow sand was creating steps down the hill, up which a swarm of beetles was climbing. He knew they were insects that could cry. In the spring, they ate leaves in Blue Cloud Prefecture’s mulberry groves. Each bite of a leaf brought forth a teardrop of remorse.
Xiaoman made way for the beetles and turned to shout, “Big Sister, don’t cry. You’ll run out of tears. You cannot cry. The beetles are here to cry in your place.”
He kept running down the hill, encountering white butterflies with beautiful golden marks etched on the tips of their wings. He knew they were golden thread butterflies, native to North Mountain, where they were rumoured to be the three hundred spirits that had cried for their wronged ancestors.
When he looked up to watch the butterflies flying past him, drops of warm butterfly tears fell on his face.
He wiped his face, and held up his pole to welcome the spirits of his ancestors. But the butterflies did not land on his pole, and he knew that they no longer recognized him. The spirits of his wronged ancestors had forgotten a descendant who had been away for so many years. They had flown over a thousand li to come to Great Swallow Mountain, to cry with Qiliang’s wife at Broken-Heart Cliff.
Xiaoman ran down the hill until he reached a beacon tower, where he met Shangguan Qing and his dejected constables. Carrying ropes in their hands, they headed for higher ground to look in the direction of broken-heart Cliff.
“Where is the woman we told you to carry down?” they demanded to Xiaoman. “Why is she crying on Broker-heart Cliff and making the mountain cake?”
Ignoring their outstretched hands and their ropes, he kept running. He saw a group of workers near a pile of arrows; they had put their work aside and were engaged in a heated discussion. They waved when they saw him. “Stop running. There is no more work. Even General Jianyang has stopped working. He has mounted his horse and is following a bird back to the steppe.”
“You can’t work even if you want to.” Xiaoman shouted back at them. “Wan Qiliang’s wife’s tears have brought down the Great Wall.”
He turned and pointed at the cliff. “Can you hear that? Listen! It is the sound of the mountain crumbling. The wall at broken-heart Cliff has collapsed. Wan Qiliang and the others are rising up from the ground!”