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Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Nai'An

Outlaws of the Marsh (edition 2001)

by Shi Nai'An, Sidney Shapiro (Translator), Luo Guanzhong (Author)

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630922,028 (4.18)1 / 53
Title:Outlaws of the Marsh
Authors:Shi Nai'An
Other authors:Sidney Shapiro (Translator), Luo Guanzhong (Author)
Info:Foreign Languages Press (2001), Paperback, 2149 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:literature - non-Western

Work details

Water Margin by Shi Nai'An

  1. 00
    Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Vol. 1 by Lo Kuan-Chung (DavidGoldsteen)
    DavidGoldsteen: Another of the great "Four Classics" of Chinese literature. A fun read for anyone who likes historical novels, this book is historical in both senses -- it was written several centuries ago, and refers to a time in the distant past. The characters are sharply drawn, the stories clever, and there's rarely a dull moment.… (more)

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Written in the 14th century about events that supposedly occurred in the 12th, Outlaws of the Marsh (aka The Water Margin) is one of the classics of Chinese literature. It’s a collection of folk takes about a group of Robin-Hood-like honorable bandits that set up a fortress in China under the Song Dynasty and go about robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. There are various versions; a 75 chapter version (in which the outlaws are still outlaws at the end); a 100-chapter version (in which the outlaws accept an amnesty from the Song Dynasty government and go on to defend China against a Tartar invasion and a usurping emperor) and a 120-chapter version which adds some adventures.

This was a difficult read; after a while it became laborious rather than enjoyable. One problem, of course, is that it’s hard to keep track of the outlaws; there are eventually 108 of them: Chao Gai, Song Jiang, Lu Junyi, Lin Chong, Chai Jin, Lu Zhishen, Wu Song – and so on. Fortunately the translator usually appends their nicknames; thus we have Timely Rain, God of Death, Black Whirlwind, Nine-Tailed Tortoise, River Churning Clam - and so on. It’s still hard to keep track of who’s who.

In the first part of the novel each chapter recounts how one of the characters becomes an outlaw: tricked by a corrupt official; the result of an accidental killing; revenge for a murder; failure to make a go of it as a Buddhist monk – and so on. After the initial group establishes itself on Liangshan Mountain (also Liangshan Marsh; it’s never explained how it can be a mountain and a marsh simultaneously) things become formulaic: a government official sends troops and a general to suppress the outlaws; the general is defeated; he’s so impressed by the chivalry of the outlaws (who ply him with banquets and gifts and kowtows) that he joins them (since he’s now in disgrace anyway). Another formula is a small group of outlaws set out on some mission; they’re captured by other bandits, but once these bandits find out that their captives are some of the famous Liangshan outlaws, they release them, apologize, and petition to join up

For a group of supposedly chivalrous bandits, the outlaws are pretty bloodthirsty. Li Kui the Black Whirlwind is particularly grim; at one point he annihilates an entire opponent’s household – wife, concubines, children, servants, nannies, etc. When he gets back to the outlaw stronghold he is slightly admonished for being imprudent. Several of the outlaws were cannibals before joining up; at least two pair lured travelers to their inn then drugged them and cut them up for meat dumplings. Although the outlaws supposedly direct their activities against official corruption, their very first approach when things go wrong is to attempt to bribe some officials. Song Jiang, the outlaw leader for most of the book, joins them after murdering his concubine for cheating on him. That brings up another theme – almost all the women portrayed are evil – usually wives or concubines who cheat and are then brutally murdered. The exceptions are Ten Feet of Steel, an outlaw herself (the book generally follows a convention of translating female names), an outlaw warrior; Mistress Gu (one of the aforementioned cannibal couples) and Sun the Witch (another cannibal); thus two out of three of the “good” female characters were former cannibal murderesses.

The battles are formulaic as well. The outlaws meet their opponents, exchange insults, then one engages in single combat with an enemy leader. They use various martial arts weapons – rods, cudgels, staves, axes, halberds, spears, lances, swords, knives, thrown rocks. The outlaw defeats his opponent, who is either killed outright or flees; this disheartens the rest and the outlaws are victorious. It’s almost as if the 14th century author(s) somehow predicted the future would have kung fu movies and planned accordingly.

There are illustrative woodcuts from a Ming version, but it’s often hard to figure out what’s going on. The book could benefit from a lot more endnotes, and could use some maps of contemporary China. This version was published by the Foreign Languages Press of China; the translator is an American who took Chinese citizenship in 1963. I tend to suspect, therefore, that things have been edited to reflect national politics; but there was nothing obvious (the outlaws never use “The Workers Control The Means Of Production!” as a battle cry, for example).

