Between History and Legend

There was a beginning. There was an anteriority before the be­ginning. There was an anteriority before the anteriority that was before the beginning.

—Zhuangzi (third-fourth century BCE)

At one point in Records of the Historian, Sima Qian recounts, in his typically dry and concise manner, an extraordinary tale of illicit ro­mance, miscegenation, betrayal, and murder. He describes how, al­most a century before the construction of the Qin dynasty Wall, the widowed mother of the Qin state’s King Zhaoxiang (r. 307-252 bce) had an affair with the “Rong king” of the Yiqu tribes to the north and bore him two sons. The relationship eventually soured, leading the queen dowager to murder her barbarian lover and send an army to attack his people and ravage his lands.

Sima Qian’s discussion of the queen dowager’s illicit affair and subsequent murderous vendetta is framed by discussions of two walls. First, this account of passion and betrayal is immediately preceded by a description of how—during the reign of King Zhao — xiang’s predecessor, King Hui—the Yiqu had begun building “walls [cheng] and outer walls [guo] to protect themselves [from the Qin], but the state of Qin gradually ate into their territory and, under King Hui, finally seized twenty-five of their forts.” The passage de­tailing the queen dowager’s attacks on the Yiqu, meanwhile, is di­rectly followed by a discussion of how the Qin state thereby came into possession of an even larger stretch of Yiqu territory, where­upon the Qin “built a long wall [chang cheng] to serve as a defense against the Hu.”1

These border walls constructed by the Qin queen dowager and the Yiqu tribes constitute important antecedents of the Long Wall that the First Emperor is credited with having built in 215 все, though they also complicate our understanding of the Wall’s sig­nificance. Sima Qian’s remark that the queen dowager’s construc­tion was intended to offer a “defense against the Hu,” for instance, is bitingly ironic, given that his own account makes it perfectly clear that the structure was not intended to protect Qin territory from external attack, but rather to help preserve the territory the Qin had obtained through its preemptive attacks on its neighbors. Indeed, the threat of Qin aggression is further underscored by Sima Qian’s description of how the Yiqu were simultaneously building walls of their own to defend against the Qin. These descriptions of early border walls invite us to see the Wall as the product of a compli­cated symbiotic relationship between the Central States and their northern neighbors, rather than simply as a defense against those same neighbors.

Just as every wall literally has two sides, there are at least two sides to the story of the Wall itself, and embedded within Sima Qian’s account of forbidden desire we find a startlingly unconven­tional view of the Wall’s origins—a glimpse of the figurative back side of the Wall as we have come to understand it. While the pre­ceding chapter outlines a standard view of the Wall as the prod­uct of the First Emperor’s attempts to protect his nascent empire against attacks from the north, here we will take the border walls built by the Yiqu tribes and the state of Qin as our starting point for an alternative view of the gnarled and contradictory nature of the Wall’s own historical origins.

Although the Wall is frequently imagined as an inviolate barrier built by China in defense against the pastoral-nomadic tribes from the northern steppe, the reality of the pre-Qin border walls points to a rather more complicated situation. Many of the pre-Qin “long walls,” for instance, were built by Central Plains states to defend themselves not from northern tribes but from each other, while some of the northern tribes were building defensive walls of their own. Even the walls that were in fact built to defend against the northern tribes frequently developed out of an intimate relationship between the respective societies. King Wuling of Zhao, for instance, reportedly instructed his people to mimic the appearance and cus­toms of the northern enemies, “to adopt Rong dress and to practice riding and shooting,” and then used his enemies’ own military tac­tics against them before proceeding to construct a “long wall” to defend his new territory. Around the same time, a general from the state of Yan was taken hostage by the Hu and subsequently man­aged to “win their deepest confidence,” whereupon he used his knowledge of the enemy to defeat them and drive them more than a thousand li from the Yan border, and constructed a “long wall” to keep them there. In each case, the walls built to defend against the northern tribes were actually the product of a close interaction be­tween the states in the Central Plains and the northern neighbors they were ostensibly trying to repel.

On the heels of his overview of the Qin, Zhao, and Yan border walls in the Xiongnu chapter of Records of the Historian, Sima Qian presents his second and final substantive discussion of the Qin dynasty Wall:

The Qin finally overthrew the other six states, and the First Emperor of the Qin dispatched Meng Tian to lead a force of one hundred thousand men north to attack the Hu. He seized control of all the lands south of the Yellow River and established a border/barricade along the river, constructing forty-four walled towns overlooking the river and manning them with convict laborers transported to the

border for garrison duty. He also built the Direct Road from Jiuyuan to Yunyang. Then, he utilized the natural mountain barriers to es­tablish border defenses, scooping out the valleys and constructing ramparts and building installations at other points where they were needed. The whole line of defenses stretched over ten thousand li from Lintao to Liaodong, and even extended across the Yellow River and through Yangshan and Beijia.2

