Wohu Mountain – silhouetted watchtowers can be seen on the peaks
It’s been almost a year since we posted our first and only Legend of the Wall. We’d intended to collect legends from the interpretive signs at historical sites along the wall and republish them here, but as it turns out, there aren’t many interpretive signs at developed Great Wall sites. However, we finally found a second legend at the Gubeikou Great Wall north of Beijing, where there are quite a few interesting, though poorly maintained, signs.
The story is entitled “The Jinni of Mr Cai Appeared,” which is probably better translated as “The Ghost of Mr Cai.” It appears below as an extended block quote. We’ve reworked it some, as the English version of the story is obscure for those not experienced in reading Chinglish, but we haven’t changed any important details.
Before reading the story, you need to know two things for it to make any sense at all.
First, the Liao and Song dynasties were rival dynasties from 907 to 1125 AD. The Song were ethnically Chinese and occupied most of China south of the Yellow River. The Liao were Khitans, a nomadic people from the north, and though they ruled portions of northern China they were not Chinese.
Second, the General Cai who appears in the story is a figure who, according to legend, was put to death by order of the Emperor, after Cai’s palace rivals accused him of spending too much on the construction of the Great Wall at Huanghuacheng. Later, the Emperor discovered that the section built by General Cai was exceptionally firm, and built an honorary tomb to atone for his mistake in executing the general.
Here’s the legend.
The Jinni of Mr Cai Appeared
In the time of the Liao and Song dynasties, Han Chang, the commander-in-chief of the Liao state, was always looking for a chance to invade Song territory and expand the boundaries of the Liao.
One rainy June, Han Chang led his forces through the drizzle southward toward the North China plain. When the invaders reached the Wohu Mountain Great Wall, they could see no one, but all around they could hear the sounds of drums beating and the howl of soldiers. Han Chang looked up to the mountain, and suddenly, like a shooting star, he could see torches gyrating wildly all over the hills. Han Chang was so frightened he sent an adjutant bearing surrender papers to the mountain, but when the adjutant arrived, there was nothing there but the Great Wall.
Han Chang was gladdened, and again he sent forces to the foot of Woho Mountain. But like last time, drums began beating and torches appeared on the hillside, and Han Chang was forced to retreat.
This time when Han Chang’s adjutant ascended the mountain to surrender, he came upon an old man with a black and white moustache, sitting in his thatched hut drinking wine and holding a pair of chopsticks. The old man shouted:
“Listen, the one who besieged you was none other than the venerable General Cai, the Emperor of the Great Wall, who was unjustly put to death. Tell Han Chang that he cannot possibly escape, even if he has supernatural abilities!”
The old man then disappeared.
Upon hearing his adjutant’s report, Han Chang immediately understood that the drums, torches and howling had all been the work of the ghost of General Cai.
If the story strikes you as strange, don’t worry – we still think most Chinese stories are strange. But there are some pretty great things about this story as well.
Like any good legend, it completely mixes up time and place. The villain of the story, Han Chang, is from the Liao dynasty, which ended over 300 years before the Ming Great Wall was constructed. The hero, the ghost of General Cai, was reputed to have built the Huanghuacheng Wall, and as far as we know has no connection with the Gubeikou Wall.
But the story also touches on some important historically based truths: the wall’s main purpose was, of course, to repel nomadic invaders from the north, and its construction, far from being uncontroversial, was a source of palace intrigue for centuries.
And finally, like many good legends, this story may tell a tale that its author (or authors) did not intend. According to some Great Wall scholars, the wall was not a terribly rational defence strategy, and could be even considered a form of military wishful thinking – a sort of Ming Dynasty “Build it and they won’t come” fantasy. In the story, the wall plays a similar magical role, protecting the Chinese Song from the nomadic Liao without even the need for human soldiers.