Lyrics and Translations · Uncategorized

2 Songs 1 Myth: Lady Meng Jiang and the Destruction of the Great Wall of China

Digging through my drafts led me to this half-finished post on a Chinese myth, started around the same time I translated the original Ballad of Mulan. I’d like to share two wonderful songs here based on the myth of Lady Meng Jiang (孟姜女) – one of four great Chinese romantic tragedies that are more-or-less canon.

孟姜女
Source: this illustrated book

The Myth

Not long after Lady* Meng Jiang married Wan Xi Liang, her husband was summoned to construct the Great Wall of China, alongside thousands of workers. As the days grew colder and there was no news from her husband, Lady Meng Jiang decided to deliver winter clothes to him herself. After travelling hundreds of miles by foot, she eventually reached the Great Wall, but learned that her husband had already died of overwork. She then broke into wails, and her wails were so powerful that the Great Wall of China collapsed from it.

There are several versions as to what happens next, but here are a few provided by Wikipedia:

  1. After the Wall collapsed, all the bones of the forced labourers were revealed. Praying to find her husband’s remains, Lady Meng Jiang pierced her finger with a hairpin, and her blood stuck to one particular set of bones. She buried the bones and drowned herself in the sea.
  2. The emperor at the time, Qin Shi Huang, heard of Lady Meng Jiang’s beauty and virtue after the incident, and summoned her in hope of making her a concubine. She agreed on the condition that he would personally worship her husband’s remains, and upon presenting those remains, committed suicide.
  3. When Lady Meng Jiang’s blood fell upon the bones, flesh began growing on them. Lady Meng Jiang consulted local deities about this, and was advised to gather all the bones in a bag. However, upon completion, the flesh once again disintegrated, throwing Lady Meng Jiang into a fit of rage. To placate her anger, the god Tu Di Gong showed himself to explain that people cannot revive after death, but that the gathering of remains will help the soul rest in peace. (This is said to be the origin of a certain East Asian bone-collecting burial, where a dead person’s remains are dug out a second time to be separately buried, years after the initial burial.)

* “Lady” (女) doesn’t indicate a higher social status here, as the literal meaning of the word is “woman.” It probably does denote some degree of respect.

Recent Song Discoveries

Here is the classic version, sung by famous classical singer Tong Li. No English subtitles for this one, but it’s beautiful without it.

 

Come spring: flowers bloom fragrantly by the hundreds

Butterflies cross the powdered walls in pairs

Fate brings two together across a thousand miles –

Lady Meng Jiang encounters Wan Xi Liang

 

Come summer: perfumed winds blow

Lady Meng Jiang paces repeatedly within the garden

Lotuses line their stalks up in pairs

A loving married couple is split apart

 

Come autumn: the grasses and trees wilt

Birds fly home to nests as the leaves all fall

Flying birds still have a nest to return to

But Lady Meng Jiang drifts like a fallen leaf

 

Come winter: snowflakes fly

Lady Meng Jiang delivers winter clothes across a thousand miles

She suffers millions of torments on the journey

A pair of Mandarin ducks* that share one destiny are forever parted

* Mandarin ducks are symbols of love, fidelity, and fertility in Chinese culture, and are often associated with marriage. This is because they are birds that are monogamous for life (sadly, this seems to lack scientific support).

It’s interesting how ballads about Lady Meng Jiang are traditionally divided into seasons, perhaps to stress the torturous passage of time.

The next is a covered version of a lovely Vocaloid song, in Japanese (finally, something to justify this post’s appearance on this blog!). The lyrics itself don’t explain the myth very much, but rather focus on the emotional experience of Lady Meng Jiang (or “Moukyoujo” here).

 

It’s kind of sad that neither song really gets to the wall-wrecking part, which is, in my opinion, the most epic part of the story.


But there you have it! There’s so much one could unpack in this myth: paradigms of female virtue, burial rites, the power of love/grief, attitudes on human labour, the significance of the Great Wall of China… What are your thoughts on the myth? Do you know any similar ones, perhaps from a different culture?

16 thoughts on “2 Songs 1 Myth: Lady Meng Jiang and the Destruction of the Great Wall of China

    1. Thank you for the interesting perspective. Indeed, few tyrants in history are as tyrannical as they are made out to be, as evidence has shown about previous Chinese dynasties as well. Is there is a “real story” for us to still be able to discover at this point? I think that would be too difficult.

      Although I’m probably not as much of an authority on this part of history as you are, I’m not that comfortable with calling this story “propaganda.” Every story ever told is charged with political views, some more deliberate than others. I think myths get spread around more naturally and unceremoniously, until some scholar puts it down in print and attaches some ideological purpose to it. In more modern times, I don’t think anyone really *believes* that such an ancient story would be historically accurate, just as few would believe Aphrodite came out of a giant shell, despite all the literature and paintings. Still, I guess we do hold a certain reverence for such figures, and I think that’s, in a way, quite beautiful!

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  1. Firstly, the two songs are lovely. The first has a piercing melancholy, but the second is more refreshingly upbeat and hopeful, I say refreshing because the two songs are polarising.

    “Flying birds still have a nest to return to

    But Lady Meng Jiang drifts like a fallen leaf”

    The lyrics are stunning, it somehow manages to capture the wall shattering wail we might imagine Lady Meng Jiang to have done. As for which of the three likely events, I’d say one seems more… peaceful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for giving them a listen, and I love your observations! “Polarizing” is what I hadn’t thought of when I first listened, but I see where you’re coming from.

      As for “peaceful”… I think she ends up killing herself in the end even in the last edition of the myth, because people do have a thirst for such tragedies…but I must still say that I prefer Versions 2 & 3. She’s given a little added agency in those.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oooh I’ve heard some similar stories from my place as well! Though they involved a curse on a family and nothing as cool as the whole wall collapsing or anything like that…

    I like the second song a lot Moya-nee!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Awesome! It’s amazing learning about the myths and stories from other cultures. I want to research some aspects of my heritage with various stories. I’ve discovered some proverbs which was very nice.

        Liked by 1 person

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