Aside from a few minor changes (such as paring down the esti­mate of the number of troops under Meng Tian’s command from 300,000 to 100,000), Sima Qian presents the same basic infor­mation here as in the earlier passage of Records of the Historian discussed in Chapter 2. To a modern reader, however, the most sa­lient discrepancy between the two texts is that the passage in the Xiongnu chapter does not specifically call Meng Tian’s defensive fortifications “long walls” (chang cheng), but refers to them instead as sai (border/barricades) and forty-four xian cheng (walled towns). Sima Qian’s failure, in this particular passage, to use the term that has subsequently become nearly synonymous with the Qin Wall is particularly striking given that he does use the term chang cheng in his preceding discussion of the border walls constructed by the kingdoms of Qin, Zhao, and Yan (which are frequently regarded as the actual antecedents of the Qin dynasty Wall).

This indeterminacy in the terms used to refer to the early walls is paralleled by that of the terms used for the pastoral-nomadic peo­ples against whom the Wall was ostensibly providing protection. While the Meng Tian passage refers to the Qin’s enemies as Rong and Di, the Xiongnu passage calls them simply Hu. The names Rong, Di, and Hu sometimes functioned as ethnonyms for specific peoples on China’s northern and western borders, but more com­monly they were used simply to denote an abstract quality of “for­eignness,” or as stand-ins for the Xiongnu themselves. It is not certain how Sima Qian understood the terms in this particular de­scription of the First Emperor’s Long Wall, although the fact that he alternates among them in separate discussions of the same event suggests that he was primarily concerned with identifying the non — Chinese neighbors as foreigners or “barbarians,” rather than with making specific claims about their ethnic identity.

Sima Qian’s use of Rong and Di to identify the Qin’s neighbors is further complicated by suggestions that the Qin itself shared, as one early text put it, “the same customs as the Rong and the Di: it has the heart of a tiger or a wolf, it is greedy and cruel and cannot be trusted when it comes to making a profit, it does not behave accord­ing to protocol, righteousness, or virtuous action.”3 This character­ization of the Qin state as having the “heart of a tiger or a wolf” parallels Sima Qian’s own description of the Qin emperor as having “a tiger or wolf’s heart,” and points more generally to a perception of the presence of an irreducibly foreign element at the very heart of what would come to be regarded as the core “Chinese” identity.4 To the extent that early territorial walls were inspired by outside threats, these reflections on the interrelationship between the Qin and foreign tribes like the Rong and the Di suggest that the Wall was simultaneously helping to negotiate internal differences in the communities on either side.

To appreciate the ethnic tensions within the Central Plains states, it would be useful to consider a process of political unification that took place on the other side of the Wall, directly on the heels of the Qin dynasty’s construction of the Wall. This unification was spear­headed by a Xiongnu by the name of Modun, whose historical sig­nificance could be compared with that of the Qin dynasty’s First Emperor. As is true of the First Emperor, furthermore, most of what we know about Modun has been filtered through Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian and its fascination with issues of pater­nal tension. When Modun was still a boy, for instance, his father handed him over to a rival tribe and then attacked them, hoping that they would then execute Modun in retribution. The son, how­ever, managed to escape and return home, leading his father to de­cide to spare his life. Modun, however, never forgot his father’s be­trayal, and subsequently assembled a group of soldiers whom he trained to be absolutely loyal to him. To test the soldiers’ obedience, he brought out his favorite horse and ordered the soldiers to shoot it with their arrows, summarily executing all of those who dis­obeyed. Next, he did the same with his favorite consort, again exe­cuting all the soldiers who failed to shoot her. Finally, when he brought out his own father, his followers did not hesitate when Modun commanded them to riddle him with arrows. With this act of virtual patricide, Modun not only repaid his father for the earlier attempt on his life but also managed to place himself in a position to become the supreme leader of the Xiongnu forces in the region.

When Modun seized power in 209 bce, he managed to bring the various Xiongnu and other northern tribes together and establish a supertribal confederacy, of which he became the new leader, or chanyu (sometimes pronounced “shanyu”). We do not know much about the internal political dynamics that made this alliance possi­ble, but it can hardly be coincidental that it took place just twelve years after the First Emperor founded the Qin dynasty, and just six years after the emperor sent Meng Tian to flush the Xiongnu out of the Ordos region. It seems likely, therefore, that it was the consoli­dation of the Qin dynasty, together with the dynasty’s attempt to re­gain control over one of the prime grazing areas in the region, that provided the catalyst for the northern Xiongnu to form a unified confederacy. Regardless of the precise reasons for the Xiongnu uni­fication, however, it is clear that the emergence of this new confed­eracy had profound implications for the states south of the Wall. Whereas during the Warring States period the Xiongnu and other northern tribes appear to have presented a comparatively minor hindrance to their Central Plains neighbors (who were generally more concerned with fighting each other), by the beginning of the Han dynasty the Xiongnu had developed into such a powerful force that the Han court was forced to recognize them as its equal, or even its superior.

