Books

Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.

Binu and The Great Wall

The Myth of Meng

by Su Tong

“This, in its own curious way, is a wonderful read—with all of a fairy tale’s leaps and turns and queer, vivid images. . . A masterful retelling of an ancient fairy story.” —Kirsty Gunn, The Observer

  • Imprint Canongate U.S.
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date March 06, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-1-8419-5915-3
  • Dimensions 5" x 7.75"
  • US List Price $24.00
  • Imprint Canongate U.S.
  • Publication Date December 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9772-6
  • US List Price $24.00

About The Book

From the author of the international hit Raise the Red Lantern comes a gorgeous reimagining of the myth of the girl whose tears collapsed the Great Wall—the seminal myth in Chinese culture.

Su Tong is China’s most provocative young writer. His three books published in the United States (Rice, Raise the Red Lantern, and My Life as Emperor) have received high praise from critics and fellow writers. Binu and the Great Wall is spellbinding and shocking—a tour de force from an artist called “a writer to watch” by Kirkus Reviews and “a true literary talent” by Anchee Min.

In Peach village, crying is forbidden. But as a child, Binu never learned to hide her tears. Shunned by the villagers, she faced a bleak future until she met Qiliang, an orphan who offered her his hand in marriage. Then, one day, Qiliang disappears. Binu learns that he has been transported hundreds of miles and forced to labor on a project of terrifying ambition and scale—the building of the Great Wall. Binu is determined to find and save her husband. Inspired by her love, she sets out on an extraordinary journey toward Great Swallow Mountain with only a blind frog for company. What follows is an unforgettable story of passion, hardship, and magical adventure.

Praise

“Su Tong . . . breathes fresh life into a 2,000-year-old Chinese story of poverty and class, power and powerlessness . . . Binu’s epic journey is . . . rife with familiar archetypes—including hidden identities, large-than-life traveling companions, new lands and laws, and protracted vignettes—that often exist in oral stories. But most captivating is the tale’s vivid, magical-realist landscape . . . this message, embodied in a sorrowful, headstrong protagonist unafraid to die or act outside the crowd, reaches across geographical walls to inspire people to fight government control and censorship”” —Chicago Tribune

“Su Tong . . . breathes life into one of China’s oldest myths.” —The Bloomsbury Review

“Su Tong turns his attention to refurbishing a Chinese legend, coming up with a fascinating though brutal fairytale that celebrates the (heroic?) efficacy of suffering . . . magic and savagery mingle in a bizarre, episodic yarn that ends with Binu’s tears shaking the very foundations of the Great Wall.” —PRI’s “The World”

“Tong’s version of this legend flashes with beauty . . . a magical missive from another time and place that still rings with the universality its message.” —Siobhan Murphy, Metro (UK)

“So memorable and so visual and her quest is on par with all of the better known European myths.” —Revish

“A magical, vast and curious story” —Emma Jacobs, Financial Times

“. . . the painterly quality of Tong’s words is striking.” —Bettany Hughes, The Times

“This, in its own curious way, is a wonderful read—with all of a fairy tale’s leaps and turns and queer, vivid images. . . A masterful retelling of an ancient fairy story.” —Kirsty Gunn, The Observer

Praise for China’s preeminent storyteller, Su Tong:

“Riveting . . . Rice ensnares; no matter how extreme and operatic in content, you simply cannot not believe it. Balzac and Zola would have recognized a kindred spirit in Su Tong.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“[A] gorgeous bloodbath of a novel . . . Tong’s lush prose style . . . provides the perfect counterpoint, as well as startling detail and texture, to the perilous court life it recounts. . . . Powerful allegory.” —Publishers Weekly on My Life as Emperor

