CF: A long time ago, there was an emperor and an empress. The empress was so beautiful that one time, the emperor–he was just fed up. He didn’t want anyone to look at her–look at his wife, who is so gorgeous. He’s like ‘I am done. I want to keep her just for myself and I’m going to build this great wall–I’m going to build the longest wall, the highest wall so nobody can look at my empress. So that’s what he did! And that’s how the Great Wall was built.
AJ: Oh, I remember!
CF: You remember that? Yeah the Great Wall–it shields her from the outside world and he will just keep the empress to himself-
AJ: I want to tell one… one story.
CF: “Okay–but do you remember that story I told you? That’s the reason why it’s built!”
I was eating at Glory Days with my mother (CF) and five-year old cousin (AJ). My cousin always loves to hear a good story, so my mother always has one prepared to tell. She keeps the stories short and concise, to make sure she holds my cousin’s attention the entire time. My mother mentioned that her mother told these stories to her at great lengths in Cantonese. This was just one of the many tales her mother had up her sleeve from her plethora of experiences, which feel so distant when examining the past through these stories. Even though my mother says she can’t tell stories “like Oma (grandma) can,” she tries to remember them to connect her back to her childhood. Her memory of the full story is fragmented, and she changes the length depending on who she tells it to. More often than not, however, she’s used to being an audience member.
The passing down of a narrative contributes to a strong familial and cultural identity, as they are not only shared among people of the same culture, but they also have an ability to kindle intergenerational connections. My mother said that if there was anyone to collect tales and legends from, it would be my grandmother, as her wisdom and experience exceed anything my mother can tell right now. There seems to be a consistent relationship between the storyteller and the audience; the performers tend to be older and share these stories with younger generations to nourish their relationship to their cultural community. However, as my grandmother gets older, there appears to be a natural transition between who tells the story and who listens. Now, my mother has assumed the role of a performer and tells the story to my cousin and I. Oral performances grant flexibility in determining length and content–when we’re completely alone, my mother tends to flesh out the story and add her own humorous tidbits that only we understand together.
These tales on the speculative history of China pique curiosity and intrigue in the origins and meanings behind structures that hold a sacred value. There are countless tales and legends surrounding the Great Wall–it’s one of the Eight Wonders of the world, and its mystical aura lingers because of the stories that still circulate. Additionally, this ensures that the younger generations continue to appreciate and show interest in their cultural roots. After my grandparents immigrated to the US, it often felt like my family could be detached from Chinese customs and practices. However, the stories our ancestors carry can be everlasting; as long as we continue keeping them alive, these tales can constantly link us back to our cultural identity.