The Han dynasty was established in 202 все, and its stability was immediately challenged not only by Modun’s Xiongnu confed­eracy but also by several semi-independent potentates positioned along the dynasty’s northern frontier. Tensions came to the fore in 200 все when the Xiongnu defeated one such potentate, who trans­ferred his allegiance to the Xiongnu and even agreed to lead a rebel­lion against the Han emperor. In response, Emperor Gaozu decided to launch a preemptive attack against the Xiongnu and suppress the rebellion. The resulting campaign did not go well. Temperatures were frigid, and as many as a third of the emperor’s troops are said to have lost fingers to frostbite. In the final skirmish, at Baideng Mountain outside the town of Pingcheng (near the city of Datong today, in Shanxi Province), the Han forces found themselves sur­rounded and cut off from their supplies by a significantly larger Xiongnu cavalry. After being trapped for seven days, the emperor finally managed to secure freedom for himself and his troops, but only after agreeing to grant Modun a sizable tribute that included one of the emperor’s own daughters.

The Baideng defeat had an enormous impact on Han foreign pol­icy, and contributed to the court’s renewed interest in the political and symbolic significance of border walls. In a treaty signed in 199 все (and formally implemented the following year), the Han court negotiated a peace settlement with the Xiongnu, stipulating that it would regularly send the Xiongnu tributary gifts of silk, liquor, and wine, together with Han “princesses” to be betrothed to the Xiongnu leader. Known as heqin, or “peace-alliance marriages,” this exchange of bribes and brides clearly constituted an admission of the Han’s military weakness with respect to the Xiongnu. The Han, however, attempted to present the arrangement as being to its own advantage—on the argument that, as a result of marrying the Han princess, the Xiongnu leader, the chanyu, would thereby be­come the Han emperor’s son-in-law, and the chanyu’s son would similarly become the Han emperor’s grandson. By the codes of Confucian conduct (which Emperor Gaozu had only very recently embraced), sons of all flavors—including sons-in-law and grand — sons—were expected to be filial to their elders, and the emperor’s councilor recommended that court rhetoricians be sent to advise the Xiongnu on the importance of abiding by these Confucian pre­cepts.

What we find here is a classic example of what Friedrich Nietz­sche called ressentiment. Nietzsche developed the concept in his criticism of Christianity, which he said was a “slave morality” that attempted to transform a relationship of physical inferiority into an assertion of symbolic superiority (for example, in the act of “turn­ing the other cheek”), and we find a similar logic at work in the Han court’s attempt to transform its military inferiority with re­spect to the Xiongnu into an assertion of moral superiority. The Han claimed that its humiliating obligation to pay tribute to the Xiongnu actually placed the Han in a symbolically superior posi­tion.

The 198 bce Baideng treaty marked a critical turning point in po­litical relations between the Chinese and the Xiongnu, as well as a shift in the Wall’s significance, from a symbol of martial aggression to an emblem of marital union. The heqin tributary system helped secure a relatively stable relationship between the Han and the Xiongnu, with the Wall coming to be perceived not as a physical barrier against external attack but as a symbolic boundary marking the outer limits of the Han’s political authority. One of the most succinct articulations of this perception of the Wall as an abstract boundary between two civilizations can be found in a new heqin treaty signed in 162 bce, which led the Han emperor, Wen, to de­clare that “to the north of the Long Wall will be the nation of those who draw the bow, which will be ruled by the Xiongnu chanyu. In­side the Wall will be the domain of those who wear hats and sashes, which will be governed by the emperor.” To this, the chanyu re­plied, “The Xiongnu shall not enter through the Barricade [sai], and the Han shall not pass beyond it. Those who violate these in­structions will be executed, and in this way both sides will be able to coexist harmoniously.”5

As a result of the tributary relationship established in the Baideng treaty, the Han court was able to enjoy a stable and secure relation­ship with its powerful northern neighbors for the next sixty years, though at the expense of its ability to maintain a clear claim of sym­bolic superiority. During this period, the Wall continued to be imag­ined as an intransigent barrier between one region and another, even as its practical significance lay primarily in its position in a frontier zone across which people and commodities were ex­changed and within which the relations between Chinese and Xiongnu were continually being negotiated and recalibrated.

Under Emperor Wu (literally, the “martial” emperor), who took the Han throne in 141 все, the fragile detente between the Han and the Xiongnu began to break down. The Han grew increasingly con­cerned by the Xiongnu’s repeated violations of the heqin treaties al­ready in place and the gradual expansion of their influence over the other pastoral tribes in the north. As a result, the Han court decided to resume a policy of military aggression against the Xiongnu, ini­tially focusing on the same Ordos region that had been the object of Meng Tian’s expedition nearly a century earlier. These military of­fensives were followed by a renewed interest in border walls, as the Han court began attempting to fortify its defenses along the north­ern frontier, and particularly near the Ordos region. Historians esti­mate that the Han may have constructed up to 10,000 kilometers of border walls, stretching all the way from Lop Nur, in what is today Xinjiang, to the Yalu River on the present border between China and North Korea. Remnants of this Han Wall are still visible today, including a relatively well-preserved section consisting of alternat­ing layers of reeds and gravel near Yumenguan, in an arid desert re­gion near the Gansu-Xinjiang border.