Excerpt

Crying

The people who live at the foot of North Mountain cannot cry, even today. Grey-haired adults seize the opportunity to instruct future generations; they point to North Mountain and recall the tragedy that occurred so many years ago. “Child,” they say, “other people’s ancestors lie beneath the ground, but the spirits of our ancestors roam the slopes of North Mountain. Why do you think those white butterflies flit about the mountain? And what about the scarab beetles that scurry back and forth across mountain paths? They are the spirits of our ancestors who were wronged; that is why. They are trying to find their North Mountain gravesites. Other people’s ancestors died of starvation and illness, or of old age, or in war. But our ancestors died of injustice. Guess, child, I want you to guess. Why did they die? Ah, you can guess all you want, but you will never get the right answer. heir eyes were the cause of their deaths; they drowned in their own tears!”

The wild vegetation on the mountain was ideal for eating and its spring water perfect for drinking—except for the water in the pool that formed when water ran down the mountain slope and into Lord Xintao’s empty grave—according to the Kindling Village sorceresses, who were the source of all local knowledge.

No one now could recall what Lord Xintao had looked like when he lived as a hermit on North Mountain, but no one dared drink that water, for that would be tantamount to drinking from a pool of tears, the accumulated tears of three hundred ancient spirits, covered by a layer of sweet rainwater.

Lord Xintao’s funeral had alarmed the king; he forbade people to cry and positioned armies of court officials and prefecture soldiers half-way up the mountain to examine mourners as they came down the mountain. Some passed through the blockade without incident, others were stopped, their cheeks and eyes subjected to intense scrutiny; three hundred villagers whose tears had yet to dry were detained half-way down the mountain. The tears they had shed at Lord Xintao’s funeral were about to cost them their lives. High officials and members of the royalty knew of the new law, but not the villagers who lived at the foot of North Mountain.

Blue Cloud Prefecture and the cities of the north were far off on the other side of the mountain; news of the outside world seldom reached them. All year round, they talked only of tilling fields and planting crops. Long after it had happened, the people learned that Lord Xintao had been exiled to North Mountain by the King, his back tattooed in gold with the King’s command, condemning him to death in a frozen climate. But Lord Xintao lived on until Qingming, the day set aside for sweeping graves, when he looped a strip of white silk over a beam in his hut and hanged himself. The people living at the foot of the mountain, simple folk who held stubbornly to their beliefs, knew only that Lord Xintao was the King’s uncle; his royal blood alone made him deserving of their reverence, and added to that was respect for anyone who lived the life of a recluse.

On the day of his funeral they ran down the mountain, overcome with sorrow for the departed and unaware that their tears were to be their undoing. To this day, the villagers at the foot of North Mountain dare not shed a tear on pain of death. The descendants of the weeping spirits were scattered throughout the Peach Village, Kindling Village and Millstone Village area, where even young children understood their ancestry. In Peach Village and Millstone Village, the right to cry was, in the main, determined by age.

Once a child learned to walk, he was no longer permitted to cry. The residents of Kindling Village, on the other side of the river, imposed an outright prohibition on crying, with no exceptions, not even for newborn babies; the honour or disgrace of these “opposite-bank” residents was directly linked to their sons’ and daughters’ tear ducts. Village women, in an impassioned attempt to hold their heads up in the company of others, sought the ministrations of sorcerers, and most of the clever women had command of the proper magic to prevent crying: they fed their infants a concoction of mother’s milk and juice of wolfberry and mulberry; when the recipients of this red liquid were fully fed, they fell into a long, peaceful sleep. There were occasional recalcitrant children whom no one seemed able to stop from crying, making the Kindling Village mothers worry endlessly. They had a secret means of relieving their vexations, so mysterious it invited all sorts of fantastic speculation. Residents of neighbouring villages would gaze across the river and wonder at the peace and quiet of Kindling Village, that and the visible decrease in its population.

The primary cause of both, they concluded, was the absence of crying children. Those children who cried—how could they all simply disappear? The impoverished state of North Mountain persisted, like the rapids of the nearby Millstone River.

