Review: Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong (trans. Howard Goldblatt)

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Published as part of The Myths series, which retells timeless classics from around the world in the words of some of the best contemporary writers, Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong recreates a two-millennia old legend from China about a woman who travels hundreds of miles in search of her husband, who has been conscripted in the construction of the Great Wall.

Like all of Peach Village, the orphan Binu was brought up to believe that tears are taboo, a conviction that took hold after 300 of its residents had been executed for having wept at the funeral of someone who had fallen from the favour of the King. The women of the village devised new ways to cry, which would leave their eyes dry but their breasts, ears, lips (or which ever body part was most beautiful) wet with tears. Binu wept through her hair, as she does on the day that she discovers that her husband Qiliang has disappeared.

When she learns that her husband has been taken to Great Swallow Mountain, to work on the construction of the staggeringly ambitious Great Wall, she becomes determined to take a coat to him so that he can stay warm through the winter. Warned that this act will carry her death by sorceresses and shunned and envied by her co-villagers for her stubbornness and peerless devotion, Binu sets forth on a journey of a thousand li.

Along the way, she is assisted by a blind frog, whom she suspects is a reincarnated mother looking for her missing son. But she is also accosted by a group of half-deer children, encounters cities where people are sold as “large livestock”, and is chained to a coffin, having been sold off herself as a dead man’s wife. Her weeping takes on legendary scope – she is hired at one point to weep into a vat because her tears contain the five tastes needed for a pharmacy. It overwhelms her to the point where every part of her body begins to cry, and she journeys the thousand li with “eyes dripping like house eaves after rain”, leaving a stream wherever she walks or crawls. As the story proceeds, we understand that Binu did not set out on her adventure under any grandiose illusions of success, but because it was the only thing that, in the face of her loss, she knew how to do.

In the preface, Su Tong says that “Binu’s story is a legend not so much about a woman at the bottom of society, but rather a legend about status and social class”. Perhaps this accounts for the matter-of-fact nature of his retelling, where another writer may have emphasized the mystical and metaphysical nature of events in the story including rebirth, animal familiars, prophecy and the like. Yet Binu’s loss, as all who have endured pain will know, is profoundly intimate. From the work of scholars such as Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Carl Jung, we know that myths exist for the purpose of deconstruction – not in a literary sense, but as a means of projecting our private lives onto narrative structures that allow us to see the bigger picture even as we endure intensely personal experiences.

The story of Binu, in that scheme of things, functions as an allegory on the necessity of grief, and how far one may need to go to truly access – and release – it, against every self-preservative instinct that may prevent it. The great wall that ultimately shatters under the weight of her loss is the one that had been raised by her upbringing, which forbade all but the most discreet, controlled displays of such emotion. Weep, the myth seems to instruct the reader. As Binu herself says to one who questions if she too is dead – “I am still crying, and that proves I am alive.”

An edited version appeared in The New Sunday Express.

3 responses »

  1. Good review, but I think it has more to do with a critique of modern China, a theme for all of this generation of author in that country. That said, you write beautifully. Keep it up.

  2. The Bride — :)

    Bill — Thank you. And I think that the universality of myths lies in the many ways they can be understood, which means that your perspective on this one is as perfectly valid as mine.

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