Even following the breakdown of the post-Baideng detente, the Wall continued to be recognized by both Han and Xiongnu as a po­litically meaningful border. In the first-century ce historian Ban Gu’s Book of Han—the dynastic history that picks up where Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian leaves off—we find a Xiongnu leader in the first year BcE describing the Wall in neutral or even positive terms: “The territory to the south of the Long Wall belongs to the Son of Heaven [the Han emperor], while that to the north be­longs to the [Xiongnu] chanyu. If this border Barricade is breached, it will immediately become known, and we will take no prisoners.”6 The Han Wall is presented here as not only keeping the Xiongnu out of Han territory but also keeping the Han out of the northern regions occupied by the Xiongnu, and in fact Ban Gu quotes the Xiongnu leader as having threatened to attack the Han if they at­tempted to venture out beyond their own Wall.

While the chanyu (in the discussion quoted by Ban Gu) uses the traditional term “the Long Wall” when speaking of the Wall as marking the limits of China’s territory, when he turns to the struc­ture’s significance in marking the outer limits of the Xiongnu’s own authority, he switches to speaking of it as a sai—borrowing a term that conventionally means “frontier” or “border,” but which, in passages like Sima Qian’s description of the Qin Wall at the begin­ning of this chapter and in the discussion of the 192 bce heqin treaty cited above, appears to be used interchangeably to refer ei­ther to the border itself, or to the material barricades with which that same border is secured.

One of the best-known examples of the Wall’s role in mediating between the Han and the Xiongnu can be found in the story of a Han woman whose name has become virtually synonymous with her act of chusai or, literally, “going beyond the Barricade.” The woman in question was the Han imperial consort Wang Zhaojun, who is now celebrated as one of the four beauties of ancient China and who has been recently described as the “most heavily and con­tinuously written about woman in Chinese history.”7 As the most famous beneficiary of China’s heqin arrangement, Wang Zhaojun speaks to Han perceptions of the frontier territory separating them from—and uniting them with—their northern neighbors, as well as to the intersecting concerns with ethnicity and gender that have continued to inform the Chinese political imagination up to the present.

The first known reference to Wang Zhaojun appears in Ban Gu’s Book of Han, where she is identified as Wang Qiang—with Qiang rendered with a character that means “wall.” Wang’s claim to fame results from her relationship with a Xiongnu by the name of Hu Hanye, who was appointed chanyu in 58 все and two years later managed, with the help of the Han emperor, to put down an at­tempted coup by his own brother. To express his gratitude for the emperor’s support, Hu Hanye made three trips to the Han capital of Chang’an to pay tribute to the court, and on the third visit he asked the emperor to grant him a royal princess in marriage. The emperor responded by noting that while Hu Hanye’s brother had committed several violations of ritual propriety (including, on one occasion, having had the bad form to execute a Han emissary), Hu Hanye, by contrast, had indicated he was willing to “protect the Barricade in perpetuity, as it stretches over hills and valleys all the way to Dunhuang in the West.” He added, “Please call off the of­ficials and soldiers stationed there, so that the emperor and his sub­jects may rest easy.”8 In the end, however, the emperor declined to grant him the princess he had requested, and instead offered him Wang Zhaojun, a lady-in-waiting who had been living in the impe­rial palace for several years awaiting the possibility that the em­peror might select her to be an imperial consort.

After being married off to the Xiongnu chanyu, Wang Zhaojun went to live with her new husband “beyond the barricade,” where she bore him a child or two (depending on the source). Following Hu Hanye’s death, Wang requested the emperor’s permission to “return to the Han” but was instructed to remain in the north. She did, and in accordance with Xiongnu custom, she then mar­ried her deceased husband’s elder brother, with whom she pro­ceeded to have one or two more children (again, depending on the source). Another Han dynasty text claims that after the death of her first husband, Wang was expected to marry her eldest son (or step­son), Shiwei, whereupon she reportedly asked him, “Are you a Han, or a Hu?” When Shiwei replied that he was “more Hu,” Wang Zhaojun responded by committing suicide.

While these early sources differ on many of the specific details of Wang Zhaojun’s fate, they all agree that she lived out the remainder of her days with the Xiongnu. Her traversal of the Han dynasty Wall, therefore, symbolized the role of the Han tributary system in securing a stable, long-term relationship between the societies on ei­ther side of this paradigmatic border, in a ritual of exchange that represents the Wall’s own transformation from material barrier to abstract symbol of the border. Hu Hanye suggests that his receipt of Wang Zhaojun renders the actual defense of the Wall unnecessary, transforming it into a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of the Han and Xiongnu societies on opposite sides of the border it represents.

