Thursday, February 14, 2013

Review of "Outlaws of the Marsh" by Shi Nai’an & Luo Guangshuo

There are four “novels” in the Chinese canon that are considered the greatest of all time.  Even the devastating Cultural Revolution of the 1970s unable to shake cultural perception of their importance, Shi Naian and Luo Guanzhong’s 14th century(ish) Outlaws of the Marsh, or as it is known in other translations, The Water Margin, Men of the Marshes, or The Marshes of Mt. Liang, is one of the four.  Though technically a work of historical fantasy given the parallels to factual Song dynasty events and “super-hero” powers many of the outlaws possess, the book is better classified as a work of social commentary given the political and social context, not to mention denouement.  Considered a juxtaposition to another of the canonical works, Chinese people say: “The Three Kingdoms should not be read by the old, and Outlaws of the Marsh should not be read by the young.”   It took me years of thought to realize why, but I finally did.

Spanning more than 2,500 pages (yes, 2,500), Outlaws of the Marsh is the story of Song Jiang and the rise and fall of the band he unites to fight against a corrupt government.  Bearing some similarity to the legend of Robin Hood, the first half of Outlaws relates how 108 men come together, fighting off government troops who seek to infiltrate and destroy their mountain-marsh stronghold.  Each of the men having his own history and entry point into the group, Shi goes into varying levels of detail describing the motley collection and the fantastic skill each possesses.  Dai Zong for example, is able to run nine times faster than the average man, Wu Song is strong enough to kill a tiger with his bare hands, and perhaps the most enjoyable Li Kui, the human Tasmanian Devil, flies in to a rage at the slightest provocation, but always remains loyal to the cause.

The group having been more or less assembled, the second half of Outlaws of the Marsh tells of the group’s slow dissolve.  I will leave the reader to discover how, but generally speaking the mode of the book shifts from comedy to tragedy, or more specifically, from fun adventure to bleak drama.

Upon my initial reading of the book, I was left feeling empty encountering this shift in mode.  Where’s the consistency?  Why lead the reader in one direction, then suddenly take things in another?  How could such a book be considered alongside the greatness of Journey to the West, The Three Kingdoms, or Dream of Red Mansions?  Surely there is something I’m missing?  Something was missing, but it was my understanding.  

Outlaws of the Marsh, despite the colors of “comic war epic” lying on the surface, is not a book that can be taken at face value.  The arc its story describes is one which parallels the lives of the common people living at the time of the book’s writing.  Childhood full of innocence, fun, and dreams of something more, the bandits Song Jiang assembles carouse in almost comic book fashion in the beginning, the narrative tone playful while venturing into the fantastic.  Every child would love to be able to run like Dai, fight like Wu Song, swim like the Ruan brothers, or have the cleverness of Wu Yong.  Moreover, every youth thinks they can change the world—socially or politically—and make it a better place.  It’s only when a person gets older that the exigencies of life make themselves apparent and settle into the psyche, refining dreams to more realistic terms.  Not stopping there, Outlaws takes this idea one step further, citing the government as the fundamental reason why quality of life was better for some than most in the Song dynasty.  Corruption open and obvious, the outlaws’ dealings with the dynasty in the latter half prove more than they can handle.

In the end, Outlaws of the Marsh, if examined at both ends, exhibits a split personality that makes the novel the Chinese version of Don Quixote in more ways than one.  The story arc defined by the band of outlaws presents a transition from youthful aspiration to a sense of acceptance facing realities, particularly the government at the time (a point Cervantes steers more toward universal humanism).   The story beginning with fun and adventure but closing in tragic terms, its possible readers may find the first half intriguing while the second lagging, and vice versa.  Containing a pound or two of Chinese culture, that real events from the Song dynasty are incorporated into the narrative make it a piece for discussion on Chinese history.  The pounds in reality as well, interested readers who balk at the thought of diving into 2,500 pages should look for one of the abridged versions.  Pearl S. Buck’s excellent translation, entitled All Men Are Brothers, is about two-thirds the length.

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