I suppose the best analogy to a Western work would be to Arthurian legend. Everybody literate knows about the Arthur tales; however actually reading the antique language of Sir Thomas Mallory or Chrétien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach is more of a chore than an adventure. It’s probably heresy to suggest so, but Outlaws of the Marsh would benefit from the Chinese equivalent of T.H. White to clean it up and make it more accessible. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 16, 2017 |
The Outlaws of the Marsh (Shui Hu Zhuan) is the third of the Six Classic Chinese novels I have read so far, and the earliest one: it was written in the 14th century, but like The Scholars and The Plum in the Golden Vase, it is set several centuries before that time, specifically in the 12th century during the Song dynasty – there does seem to be a distinct pattern here, with each of the three novels referring to their particular present only by way of writing about the ostensible past; which is all the more remarkable as the novels are otherwise quite different from each other. (Not in all respects, however, as one thing I have learned from this reading project is that the ancient Chinese liked their novels not only very long but also with lots and lots of characters – The Outlaws of the Marsh may not be quite as sprawling in that regard as The Scholars, but again we get a veritable host of protagonists which make War and Peace look like an intimate drama in comparison.)

There appears to still be a debate about the authorship of The Outlaws of the Marsh – while the author is not (like it was the case with The Plum in the Golden Vase) anonymous, there are several candidates to chose from. The most common ones are to ascribe it either to Shi Nai’an (ca. 1296–1372) or to Luo Guanzhong (ca. 1330–1400, who also wrote Romance of the Three Kingdoms, another once of the Big Six) or, in fact, to both of them, with Shi Nai’an responsible for most of the novel and Luo Guanzhong for its last twenty chapters or possibly just for editing it (which is the theory I’m going with, for no particular reason at all). Everyone agrees, however, that the novel is based on an earlier collection of stories, the written version of a series of oral tales around the bandits from Liangshang Marsh – a point which, I think, is of particular importance for understanding the novel (and to which I’ll return later). And to make textual matters even more complicated, there are three versions of the novel, a 70, 100 and 120 chapters version respectively. Because there is currently no Kindle version available in Germany (or rather, and somewhat bizarrely, only of the final two volumes) of what is the most complete (120 chapters) and apparently also best English translation by Alex and John Dent-Young, I went with the translation by Sidney Shapiro which is based on the 100 chapter version and supposedly also very good. It certainly read very fluently and without the pseudo-Oriental floweriness with which many translators like to garnish their efforts. In fact, I was surprised at quite how entertaining a read this was – one wouldn’t really expect a 14th-century novel to be a fun romp, but this is exactly what The Outlaws of the Marsh turned out to be.

Basically, this is an adventure story describing the multiple and varied ways in which the protagonists find themselves outlawed after falling prey to the corruption of the Song dynasty empire and finally end up as part of a huge gang of bandits residing in Liangshang Marsh, their various deeds and misdeeds and how they finally seek and find pardon with the emperor and go to war for him. It is full of memorable characters, all of which are much larger than life – this being a marked difference to The Plum in the Golden Vase and The Scholars, both of which are realistic at heart, while The Outlaws of the Marsh reads like an odd mixture of the picaresque and the heroic and is also full of explicitly supernatural elements and occurrences.

One reason why the author of The Plum in the Golden Vase may have chosen to take a story from The Outlaws of the Marsh as the starting point of her novel is that we find a similar degree of total corruption here – with the difference however, that most characters here still feel the urge to justify their deeds. The novel is often considered as a kind of Chinese Robin Hood variant, and on the surface this seems certainly plausible; but one only needs to scratch lightly for the veneer of benevolence to come off. The outlaws keep insisting that they never harm civilians or people who did not deserve it – which is not keeping them, however, from slaughtering whole families of people who have opposed them, or killing a child for the sole purpose of persuading someone to join their band. Granted, ethics in 14th century China probably were not quite the same as in 21st century Europe, but I do doubt that the cold-blooded murder of a child was any more acceptable there and then than it is here and now. Another example of the prevailing hypocrisy is how the initial crime of one of the novel’s main protagonists, Song Jiang, (he killed his concubine) seems less and less grievous every time it is mentioned, until the original murder has transformed into nothing but a “judicial mishap.”

In the second half of the novel there is a marked shift from adventures of individual characters towards large-scale troop movements, a shift that is completed when the bandits give up their criminal careers and start to work in the service of the emperor – the rest of the novel then is taken up by the description of two military campaigns, one repelling invaders from the Liao empire and one putting down a revolt. There is no change in the behaviour of our heroes however who not only continue merrily to slaughter innocents, but also have no scruples to pretend to surrender to their opponents, only to then stab them in the back – again, I doubt there ever was a culture or a time when this would have been considered chivalrous, and yet both the former bandits and the narrative keep touting their presumed nobility of character.