A rich and nuanced body of popular lore has developed out of this original kernel of Wang Zhaojun’s story, with much of it focus­ing on the process by which she was selected to be the Xiongnu bride. While the original version of the story simply notes that Wang was chosen by the emperor, subsequent iterations offer a va­riety of perspectives on the process. The Book of the Later Han, for instance, specifies that Wang Zhaojun, frustrated by her inability to win the emperor’s favor, had actually volunteered to be married to the Xiongnu leader. Another work describes how she declined to bribe the official court painter, who retaliated by rendering her very unattractive, with the result that when it came time to select five ladies-in-waiting to send to the Xiongnu leader, the emperor—who had never seen Wang Zhaojun in person—decided on the basis of her unflattering portrait that she was eminently expendable. In a roughly contemporary text, Wang Zhaojun is presented as a passive — aggressive figure who, out of resentment for the emperor’s failure to notice her, refused to adorn herself and thus made him even more disinclined to notice her. When Hu Hanye visited the court, how­ever, she dressed up in her finest clothes and makeup and volun­teered to become his wife.

Wang Zhaojun remains an object of intense fascination today, having inspired countless essays, poems, plays, novels, paintings, and even musical compositions. She was featured in a 1923 play by Guo Moruo, a 1964 Shaw Brothers film, and a 1988 television miniseries. Her officially recognized tomb near Hohhot is now a major landmark, and there are more than a dozen other sites in the region that also claim to hold her remains. One reason for the pe­rennial interest in her story is that her experience symbolizes the ethnic tensions that have long haunted the Chinese nation, and also represents the possibility of their eventual resolution. The literal ex­change of her person between the Chinese and Xiongnu leaders, meanwhile, anticipates the virtual exchange and circulation of her stories through China and beyond—suggesting that these stories similarly represent China’s ethnic tensions and a desire for their transcendence.

Another woman whose story has become inextricably inter­twined with that of the Wall is Meng Jiangnu, or “Lady Meng Jiang”—whose tears are reputed to have brought about the collapse of the Wall itself. In the earliest iterations of this legend, the protag­onist is not given a name of her own but is merely identified by her relationship to her husband, Qi Liang. Even after she began to be identified as Meng Jiang during the Tang dynasty, there remained disagreement over what precisely the name signified. Some versions of the story treated Meng as the woman’s surname and Jiang as her given name, while others treated both Meng and Jiang as surnames (presenting her as the offspring of the Meng and Jiang families).

Some even used Mengjiang as her given name and assigned her a different surname altogether.

Unlike the story of Wang Zhaojun, the original source of which can be identified with a fair degree of precision, the historical ori­gins of the Lady Meng Jiang legend are as murky as those of the Wall itself. We find a suggestive clue to the historical provenance of this legend buried behind a makeshift barricade in one of the fa­mous Mogao Caves near the city of Dunhuang. Located in remote Gansu Province near an oasis along the trans-Asiatic trade route known as the Silk Road, these caves were used by Buddhist monks beginning around the fourth century to store scriptures and other texts. In the eleventh century, several of the inner caves were sealed off and their existence was largely forgotten, while the outer caves continued to be used until around the fourteenth century, where­upon they too were abandoned. When an itinerant Taoist monk by the name of Wang Yuanlu happened on the caves in the 1890s, he appointed himself their unofficial guardian and set about trying to restore and preserve what he could of their contents.

One day in 1900, Wang Yuanlu noticed a walled-off area in a corridor leading to one of the main caves, and upon knocking down this barrier he discovered a small room—now known as Cave 17 or the Library Cave—containing hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts. Thanks to having been sealed off for centuries, and owing to the arid climate of the region, many of the documents were in remarkably good condition. The collection comprised nu­merous Buddhist, Taoist, Nestorian, and Manichaean scriptures, together with other religious texts (including a copy of the Dia­mond Sutra from 868 that is the oldest dated printed text in the world). In addition, the cave contained a trove of social and literary documents, some of which were preserved only because they hap­pened to be written on pages that had subsequently been recycled for copying Buddhist sutras on the reverse side. Coming just a year after a couple of epigraphers in Beijing noticed—on bone fragments used as a popular remedy for malaria—mysterious markings that subsequently proved to be the first traces of the 3,000-year-old Shang dynasty oracle bone inscriptions that would revolutionize historians’ understanding of early China, Wang Yuanlu’s discovery of the Dunhuang manuscripts similarly offered a remarkable and unexpected insight into medieval Chinese political, social, and in­tellectual culture.

