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Meng Jiangnü: Her Wails Split the Great Wall

One of the most famous tales about the Great Wall is the story of Meng Jiangnü, whose weeping caused the wall to collapse.

After he had finished conquering the six other states and had brought the country under one rule in 221 B.C., 

Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, was concerned about raids from the Xiongnu, a large group of nomads from the north. The previous states had built many sections of the wall to keep them out. The First Emperor launched a grandiose project which linked them into one, which became known as the Great Wall.

He sent one of his generals north along with 500,000 labourers. Among those assigned to the task was Meng Jiangnu's husband Wan Xiliang. There are different versions as to how he became her husband. She had been raised by a family other than her own, so bore two surnames, and was known as "the Meng-Jiang girl". One version has it that he was chosen out of numerous candidates by both families; another, that one day while she was in the garden, a man trying to escape from a pressgang leaped over the wall and landed at her feet. Her family took warmly to him, and as a result they fell in love and married.

On the night of their wedding, Wan Xiliang was seized by court officials. Before they parted, Meng took out her white jade hairpin and broke it in two. She gave half to Wan Xiliang with the words "my heart is as white and pure as this jade. Keep this half and you will always know that I am with you".

The news about how damaged the wall was becoming had reached her native town. The onslaught on the wall was brutal and relentless. Thousands upon thousands of labourers died from fatigue and maltreatment. Ancient books claimed that “ditches were filled with corpses" and that "skeletons piled up on top of each other".

Nothing was heard of Wan Xiliang after he left. When autumn came and the birds began to fly south, Meng Jiangnu realized that when he left he had been wearing only thin clothing, so she made him some padded clothing, bade her parents farewell and left in search of her husband.

One day, after feeling hungry and exhausted, she fainted by the roadside. When regained consciousness she found that she was lying on a heated bed with a white-haired old woman attending her. Meng was very eager to get on with her journey so the old woman decided to accompany her. After three days and nights, Meng Jiangnu decided that it was time to say goodbye to her and thank her for her kindness, but when she turned to her the old woman had disappeared. The legend suggests that she was an immortal who, through Meng's devotion, had assumed a disguise to care for her.

Meng Jiangnu found herself lost wandering around in the mountains. She then heard a flock of wild geese that seemed to be trying to communicate with her. She followed them and finally reached the Great Wall.

Once she arrived, she found the workers dressed in rags and reduced to skin and bones. Her mind immediately turned to her husband, to which she feared the worst. She climbed on top of a platform high above the wall and shouted until her voice was hoarse, but alas found no sign of her husband.