The Great Wall of China lends itself to myth and legend. Long walls wind across thousands of kilometres of the most remote parts of China, but no one knows their exact length. All sections of long wall in China date back hundreds of years, some thousands, but in many places no one knows the wall’s true age. The wall is at once familiar and, outside China at least, poorly known – fertile ground for speculation, exaggeration and storytelling.
This painting, from the entrance foyer to the Great Wall Museum at Jiayuguan, presents a mythic image of the western portion of the wall
As we walk alongside the wall we hope to collect stories and post them here, generally without much commentary. A word of warning: we often find Chinese stories obscure. They can end suddenly without any apparent resolution, or build toward a mighty punchline that fails to include humour. But even when we don’t understand the stories, we find them interesting.
This first one seems to allude to the experience of women who send their husbands out from the safety of the city to the dangers of military service along the wall. Or maybe it’s just a story about two birds.
When You Strike the Stone, a Swallow Sings
At both sides of the main entrance to Jiayuguan Fort, if you strike one stone with another you will hear a faint “jug jug.” A legend says that during the year of Zhende in the Ming Dynasty, a group of swallows nested inside the city wall at the fort.
One day, two swallows flew out into the desert to hunt for food. As the sun set, they flew merrily back toward the city. As the female flew through the city gate, a sudden gale rose up and blew the male off course. When he returned to the city gate, it was tightly closed. He bumped his head against the gate, but it would not open.
The female swallow waited and waited, but the male swallow never returned. She was so heart-broken she called out and made the sound “jug jug.” And people say that is the undying soul of the female swallow.
Adapted from an interpretive sign at the Great Wall Museum, Jiayuguan