Something, then, is decidedly off here – or is it? I mentioned before that The Outlaws of the Marsh is a retelling of an earlier collection of tales, and for my part, I am convinced that the author of the novel is giving his source material a subversive spin. When one looks closer one notices that the bandits’ leader, Song Jiang, is almost the only one that is interested in getting a pardon from the emperor and that he pulls it through only by circumventing or going against the outright opposition of his fellow chiefs. And things do start to go wrong for the Lianghsang Marsh bandits from the moment they change sides; during the first campaign it is merely lack of official acknowledgement and court intrigues Song Jiang and his men have to struggle with, but once they start fighting Fang La and his fellow rebels – who clearly is an image of what the outlaws of the marsh may have become had they not courted the emperor’s favour instead – the death toll rises, and I was getting a strong impression that the author felt a grim satisfaction in killing off his protagonists one after the other.

There seems to be second narrative running along the “official” one, or rather a second, alternative interpretation of events which sees the story of the outlawed bandits becoming a part of the established order not as a triumph and rise to glory, but rather as a decline and ultimately a tragic downfall. This is nowhere clearly stated, in fact it goes completely against what the narrative states explicitly, and yet there is such a large amounts of irritations, off-kilter moments and general inconsistencies between what is claimed and what the reader sees actually happening, that their cumulative effect is to topple the “official” interpretation in favour of a subversive one which strongly insinuates maybe lawlessness is the better state of things. Emblematic of this is the character of Li Kui, the Black Whirlwind who is almost the exact opposite of Song Jiang. He is loud, boisterous and extremely violent, almost a force of nature – and possibly the most likable character in the novel. As an embodiment of anarchy, he seems to stand against every virtue The Outlaws of the March claims to advocate, but ultimately it is not restrained, reasonable Song Jiang who represents this novel best, but it is Li Kui’s untamed, irresponsible utterly over-the-top nature which captures the true spirit of The Outlaws of the Marsh.
3 vote Larou | Oct 5, 2016 |
The uber-source for all Kung Fu, Samurai and ultimately Westerns: Probably there's no way that a Western reader coming upon this many centuries later could understand all the subtleties, but this is a fascinating read. A combination of the Iliad and Robin Hood, but of course in a Chinese context. A great study for compact character development too. One thing that surely does ring true, unfortunately, is the desperation felt by good men forced by a ruthless and incompetent bureaucratic structure, to leave conventional society and forge their own path. ( )
  idyll | Apr 9, 2013 |
There are Four Great Classical Chinese Novels? Why don't I know anything about anything?

Okay...yes, and they are: this one;
- [b:Romance of the Three Kingdoms|158771|Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Vol. 1|Luo Guanzhong|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1344735551s/158771.jpg|16666]
- [b:Monkey: The Journey to the West|100237|Monkey The Journey to the West|Wu Cheng'en|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347431752s/100237.jpg|96649]
and [b:Dream of the Red Chamber|535739|Dream of the Red Chamber|Cao Xueqin|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320466606s/535739.jpg|523200]

Obviously I'm going to have to read one per year starting next year. Awesome, man, awesome.

Also, I'm gonna want to return to Maija's shelves at some point to look more closely at her non-Western choices. She seems to have thought this out well.

Meghan says Shapiro is well-considered; Dent-Young is also respected (but longer).
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (40 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Shi Nai'Anprimary authorall editionscalculated
Guànzhōng, LuoEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Nai-an, Shihmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Corvarrubias, MiguelIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Demaeckere, A.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kuhn, FranzTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shapiro, SidneyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shi ChangyuIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Yutang, LinIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This eight-lined poem was written during the reign of Emperor Shen Zong of the Song Dynasty by a scholar named Shao Yaofu, also known a Master Kang Jie.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (130)

An Daoquan

Bai Sheng

Bao Daoyi

Bao Xu

Cai Fu

Cai Jing

Lü Fang

Lü Shinang

Lei Heng

Li Gun

Li Jun (Water Margin)

Li Kui (Water Margin)

Tao Zongwang

Tian Hu

Tong Guan

Tong Meng (Water Margin)

Tong Wei

Wang Dingliu

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0804840954, Paperback)

The Water Margin is one of the "Four Great Classical Novels" of Chinese literature. Based upon the story of the historical bandit Song Jiang and his companions, this epic tale of a rebellion against tyranny has been thrilling and inspiring readers for hundreds of years. A stirring tale of a band of men left with no choice but to become outlaws when faced with a tyrannical and unjust government, The Water Margin is the Chinese equivalent of Robin Hood and His Merry Men.

First gaining popularity in the West when it was translated by Pearl S. Buck as All Men Are Brothers, this classic tale is presented here in a detailed translation more faithful to the Chinese original.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:51 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

It tells stories of a group of heroes,who stand for different classes of people daring to struggle against the evil.There are 105 men and 3 women in all,who are oppressed by the currupt and unjust official and then rise up.These stories take place at the end of the North Song period,describing various vivid pictures of farmers' uprising full of love and hate,ties of friendship, kind and enmity,etc.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 2 descriptions

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