There have been many great construction projects through out the history of humanity. While the reasons behind their construction have ranged from vanity, the Pharaohs' construction of Pyramids to honour their own memory; devotion to God, the great Cathedrals raised during the middle ages; to defensive fortifications, The Great Wall of China; one thing they all have had in common is their cost in human lives. Millions of lives were spent in the building of these projects, and each life was somebody's son, brother, husband, or father.
It wasn't unusual for a ruler to conscript people from across his land to spend their lives on these projects without giving any thought as to the affect it would have on the people left behind. In China alone it is thought that as many as three million people have died over the course of constructing and restoring the The Great Wall. There has actually been more then one "Great Wall" as the first was constructed under the China's first Emperor Qin Shi Huang circa 200 BC. This first wall was built along the Northern border of China and very little of it remains today.
As is its wont history recounts the fates of Empires without any mention of the individuals who might be caught up in the events described. What cares history for the plight of a silk worm farmer's wife whose husband is conscripted as slave labour to construct the Great Wall Of China? It's up to the story tellers to try and bring home to us how the sweep of history takes its toll on those caught up in its ebb and flow.
In Binu And The Great Wall, published by Random House Canada, author Su Tong has adapted a story that's been passed down from generation to generation for over two thousand years that tells the story of Binu, whose husband was taken away to work on the Great Wall. In his preface to the book, he tells us that the wonderful thing about myths are they take harsh realities and make them larger then life. This helps to cushion the impact of the experience while still allowing the author to impart its full meaning. (Binu And The Great Wall is one of a series of books retelling the myths of various cultures that have been commissioned from authors around the world by Random House)
In Mr. Tong's version of the story he has created a world that is larger than life where many fanciful things occur. Yet at the same time it is also firmly rooted in the reality of the time period and the situation of his main character Binu. It's his ability to skilfully interweave the mythical and the real that allows the character of Binu to become larger then life for the modern reader without turning her into a melodramatic cliché.
In Peach Village, where Binu was born, it is forbidden to cry and young women are trained from an early age how to avoid having tears appear on their faces. Some learn how to cry in through their ears, with the ears themselves providing an impressive reservoir within which to store their tears. Others are considered lucky because they can cry from their lips resulting in them having beautiful gleaming lips. But Binu never learned any of these means, as her mother died when she was still young. Although she had started to learn how to cry with her hair, she had no control over her tears and wept copiously.
As a result she was alienated from the rest of the village and nobody but the orphan Qiliang would have her in marriage. Yet they are happy together, so when he is torn from her side and taken away to work on the Great Wall on the other side of the Great Swallow Mountain she is devestated. If the people of Peach Village thought that Binu had cried before, they hadn't seen anything yet. It's when she has a vision of her beloved working without a shirt that she makes the fateful decision to set off to find him. She can't bear the thought of him facing winter without a proper coat and resolves that she will travel across the country to make certain he is warm.
Of course everyone thinks she is crazy. She sells everything they own in order to buy a coat and travel. 'You don't even know if he's alive' the other women of the village tell her. 'All of us have lost husbands, sons, or brothers and you don't see us selling everything we own to go off and make sure they have winter coats, do you?' But Binu won't be dissuaded, for without Qiliang she has no life, so what is the point of a life without him?
The world is determined to make her quest as difficult as possible though. When she goes to buy a horse or a donkey to ride to her destination she discovers that all the animals have been commandeered by the army for the war being fought. The only companion, man or beast, she can find for the journey is a blind frog who is the reincarnation of a blind woman who drowned searching for her son. So she sets out to travel the great distance nearly alone and almost immediately is beset with troubles.
Her precious bundle containing the winter coat for Qiliang and her few coins is stolen almost at once, she is sold into bondage to act the role of a thief's widow, and as she nears her destination she is arrested because she is suspected of being an assassin's accomplice. But in the end she does it make it to the Wall. According to the myth of Binu when she arrived at the wall and discovered her husband was dead her grief was so great and her tears so plentiful that the Great Wall broke and the dead awoke in honour of her sorrow.
Su Tong has written a wonderfully, magical and human story. In spite of the fact that Binu And The Great Wall is a tale replete with sorrow, it is an uplifting affirmation of the strength of the human spirit. There are times along the road where she decides to give up and to lay down and die, giving in to despair. Yet life won't let her give up that easily, and there is always something that keeps her going, even if it's only the desire to die with her husband and not alone.
We live in a world where millions of people are torn from their families on a regular basis by war, famine, disease, and economic realities. Refugee camps around the world are filled with families that have been ravaged by grief and the anguish of not knowing whether loved ones still live. Binu And The Great Wall may have first been told over two thousand years ago, but the story is still relevant today. With his retelling Su Tong gives us the means to try and begin to understand that reality. It is a beautiful and magical story cut with the sharp taste of reality; a perfect myth.
(Originally posted May 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.