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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?