Meng Jiangnč Brings Down the Great Wall

Ten Versions of a Chinese Legend

Translated by Wilt L. Idema

  • Published: 2008
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / China; Literary Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 240 pp., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

Meng Jiangnč Brings Down the Great Wall brings together ten versions of a popular Chinese legend that has intrigued readers and listeners for hundreds of years. Elements of the story date back to the early centuries B.C.E. and are an intrinsic part of Chinese literary history. Major themes and subtle nuances of the legend are illuminated here by Wilt L. Idema's new translations and pairings.

In this classic story, a young woman named Meng Jiang makes a long, solitary journey to deliver winter clothes to her husband, a drafted laborer on the grandiose Great Wall construction project of the notorious First Emperor of the Qin dynasty (BCE 221-208). But her travels end in tragedy when, upon arrival, she learns that her husband has died under the harsh working conditions and been entombed in the wall. Her tears of grief cause the wall to collapse and expose his bones, which she collects for proper burial. In some versions, she tricks the lecherous emperor, who wants to marry her, into providing a stately funeral for her husband and then takes her own life.

The versions presented here are ballads and chantefables (alternating chanted verse and recited prose), five from urban printed texts from the late Imperial and early Republican periods, and five from oral performances and partially reconstructed texts collected in rural areas in recent decades. They represent a wide range of genres, regional styles, dates, and content. From one version to another, different elements of the story - the circumstances of Meng Jiangnu's marriage, her relationship with her parents-in-law, the journey to the wall, her grief, her defiance of the emperor - are elaborated upon, downplayed, or left out altogether depending on the particular moral lessons that tale authors wished to impart.

Idema brings together his considerable translation skills and broad knowledge of Chinese literature to present an assortment of tales and insightful commentary that will be a gold mine of information for scholars in a number of disciplines. Haiyan Lee's essay discusses the appeal of the Meng Jiangnč story to twentieth-century literary reformers, and the interpretations they imposed on the material they collected.
Wilt L. Idema is professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University. He is the author of Chinese Vernacular Fiction: The Formative Period and The Dramatic Oeuvre of Chu Yu-tun (1379-1439), coauthor of The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China, and cotranslator of The Story of the Western Wing by Wang Shifu. Haiyan Lee is assistant professor of East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Colorado. She is the author of Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950.

"A very important work and a true contribution to the study of traditional Chinese literature."
-Mark Bender, Ohio State University
Translator's Note

Meng Jiangnu: The Development of a Legend by Wild L. Idema
Meng Jiangnu and the May Fourth Folklore Movement by Haiyan Lee

Part One Ballads from Late-Imperial China
1. Trekking to the Wall
2. Guiding the Soul
3. Retrieving a Fan
4. Born from a Gourd
5. Being a Filial Daughter-in-Law

Part Two Ballads Collected in the Countryside
6. Switching to Dragon Robes
7. Mobilizing the Gods
8. Stepping into the Pond
9. Sleeping with the Bones
10. Forbidden Desires


"For the first time . . . English reader[s] will have the opportunity to view the contradictory figure of Meng Jiangnu in a range of historical and geographical settings. Selected and translated by a master translator and accompanied by an impressive array of supporting and analytical material."
-Anne E. McLaren, Nan Nu, v11 2009

"Meng Jiangnč Brings Down the Great WallThis is a very useful addition to the limited store of English translations of Chinese folklore, and one that should have appeal beyond those interested in Chinese folk narrative . . . a solid contribution to both legend studies and Chinese folklore studies in English."
-David Gay, Western Folklore, Volume 39 (3-4)

"As a wall-destroying beauty, Meng Jiangnč belongs, literally, to the 'wall topplers' (qingcheng) femme fatales of Chinese history. Wielding the specifically feminine magic of tears, she is able to walk many paths between love and death. Idema's beautiful, small anthology is a splendid tribute to this figure. It is at the same time a highly commendable introduction to the richness and complexity of Chinese oral traditions."
-Journal of Chinese Religions

"Idema's ten versions of the story . . . offer fascinating insight into variations of the tale and how different genres and regional styles emphasized these variations for particular purposes. Idema's translations are superb and read extremely well in English. . . . Recommended. All readers, all levels."