It took Wang Yuanlu several years before he was able to interest others in his find, but eventually several international expeditions descended on the area, including teams led by the Anglo-Hungarian archaeologist Aurel Stein and the French Sinologist Paul Pelliot, who managed to convince Wang Yuanlu to sell them tens of thou­sands of scrolls and other documents from the caves. One of the Dunhuang documents that ended up in the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris was a short, anonymous verse that is the earliest known text to identify Lady Meng Jiang by that name. The document dates from the ninth or tenth century, and tells the story of Meng Jiang and her husband “Fan Liang,” who was conscripted by the Qin em­peror to help build the Wall:

Lady Meng Jiang,

The wife of Fan Liang.

When he left for the northern mountains, he never returned.

She had sewn him winter clothes but had no one to deliver them,

So eventually she had no choice but to take them herself.

The road to the Long Wall

Is truly difficult.

[two characters illegible] snow blows all around at the base of the


Where they drink alcohol in order to avoid food poisoning.

You, who were so healthy and strong, please come home soon!9

This lyric contains many of the elements that have subsequently come to be associated with the story of Lady Meng Jiang, including her husband’s having been conscripted to work on the Wall and her own decision to take him his winter clothes. This version of the text, however, is very fragmentary and contains several miswritten and illegible characters. The name used for Meng Jiang’s husband, for instance, is not Qi, as he was previously known, but rather the visually similar character Fan (fan means criminal, and some later versions of the legend would retain this character for its semantic valence, rendering the husband’s name as fan Qi Liang, or “the criminal Qi Liang”). It is precisely in its fragmentariness and imper­fection, however, that this verse dramatizes the haphazard pro­cess by which the Meng Jiang legend gradually assumed its current form.

A more detailed version of the legend can be found in another, roughly contemporary, Dunhuang fragment. This latter text is a rendering of Lady Meng Jiang’s story in alternating prose and verse sections and, like the verse cited above, this one also refers to Meng Jiang’s bringing down the Wall with her tears and her subsequent use of her blood to identify her husband’s bones. The fragment be­gins with a verse description of Qi Liang’s ghost appearing to Meng Jiang in a dream and describing the circumstances of his death, to which she responds by weeping loudly and exclaiming,

“I did not know you had met a violent end at the Long Wall!

As you say that your bones have been buried inside the Wall,

I do not know what more I can say.”

Meng Jiang threw herself to the ground and wept to High Heaven, Lamenting at length that her husband had died much too early.

A woman’s determination till death can move rivers and mountains: Because of her piteous weeping, the Long Wall collapsed!

The text then goes on to describe, in prose, how Meng Jiang discov­ered a pile of bones beneath the Wall, but could not initially be cer­tain which of them had belonged to her husband:

The bones were heaped in a pile, so how could she choose the right ones? She bit her finger till she drew blood and sprinkled it on the Long Wall to display her determination. …As the drop of blood dis­solved, it immediately penetrated [the bone] completely. Of all the more than three hundred [of her husband’s] bones and joints, not a single one was missing.10

The text describes how Meng Jiang collects her husband’s bones in order to give them a proper burial, but then breaks off abruptly.

Meng Jiang’s attempt to make sense of the pile of bones she finds under the Wall and separate out her husband’s remains provides a compelling metaphor for our own relationship with her legend. From an inherently fragmentary and incomplete body of texts, in other words, we attempt to reconstruct a coherent narrative of the evolution of the story of Meng Jiang and its relationship to the Wall. To find the origins of the legend, however, it is necessary to peer deep into the past and consider a body of texts that antedate all of the subsequent legend’s most distinctive elements (including descriptions of the Wall and Meng Jiang’s wailing, and even the specification of her name itself), and that tell a story that bears only the most fleeting resemblance to that of Lady Meng Jiang as we know it today. These early texts provide the foundation for an in­creasingly elaborate mythos, the gradual development of which re­sembled a process of ad hoc wall building in its own right—with each new iteration of the story borrowing selected elements from earlier versions, while in the process revising, expanding, and trans­forming them into something new.

Although “Meng Jiang” is not identified by this name until around the Tang dynasty, there exists a much older tradition de­scribing an unnamed woman’s reaction to the death of her hus­band, a soldier named Qi Liang. The earliest known reference to this story of Qi Liang and his wife can be found in a Warring States-period historical text known as the Zuozhuan, from which

Sima Qian drew liberally in compiling his Records of the Historian. The passage in question describes a 550 все attack on the city of Ju by Duke Zhuang from the state of Qi, and specifically mentions a soldier named Qi Liang under the duke’s command. After Qi Liang is killed in battle, the prince of Ju allows his corpse to be re­trieved and returned home. Later, when Duke Zhuang encounters Qi Liang’s wife on the outskirts of town, he attempts to offer his condolences. Rather than accept the duke’s expression of sympathy, however, Qi Liang’s wife chastises him for the inappropriateness of the location and circumstances: “If Qi Liang were guilty of an of­fence, then you needn’t offer condolences. But if he is not charge­able with any offence, then there is the humble cottage of his father [where you can convey your respects properly], so I shouldn’t ac­cept your condolences here on the outskirts of town.”11 Although this account features some of the same concerns with spousal devo­tion that underlie the Lady Meng Jiang story as it has come down to us, this particular iteration makes no mention of Meng Jiang (at least by that name), the Wall (or any wall, for that matter), nor any of the other trademark elements of the resulting legend. Instead, the text simply notes that the encounter between Duke Zhuang and Qi Liang’s wife took place “on the outskirts of town,” without even identifying the town in question (the town of Ju? Qi Liang’s home­town in Qi?).

