In Retelling of Classic Myth, Tears Bring Down the Great Wall

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The British publisher Canongate launched its Myths series in 2005, undertaking an ambitious project which called upon renowned authors to retell world myths. Some of the more notable contributors include Nigeria's Chinua Achebe and Canada's Margaret Atwood. Representing China is the lyrical Su Tong, who wrote the story "Raise the Red Lantern," which director Zhang Yimou made into an Oscar-nominated film.

In "Binu and the Great Wall," Tong reinterprets the myth of Meng Jiangnu, a woman whose grief for her husband causes a flood of tears strong enough to raze a section of the Great Wall to the ground. Tong handily transforms the faceless characters of the legend into walking and talking tragedies, each with their own compelling sorrows and thwarted dreams. He does this partly by creating exotic locales foreign to the original myth, each of which is peopled with strange characters who pose obstacles for Binu (his name for Meng Jiangnu). A blind frog dogs her footsteps, boys who live as deer try to sell her into slavery, and handicapped men missing their hands or legs mock her endlessly.

As Tong imagines it, Binu grows up in a mountain village where crying is taboo: Years ago, when the king's exiled uncle died on the surrounding slopes, the king executed all three hundred villagers who wept at the funeral.

As a result, Binu and her peers are taught to shed their tears in other ways, such as through their ears, lips and even breasts. Binu, however, has trouble containing her sadness, so that her tears are continually flying in the air and landing on people's faces. This shortcoming earns the villagers' derision, severely limiting her marriage prospects. She marries the orphan Wan Qiliang, and the marriage is a happy one-at least until Qiliang is press-ganged into working on the Great Wall at Great Swallow Mountain.

The symbolism of tears changes as Binu embarks on a quest to bring Qiliang warm winter clothes. From a precursor of death, tears become a harbinger of life. Binu's tears (which are apparently as big as pearls and have five different flavors) are discovered to be the missing ingredient in an ancient recipe for longevity, and they ultimately become an instrument of resurrection.

Nobody Binu meets understands the urgency of her mission, but Tong's sensitive prose and unusual imagery conveys the intensity of her emotions. In the beginning, as Binu trudges tirelessly towards Great Swallow Mountain, an "invisible patina of tears" wells up in the imprints of her footsteps. When she becomes too tired to walk, she crawls until she lies "flat on the ground, one side of her face the color of mud."

After a journey as long and winding as the Great Wall itself, the story climaxes amid the mountains in a flood of tears: "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"-to say nothing of Binu's own tears.

Despite this deluge, the novel's final words provide an impermeable front of optimism. Tong writes in the preface that Binu's tears "enable her to resolve one of life's great predicaments." The ending is such an illuminating revelation that it not only resolves Binu's personal calamity, but it delivers a universal message of empowerment. Tong's retelling elevates the status of the original story, for in his modern version of the myth, Binu's sorrow is not unique, and neither is her quest: We are all Binu, and we all want to go to the Great Wall.

Tags: ASHBY STAGE, OPERA PICCOLA


Cry a river with Angela at [email protected]



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