No one knew where the water flowed to, but every drop had its source, and so the people searched beneath the sky and above the ground, seeking the sources of their own sons and daughters. The heavens heralded the boys’ arrival; soon after their sons were born, proud parents looked heavenward, where they saw the sun, the moon, the stars, soaring birds and floating clouds; whatever they saw was what their sons would be, which is why some of the boys at the foot of North Mountain were the sun and stars, some were eagles, others were rain, and the very least of them was a single cloud. But when girls came into this world, gloom settled over the huts and shacks, and to escape a blood curse the fathers were required to stride thirty-three paces from their front door. They headed east at a brisk pace, heads down, and whatever the ground revealed at the thirty-third pace was what their daughters would become. Naturally, they avoided pig sties and chicken coops, and long-legged fathers could reach the wildwoods at the far edge of the village; even so, the sources of daughters were humble and base.

Most would belong to wild greens, melons, fruits and the like: a mushroom, a lichen, a dry weed, a wild chrysanthemum, or perhaps a mollusc, a puddle, or a goose feather—and these were girls who enjoyed a relatively decent fate.

The future for the remaining girls, those who would become cow patties, earthworms, or beetles induced indescribable anxieties in parents.

Boys who came from the sky were, by definition, expansive and steadfast, and the prohibition on crying was easier for them to sustain. A good boy knew how to swallow his tears, a character trait in keeping with the principles of heaven and earth, and even with crying boys the problem was easily remedied: from their youngest days, they were told that those disgraceful tears could exit the body through their penises, and so, whenever a parent spotted signs in their children’s eyes that tears were on their way, they would hurriedly push them out of the door and say, “Go and pee, hurry up and pee!” It was the girls who most readily violated the prohibition of crying, but this had been decided by fate.

Grass poking out of the ground is saddened by the wind; sweet flag floating at the water’s edge is drenched when it rains; and that is why stories about crying are always about girls. People at the foot of North Mountain raised their sons differently but with similar results; when it came to raising girls, however, each village had its own Rulebook for Daughters. The one they followed in Millstone Village was rather coarse and crude, and slightly passive: with an emphasis on strength, the girls there grew up playing with boys, for whom crying and peeing were inextricably linked; young women saw nothing shameful in lifting their skirts and squatting on the ground when the urge to cry came upon them, and as soon as there was a puddle on the ground beneath them, their sadness evaporated. Malicious outsiders liked to talk about Millstone Village girls who, even when they reached marrying age, still squatted in full view! They could wear their prettiest clothes, but the hems of their skirts always smelled bad! The Kindling Village Rulebook for Daughters was full of sorcery, mysteries and darkness. In villages with a sorceress, chimney smoke rose straight into the sky day and night.

The girls living there never cried and never smiled; they went down to the river to collect dead fish and the bones of dead animals, their every movement exactly the same as their mothers’ before them, from childhood through to old age. Some Kindling Village girls exhibited a dull, weathered look; after long periods of using bovine bones and tortoise shells to probe the fates of others, they neglected their own, and when they mourned the death of a son or a husband they habitually smeared a mixture of crow droppings and oven ashes around their eyes so that, no matter how deep the sorrow, they were able to mask it. Precise formulas and mysterious magic sapped their energy and turned their faces gaunt and sallow. When people on the riverbank spotted a Kindling Village girl, they felt an indescribable depression.

Why, they wondered, did those girls lack youthfulness? Girls in their early teens and older women with dishevelled hair and dirty faces all had the look of wandering ghosts.