We find another version of the legend a couple of centuries later in the pre-Confucian Book ofRites, though this time with the addi­tional detail that Qi Liang’s wife had “wailed bitterly” when she saw her husband’s corpse. Inserted here almost as an afterthought, the description of the wife’s wailing subsequently developed into one of the iconic elements of the story as a whole. Meanwhile, the Warring States-period Confucian classic, the book of Mencius, also alludes to how the wives of Qi Liang and a fellow soldier named Hua Zhou both “bewailed their husbands so skillfully that they managed to change the customs of the state.” The text then uses this description to illustrate a broader point about the appropri­ate expression of ritual protocol—positing that internal virtue will necessarily manifest itself through ritual performance or, as the Mencius itself puts it, “That which is contained within, will neces­sarily manifest itself without.”12 In contrast to the Zuozhuan’s em­phasis on the importance of adhering to existing conventions of rit­ual propriety, the Mencius passage focuses on the way in which the wailing becomes the basis for a new ritual protocol, to bring about a “change [in the] customs of the state.”

Collectively, these pre-Qin texts include virtually all of the key el­ements of what will ultimately develop into the legend of Meng Jiang’s tears toppling the Wall—except that there is still no refer­ence to the Wall itself. While it is true that in a later Western Han text there is a description of how Qi Liang’s wife “wailed in the di­rection of the wall [cheng], and her tears were enough to cause a re­mote portion of the wall to collapse,” even here the “wall” in ques­tion appears to designate merely a city wall rather than a territorial border wall.13

The story of the Qin Wall does not begin to be grafted back onto the existing legend of Meng Jiang until around the Tang dynasty. One of the earliest known iterations of the legend to feature a refer­ence to the Wall can be found in an otherwise unknown text cited in a fragmentary eighth-century Japanese manuscript. In this version of the story, the Lady Meng Jiang character (who here goes by the name Meng Zhongzi) is a young woman from the kingdom of Yan who is bathing outside one day when she happens to be glimpsed by a soldier named Qi Liang, who has escaped from one of the First Emperor’s Wall-building brigades. Meng Zhongzi insists that, given that the soldier has now seen her nude, he must marry her immedi­ately in order to preserve her honor. He agrees to do so, but after they wed he returns to the Wall, where he is summarily executed for having tried to escape. When Meng Jiang learns of his death, she travels to where he had been stationed and weeps so bitterly that her tears bring the structure tumbling down, revealing an enormous pile of human bones lying underneath. At a loss as to how to distin­guish her husband’s bones from the others, she bites her finger in frustration. When the blood from her finger drips onto one of the bones, it is immediately absorbed. Meng Jiang realizes that this bone must be one of her husband’s, and she proceeds to use the same technique to identify the rest of his remains and provide them with a proper burial.

In addition to grafting the Lady Meng Jiang story onto the paral­lel tradition of the First Emperor’s Wall, this Tang dynasty text also alludes to the popular belief that remains of the soldiers and con­scripts who died working on the Wall are buried beneath it. We find a reference to this tradition in a folk song often attributed to the Book of Han, in which the legend is cited as a justification for valu­ing daughters over sons:

If you have a son, don’t lift him up,

But if you have a daughter, nurse her to your chest.

Don’t look beneath the Long Wall,

As it is supported by bones.14

Chinese culture has long maintained a distinct preference for sons over daughters. Even early Shang dynasty oracle bones, for in­stance, feature inscriptions addressing whether or not an impending birth will be “auspicious” or not (with an “auspicious” birth being, of course, that of a boy). The value placed on sons in Chinese soci­ety is informed by a corresponding emphasis on the importance of preserving one’s family name. This Han dynasty folk song inverts the traditional Chinese preference for sons over daughters, implic­itly undermining the dream of patrilineal perpetuity that helped in­form the Qin emperor’s original decision to ensure his dynasty’s survival by building the Wall.

