Profile: Na-Young Jeon
As an original musical retelling the tale of the Great Wall opens, we sit with its lead player Na-Young Jeon on why tears of love triumphs over power.
BY Lestari Hairul | Jun 27, 2017 | Feature
Enshrined in the Chinese cultural collective as one of the Four Great Folktales of China, the tale of Meng Jiang Nu is a well-known one. A temple dedicated to her has existed at the beginning of the eastern side of the Great Wall for hundreds of years now; a statue of the lady gazing mournfully into the distance looms above the crowd of tourists paying their respects.
But as it is with myths that span thousands of years, coming into contact with different dynasties and being influenced by the various political epochs, the story of the legendary woman has several different versions. The one constant is her tears.
Can you cry on demand?
“I didn’t know that I could but I found out that I can during a photoshoot for The Great Wall!”
Na-Young Jeon isn’t Chinese. She’s of Korean descent, brought up in the Netherlands, and now spends most of her time in Seoul as her base when not performing elsewhere. But a week after this interview, she’s with her Great Wall co-star Nathan Hartono to explore the real Great Wall. The production team is made up of a mix of nationalities all coming together to tell a story that resonates with audiences unencumbered by the need for cultural familiarity.
“I connect so deeply with this story. I think it’s so important and, because I feel so much empathy for the world right now, it really didn’t take much [to get me to cry],” says Jeon, smiling. It’s a little hard to imagine her crying, her disposition so sunny and her eyes twinkling. But cry she must, that is the detail that made her character a legend.
As some versions go, Lady Meng Jiang fell in love with a man who was soon sent to the construction site of the Great Wall shortly after their meeting.
How they met, and how Lady Meng Jiang came to be—some claim she was born in a gourd growing from a tree on the boundary line of two childless families, one surnamed Meng and the other Jiang—are plot points that differ according to the storyteller’s. Jeon keeps mum over the version that the musical has decided upon, as written by acclaimed Singaporean playwright Jean Tay.
The emperor remains the villain, and strikingly echoes the state of the world today with the blithering head of state and his affinity for walls. The emperor of the Chinese tale came from the Qin dynasty, the First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi who sought to unite and keep the Han Chinese safe from the “barbarian” hordes of non-Han northerners. His solution was the Great Wall, a manic project that eventually became the site of countless deaths and the resting place of thousands of bones.
“People start to feel divided and we are very anxious and scared of differences between people, and that’s why we build walls around ourselves. That happens on a small scale, but also on a very big scale,” Jeon says. “I don’t want to get too political, but what Donald Trump suggested about the wall in Mexico is exactly what this story is about—the fear that makes people start building a wall and how we can overcome it, by uniting.”
Jeon is passionate about the musical’s message, her as a vessel for something bigger than herself to spread the message through performance. She describes the intimacy of theatre, the nature of its heart-to-heart connection between performer and audience, and the addictive presence of rapt attention that keeps her coming back to the stage over and over again. Even if the roles that she plays tend to be that of women who sacrifice themselves for something greater, and die doing it.
Again, the unintentional morbidity seems out of place. We are the same age, but she carries herself younger and lighter than this cynic does. Kim of Miss Saigon, Fantine of Les Misérables, Esmeralda of Notre-Dame de Paris, and if the stars align, hopefully, the title role in Evita someday. Does she pick roles based on their final act: death?
“No! I’d love to do a comic character one day.”
Jeon’s laugh is charming to hear, as is her melodious voice with its beautifully deep tonal quality. The role has difficult singing in store, with its wide range of the highest notes to a highlow coupled with maddening intervals. In 2014, when The Great Wall team first workshopped the musical together, Jeon had problems singing her part. But that has all changed now, something that she attributes to a greater awareness that singing isn’t just about figuring out how to hit the right notes, rather the understanding that she would need to involve her whole body as the instrument. It is again the idea of her body, mind, spirit and soul as a vessel for performance.
Within traditional Korean performance is a genre called pansori, a form of musical storytelling involving a singer and a drummer. For the past year, Jeon has been training in its techniques, the first performance of which she’d seen when she was four years old, which ignited her desire to perform.
“In pansori, there is a word ‘han’. ‘Han’ means the suffering that connects us all or that we can always see in each other. I think that ‘han’ is so important for us to feel empathy and compassion. Without that, there is no storytelling.”
Spoiler: Meng Jiang Nu dies at the end. But if you paid attention to Chinese folklore, you would know that already. After many months of not hearing anything about her lover, she packs up some lovingly handmade winter gear and makes her way to the Wall. An arduous journey, made in the bitter cold, spurred on by her love and faith. Alas, the sacrifice is for naught. Her lover died just days after being sent to the Wall overworked by the cruel Emperor. She weeps for days until the gods, moved by her sorrow, cause a section of the Wall to fall down, thereby revealing the countless bones embedded inside.
Gu Jiegang, the father of Chinese folklore studies and a member of the ’20s New Culture Movement in China, interpreted her tears as a subversive act conducted by someone with the least power in society (a woman) against the state (the Emperor and his wall). Her very public, unashamed sorrow over her lover’s death would have defied the Confucian ritual propriety called li. But political theories aside, it is a reaction that goes beyond class and ideological boundaries, motivated only by abiding love.
What happens next will be revealed from mid-July onwards, at the National Library Drama Centre.
This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, June/July 2017.