Locally, only the Peach Village Rulebook for Daughters had the capacity to foster girls that sparkled like fresh flowers. Some said the manual was unfathomable, while others doubted its absurd legendary qualities, and some even questioned its very existence. For years the people talked, and its mystery grew deeper. A significant part of the Peach Village Rulebook for Daughters was devoted to the matter of abolishing tears altogether. The village mothers had struggled against tears for many years, a long tormenting process of probing into peculiar and secret formulas to make tears obsolete. They examined biological features, drawing on a host of human organs other than eyes as possible outlets, opening new avenues for discharge to the outside. Given the mothers’ range of secret formulas, the girls had a wide assortment of tear-discharge methods, all of them strange. Girls with large ears learned how to shed tears through them; the secret passage leading from eye to ear was thrown open for the flow of tears. A large ear is an ideal reservoir for tears; even the shallow ears of some girls discharged tears that wetted the neck, leaving the face dry. Girls with thick lips learned how to shed tears through them. Their lips were moist most of the time, rosy like the eaves of a house after rain; the overflow simply dripped to the ground without leaving a trace on the cheeks.

With a mixture of envy and derision, people would say, “How lucky you are to cry like that, a drink of water right there at your lips, a veritable wellspring!”

Most mysterious of all were the buxom girls, who actually shed tears through their breasts. The distance between eyes and breasts is so great that people from outside villages found this method virtually impossible to believe. “Peach Village girls’ tears do indeed travel from eyes to breasts!” the local villagers would say. But, believe it or not, the virtues of breasts as conduits were openly proclaimed not by the women of Peach Village, but by their husbands. It was probably they who attested to the secret means of Peach Village girls to shed tears through their breasts, since those tears remained hidden in the inner folds of their clothing, suspenseful perhaps, but hidden.

All this brings us to Jiang Binu, whose name, Binu, meant Jade Maiden. She was a radiant young woman, blessed with fine features, whose tears should have been stored behind a pair of large dark eyes. Fortunate to have luxuriant long hair, which her mother combed into pretty buns behind her ears, she was being taught to hide her tears there. Unhappily, her mother died when Binu was still young, and her mother’s secret formula died with her. Binu wept openly throughout her youth, keeping her hair from ever drying and making it impossible to keep the buns neatly combed. Anyone walking past her felt as if a rain-cloud had floated by, leaving drops of water in the air, which then landed on their face.

Knowing that those were Binu’s tears, they would flick away the liquid in disgust and wonder aloud, “How can Binu have so many tears!” It would be unfair to say that Binu shed more tears than other Peach Village girls, but her way of crying was easily the clumsiest, and it was a characteristic of her pure innocence that she seemed incapable of devising for herself a clever way to shed tears. So, while the other girls grew up to marry men of commerce or landlords or, lower down the scale, carpenters or blacksmiths, Binu’s choice was limited to the orphan Wan Qiliang. What did she gain from this marriage? A man and nine mulberry trees, nothing more.

Qiliang was a handsome, good and honest young man, but an orphan nonetheless, raised from infancy by a widower, Sanduo, who had found him beneath a mulberry tree. Local boys speculated that these two had fallen from the sky, that they were the sun and a star, or that they were birds or a rainbow. “Qiliang,” they would ask, “what are you?”

He did not know, so he went home to ask Sanduo. “You did not fall out of the sky,” said Sanduo. “You were carried home from under a mulberry tree, so perhaps you are a mulberry tree.”

After that, the boys all laughed at Qiliang, calling him a mulberry tree. Knowing that he was exactly that, Qiliang tended Sanduo’s nine mulberry trees day in and day out, eventually becoming the tenth tree. The trees did not speak, so neither did Qiliang. The others said, “Qiliang, you are a mute who is unwilling to learn a trade and knows only how to tend those nine mulberry trees. You cannot make a living that way, so one of these days you will have to cut down those trees for betrothal gifts, won’t you? Who would marry you? Binu is the only girl in all of Peach Village who might consider it, because she is a gourd, and gourds hang from mulberry trees!”

So Binu married Qiliang; it was, it seems, the gourd’s fate, and the mulberry’s. But it is common knowledge that, of all the males from Peach Village who died away from home, only Qiliang died in a place that was known to everyone in seven prefectures and eighteen counties, and that, of all the Peach Village women who were given to crying, only Binu’s crying travelled far beyond the mountains. That was one of the great events in the history of Blue Cloud Prefecture, and the greatest moment in Peach Village’s history of crying.