These considerations of kinship and sovereignty are complicated in some later versions of the legend, in which Qi Liang is presented as a relative of the First Emperor’s general Meng Tian, and Lady Meng Jiang negotiates directly with the First Emperor to help se­cure her husband’s proper burial. In one set of variations on this theme, Meng Jiang promises herself to the emperor, only to throw herself into the sea as soon as her husband has been properly bur­ied. Just as Wang Zhaojun—in one popular version of that leg — end—voluntarily offered herself up to the Xiongnu leader, Lady Meng Jiang strategically offers herself to the First Emperor, but for the express purpose of reaffirming her devotion to her husband, Qi Liang.

Not only do the Wang Zhaojun and Lady Meng Jiang legends combine a focus on the Wall with an attention to the significance of marriage, they also share a more general interest in ritual perfor­mance. Ritual in China has long been closely associated with Con­fucianism, which itself has a rather complicated history. Chairman Mao, for instance, was notoriously critical of the “feudal” philoso­phy, and repeatedly attempted to abolish it entirely, while the First Emperor was so suspicious of the Confucians that he allegedly burned their books and buried their scholars alive. Confucianism did not fare much better under the Han, as the dynasty’s founder— the former peasant subsequently known as Emperor Gaozu—at one point notoriously expressed his disdain by urinating into a Confucian scholar’s cap. It was, however, under Emperor Gaozu that Confucianism was formally introduced to the Chinese court. Ironically, what interested the emperor actually had nothing to do with the Confucians’ teachings on morality and ethics: it was the purely practical benefit of their expertise in ritual. As Sima Qian recounts in Records of the Historian, shortly after the peasant- turned-emperor set up his new court, he realized that many of his followers were undisciplined former soldiers, who were

given to drinking and wrangling over their respective achievements,

some shouting wildly in their drunkenness, others drawing their

swords and hacking at the pillars of the palace so that Emperor Gaozu worried about their behavior. [His adviser] Shusun Tong knew that the emperor was becoming increasingly disgusted by the situation, and so he spoke to him about it. “Confucian scholars,” he said, “are not much use when one is marching to conquest, but they can be of help in keeping what has already been won. I beg to sum­mon some of the scholars of Lu to join with my disciples in drawing up a ritual for the court.”

“Can you make one that is not too difficult?” asked the em­peror. . . . “You may try and see what you can do. But make it easy to learn! Keep in mind that it must be the sort of thing I can perform.”15

Shusun Tong obliged and came up with a set of court rituals that were simple enough for even the emperor to learn, and in return he was appointed Master of Ritual and awarded 500 catties of gold. Having been chosen by the first Han emperor purely on account of the appeal and simplicity of its rituals, Confucianism was subse­quently designated, during the reign of the dynasty’s seventh em­peror, as the official ideology of the court.

Generally speaking, ritual performance is concerned with the re­lationship between inner substance and outer appearance, and al­though Confucian ritual is ostensibly predicated on the assumption that inner virtue will naturally be manifested through external pro­priety, in reality it derives its power from a potential divergence of performance and belief. That is to say, although philosophical Con­fucianism is ostensibly concerned with people’s inner thoughts and attitudes, its ritualistic performances focus more on establishing a uniformity of external practice. To the extent that Confucianism ul­timately emphasizes correct practice rather than correct belief, it encourages the appearance of social homogeneity while permitting individuals and groups to maintain their respective beliefs. When the first Han emperor pragmatically called on Confucian scholars to develop a set of rituals for his new court, he inadvertently stum­bled onto what would become one of Confucianism’s best-kept se — crets—that its success as an ideology is grounded, in no small part, on the practical appeal of its rituals.

Like Confucian ritual, the Wall’s power lies in its status as a figurative screen onto which a variety of different meanings and be­liefs may be projected. It is this quality of being a pure surface, fur­thermore, that provides the foundation for the Wall’s conceptual unity and historical continuity. Like the workers who are reputed to have been buried beneath the Wall to help strengthen its base, the Wall’s “true meaning” actually lies hidden beneath its surface, and it is this inaccessibility that provides the ground for the structure’s own unity and coherence. We tend to assume, in other words, that others understand the Wall the same way we do, and it is this as­sumption—rather than a concrete continuity of identity—that helps explain the Wall’s uncanny resilience as a symbolic entity.

The First Emperor imagined the Wall as a symbol, and a symp­tom, of his dream of a dynasty that would anchor a direct pat­rilineal chain for “ten thousand generations,” but in the network of pre — and post-Qin walls discussed above we find, instead, a very dif­ferent vision of the Wall based on a pattern of ruptured patrilines and exogamous circulation. From the Qin queen dowager’s danger­ous liaison with the barbarian Rong king to Wang Zhaojun’s mar­riage to the Xiongnu chanyu, we repeatedly find walls being associ­ated with women circulating between patrilines, rather than with the strict preservation of those patrilines themselves. These pro­cesses of wall construction and the symbolic circulation on either side of the seminal Qin dynasty Wall illustrate the fluidity that has permitted the concept of the Wall to evolve and adapt right up to the present, long outliving the First Emperor’s original construction and the specific significance with which he sought to invest it.

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