[In this cover from a Tianyi studio publication devoted to the film, Lady Meng Jiang (Hu Die) is pictured in front of the wall section collapsed by her tears, amidst the skeletons of some of the many who died building the wall. Click on any image to enlarge.]
By the mid-1920s, the democratic revolution led by Sun Yan-sen had not resulted in a strong and unified central government, in no small measure to so many parts of China falling under the control of warlords. But while warlordism inflicted much suffering on the Chinese people, the resultant lack of central control was probably the reason that the arts at that time enjoyed relatively greater freedom. Film companies such as Star, Shanghai Shadow Play, Great Wall and Shenzhou each had their own ideas, their own methods, and although competitors they followed policies of noninterference with each other. Two excellent examples of opposites coexisting could be found in 1925, with the Da Zhonghua Baihe (Greater China Lily) studio advocating "Europeanization" of the Chinese film industry while in that same year the Tianyi studio was founded by Shao Zuiweng, eldest of the Shao (later Shaw) Brothers, with an expressed policy of upholding traditional Chinese values and social ethics in order to avoid the Europeanization of creative ideas.
This early production of the Tianyi company is a perfect example of the Tianyi studio's early commitment to traditional values. It uses a traditional folk tale to show the coninued suffering of ordinary people caused by war and their ruthless governance by those holding political power, the emperor then and the warlords in the present.
Meng Jiang Nü (1926) 孟姜女 (Lady Meng Jiang)
Tianyi. Silent. 11 reels. Premiered December 5, 1926 in Shanghai, venue not recorded. Direction: Shao Zuiweng, Qiu Qixiang. Screenplay: Shao Cunren. Program notes: Gu Kenfu. Cast: Hu Die (Lady Meng Jiang), Jin Yuru (Wan Qinian), Wang Wukong (the Mengs' relative), Ding Huashi (Mrs. Meng), Wei Pengfei (Meng Fu), Zhang Diandian (Meng Xing), Zhang Dagong (Meng Fu), Zhang Huixian (Chunxiang), Shen Baozhen (Bi Yu), Zhou Kongkong (boatman), Xiao Tianbao (boatman’s mother), Zhang Zhizhi (Xie Chai), Zhou Nianzhong (Lizheng), Zhang Tanyun (Lizheng’s wife), Yu Qiaoweng (the Wans' relative), Wei Zhangshi (Wan’s wife), Dun Chusun (Qiao Zhong), Wang Motuo, Gao Menglou (bailiffs), Chen Zhengsheng (customs official).
[a young wife (Hu Die, center) worries when there is no word from her husband. It is interesting that while the story is set in the 2nd century BC, the actors are clad in more modern dress, lest anyone miss the point that the story is really a criticism of warlordism.]
During the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC), the first emperor Qin Shi Huang finds his realm harassed by attacks by the Xiongnu, barbarians from the north. To keep out the invaders, the emperor orders the building of a massive barrier, precursor to the Great Wall of China. To build the wall, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people are conscripted as workers, and untold thousands died at the site, never seeing their homes and families again. One such worker is a young man, husband of a beautiful young woman named Meng Jiang. At their emotional parting, she extracts from him a promise that she will hear from him again. After a period of time, with no word from her husband, Lady Meng Jiang travels to find him, but arriving at the construction site she learns the tragic news that her husband is dead. At the spot where he perished, she weeps uncontrollably, and her bitter tears and wailing cause a section of the wall to collapse.
When the emperor is informed of this incident, he travels to the site to investigate. When he arrives, he is so taken by Lady Meng Jiang's beauty that he wants to marry her. She agrees, but on three conditions: 1) that her late husband's remains be given a grand funeral; 2) the imperial court undertake a period of official mourning for him; and 3) the emperor and his court take her to visit the ocean. Although the whole idea of mourning a commoner is extremely distasteful to the emperor, his desire for the widow leads him to agree. After the the first two requests are completed, the emperor and his entourage escort Lady Meng Jiang to the coast. But there, she angrily and bitterly rebukes the emperor for his tyranny, after which she throws herself into the sea. The emperor orders his men to search for her, but the ocean waves drive them off.