At noontime on the day of Qiliang’s disappearance, Binu could cry only through her hair. She stood on the road gazing north, tears falling like rain from the buns behind her ears, wetting her green skirt. She saw Shang Ying’s wife, Qiniang, and Shu’s wife, Jinyi, who also stood on the road gazing north, grinding their teeth and clenching their fists; their husbands too had disappeared. Qiniang cried through her ears, from which a glistening tear drop emerged; Jinyi wept through her breasts, and since she had recently given birth to a son, whom she was suckling, the tears she shed were mixed with milk, soaking her silk clothes so completely that she looked as if she had climbed out of a water-filled ditch.

On the afternoon of Qiliang’s disappearance, a great many of Peach Village’s men left without a trace, leaving behind wives, parents and children to tremble under mulberry trees. Someone said to Binu, “The half-load of mulberry leaves that Qiliang had picked is still lying on the ground.”

So she went to where the nine mulberry trees stood, despondent, and there she saw the basket of leaves. She sat down and began to count, but her count kept going wrong. Every spot where her hand rested, glistening drops of water rolled off the leaves and fell to the ground, for now her palms too were shedding tears. She carried the basket over to the silkworm shed, splashing water on the sun-drenched path as she walked. When she removed her shoes, she discovered that her toes were shedding tears as well, that they too had learned how to cry.

Now that Qiliang was gone, the silkworm shed seemed emptier than usual. Binu dumped the leaves into the silkworm pen, wetting it in the process. Worms that had not yet “climbed the mountain” scuttled out from under the covering, refusing to eat tear-soaked leaves. Overnight, many of the silkworms had climbed up onto hemp racks that Qiliang had made, but they stopped spinning silk, disappointed with the last basket of mulberry leaves their patron had picked, and longing for the life-giving promise of the spring baskets. Binu hung the empty basket from a rafter, from which beads of water now dripped to the floor. She spotted Qiliang’s jacket, also hanging from a rafter and giving off traces of his sweat. One of his straw sandals lay by the silkworm shed door; she looked everywhere for its partner, but could not find it anywhere. Binu walked slowly out of the silkworm shed, still searching for Qiliang’s sandal; she searched from dusk till late at night, but found no trace of it.

Refusing to listen to the counsel of others, she insisted that the sandal was hidden in the folds of dusk. The next morning found her pacing the ground beneath the nine mulberry trees; suddenly a straw sandal came sailing out of the Leng family mulberry grove on the other side of the road. The Leng family daughter-in-law cast a look of pity at her and said, “You can stop looking. Isn’t that Qiliang’s sandal?”

Binu picked it up and, after a mere glance, flung it back. “That rotten sandal? I don’t know whose it is, but it isn’t Qiliang’s!”

The Leng family woman glared at her. “You’re a girl who doesn’t know what’s good for her,” she said angrily. “Has your soul fled just because your man is not at home? When a man leaves, his hands go with him, so do his feet, even that appendage between his legs is gone. So what good is a pair of straw sandals?”

Her face burning, Binu ran out of the grove onto the road, but even then she kept her head down, still searching for Qiliang’s missing sandal, which hid from the sunlight, out of sight. Downhearted, Binu tramped up and down the public road leading out of the mulberry grove every day, always searching.

Villagers knew she was looking for the sandal, and, when they saw her, they pointed and said, “Qiliang took Binu’s soul up north with him.”

Chickens and dogs, not knowing what was happening, flew off or ran away when Binu drew near, hiding from the woman who stubbornly retraced her steps over and over. Even the roadside grasses acknowledged her sorrowful footprints: an invisible patina of tears overlaid each spot on the road where she had walked, and all the lush day-lilies and calamus along the way bowed down to her as she passed, piously proclaiming that, in their domain, there was no sandal here, no sandal here! Binu searched for the missing straw sandal from summer to autumn, but did not find it.

One day during the autumn she met a woman washing woven cloth on the riverbank. The woman told Binu that the cold weather would arrive soon, and that her children’s winter clothes were not yet ready. Oh, how she wished she had another hand—one to wash clothes, one to make new clothes, and a third to mend old clothes. So Binu went down to the river to help. Yarn floated gently on top of water that had already turned cold, and as Binu held the still warm white yarn in her hands, she saw Qiliang’s naked back in the autumn wind. “The cold weather sneaks up on you,” she said. “They say that there, on the other side of Great Swallow Mountain, they feed people. But do they give them clothing as well? When Qiliang left, he was not wearing a shirt.”

Washing the fabric also washed Binu’s deepest worry up out of her heart and, with the coming of autumn, she was no longer seen on the road. The people of Peach Village heard that she had stopped searching for the missing sandal, and they assumed that a soul once taken from them had returned to the life of the village. Women came to Binu’s hut, in part to share their thoughts on waiting in an empty house, but also to pry into her private affairs. With discerning eyes, they spotted traces of her tears around the stove and on the bed, and their noses picked up the bitter, sour scent of those tears, which spread through the room. Without warning, a large drop of water fell from the thatched ceiling onto the face of one of the women. As she wiped the water from her face, she cried out in alarm, “Mother of mine, Binu’s tears have flowed up to the roof!”

Another woman went to the stove and removed the lid on the cold pot, revealing half a pumpkin. She took a taste. Her brow crinkled. “That pumpkin broth has tears in it. It’s bitter and sour. Binu, are you cooking this pumpkin in your tears? Whoever heard of such a thing?”

Standing in the rain-cloud of her own tears, Binu was wrapping up a large bundle. In it she had placed a finely tailored winter coat embroidered in a colourful pattern, a sash and a pair of boots lined with rabbit fur. That, the women thought, must be a bundle intended for Qiliang. Well, who wouldn’t want to prepare a large bundle for a husband who had left home in such a hurry? They asked Binu how much the handsome coat had cost her, but all Binu could tell them was that she had traded away the nine mulberry trees, plus three baskets of silk from her cocoons and her spinning room. The women shrieked in alarm. “Binu,” they said, “how could you trade away nine mulberry trees, three baskets of silk and your spinning room? How will you live from now on?”

Binu replied, “Without Qiliang by my side, whether I live or die does not concern me.”

Then the women asked, “Who are you going to get to carry that wonderful bundle to the other side of Great Swallow Mountain?”

“If no one else will take it,” she said, “I will.”

The women were convinced that Binu’s mind had become confused, that she had no idea that Great Swallow Mountain was a thousand li away. Binu said, “If I have a horse, I’ll ride it. If I have a donkey, I’ll ride that. If I have neither, then I’ll walk. An animal can walk that distance. Are we not superior to animals? Who says I cannot walk a thousand li?” The women, rendered speechless, ran out of Binu’s hut holding their hands to their breasts, not stopping until they were well clear. They turned to look back at the quivering figure of the woman in the hut, and many of them felt a deep sadness. She may have stopped searching for Qiliang’s straw sandal, they said, but her soul has not returned. One envious woman, wanting to hide her feelings, said cynically, “A thousand li just to deliver a winter coat? Does she suppose she is the only woman who loves her husband!” Another woman could not really say if she had been struck by the power of emotion or if she had been stung by something Binu said, but she was no sooner out of the hut than her head began to ache. In order to dispel her mental and physical discomfort, she spat several times in the direction of Binu’s hut.

The others followed her example, and the noise drew a chorus of barking from the village dogs, who howled at Binu’s hut all that night. Children got up out of bed, but were sent back, their little heads clasped firmly in their parents’ hands. “The dogs are not barking at us,” the adults told them. “They are barking at Binu. Her soul left her the day Qiliang left.”