Outlaws of the Marsh, Paperback
5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 1642 pages
  • Publisher: Foreign Languages Press
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Thought & practice
  • ISBN: 9787119016627



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As the wild geese flock over Liangshan Marsh on an autumn eve, so do the pages fly by, a hundred score and more, leaving us all too soon with nothing but the echo of their song, the traces of our tears, and the last dregs of the wine. But the memory of Song Jiang and the 108 heroes of Liangshan Marsh is everywhere and everlasting.Shi Nai'an wrote Outlaws of the Marsh some time in the 14th century. Luo Guanzhong, the fabled author of Romance of the Three Kingdoms probably assisted Shi. Or perhaps Luo Guanzhong was Shi Nai'an. Or perhaps neither existed. But the novel certainly exists, even though its original form and content are as uncertain as its author's name. Its translation, too, has taken many identities: "The Water Margin," "All Men Are Brothers," "Marshes of Mount Liang," and "Outlaws of the Marsh."We do know that Song Jiang was a real person, the leader of a band of outlaws in the waning years of the great Song Dynasty early in our 12th century. Some of the other characters are known to have lived, but most of Outlaws of the Marsh is only what we wish might have happened. The events of the novel take place in roughly four phases. In the beginning, we find find first one brave individual, then another, the victim either of the machinations of a corrupt official or of his own overly zealous defense of his honor. Major Lu Da comes to the aid of a poor man and his daughter, killing the gangster who is threatening their liberty, but because of the gangster's local connections Lu must go into hiding in the guise of a Buddhist monk. Meanwhile in the capital, Arms Instructor Lin Chong is framed and sent into exile because his superior's son lusts after Lin's beautiful young wife. Each story connects loosely to the next, and these are only two of many stories as two stars in the firmament. Occasionally we hear mention of Liangshan Marsh, at the center of which lies Mount Liang, a notorious haven for outlaws. We also meet Song Jiang, a mere county clerk, but a man with a widespread reputation for honesty and a willingness to stick his neck out to help brave men in need. Soon enough, Song Jiang himself comes afoul of the law. Out of compassion for her family, Song Jiang takes a concubine named Poxi. His duties leave little time for her, so she soon takes a lover. Poxi dares to belittle Song Jiang, and in a rage he stabs her to death. Refusing his friends' offer of rescue, Song confesses his guilt and takes his punishment of exile and imprisonment. But as Song suffers increasing persecution in prison, his friends plan a daring rescue. By the time all is said and done, a sizable force of reputable fighters has assembled on Mount Liang and talked the reluctant Song Jiang into becoming their leader. In the second phase of the novel, instead of a series of loosely connected adventures involving one or two individuals, we have a more purposeful tale of Liangshan Marsh buildings its forces. The men call themselves members of the "gallant brotherhood," an idea more than an organization. It roughly corresponds to the contemporary European idea of chivalry. The Song Dynasty is in its final years, and the boy emperor is under the sway of ministers who conceal from him the truth. Corruption reigns at all levels. Brave men fight for honor's sake, and to break the law--even to rob and murder--is no disgrace if the victim is someone who has exploited the people. In a typical chapter, a man from Liangshan challenges a solitary traveler to combat, only to find that he is a worthy opponent who is himself a victim of injustice. After fighting to mutual exhaustion, the newcomer joins the brigand for a few dozen cups of wine, then eagerly becomes one of the gallant band under Song Jiang. Soon a galaxy of heroes begins to assemble: men with nicknames like Li Kui the Black Whirlwind, Li Jun the Turbulent River Dragon, and Xie Bao the Twin-Tailed Scorpion.Where the Chinese idea of chivalry differs from its European equivalent is in the treatment of women. The knights of Europe fawned over their lady loves, married or otherwise. Song Jiang's heroes do no such thing. Women, in fact, get rather rough treatment for at least the first half of the novel (and that's 1000 pages). The young and pretty ones are usually, like Poxi, unfaithful and wind up getting carved into pieces. The old ones are usually the abettors of the young ones and come to similar ends. One mother spends three pages berating her son for not visiting her more frequently, then a tiger eats her. Finally we come to an exception: the men of Liangshan Marsh encounter a local landowner's daughter nicknamed Ten Feet of Steel for her skill in wielding a pair of five-foot swords. When they finally defeat her, she joins their band. But even she has no say in the matter when Song Jiang gives her in marriage to Stumpy Tiger Wang. The third phase of the novel sees the forces of Song Jiang at the height of their powers. There are now 108 chieftains, each of whose adventures we have followed as he or she came to join the gallant brotherhood. But these are only the leaders: there are as many as 100,000 fighting men on Mount Liang, and who knows how many non-combatants. They control a large swath of territory, but maintain their honor by protecting the common people while preying only upon the corrupt and powerful. Finally the Emperor is forced to send troops against Song Jiang, only to see one army after another crushed in defeat. Song Jiang, in the meantime, maintains that his only goal is to obtain the Emperor's amnesty so he and his followers can fight in defense of their homeland. "Act on Heaven's Behalf," reads the banner at his headquarters.As the novel moves into events of a larger scale, it provides memorable depictions of Chinese warfare, just as it has done of many other phases of Chinese life. We see, for example, the early use of siege canon. Of paddle-wheeled river vessels powered by human muscle. Of the use of observation towers on the battlefield. And of the archaic battlefield traditions where generals led their armies literally into battle and were the first to engage in combat while their troops watched and cheered them on. Song Jiang, interestingly, is an exception to the rule. Described as short, fat and swarthy, he never participates in combat. He is neither the brains nor the brawn of his army, but simply its moral force.Finally the Emperor, learning of the Song Jiang's true nature through the kind offices of a courtesan, grants the bandits their desire for an amnesty. Song Jiang's army is now a part of the imperial army, but no less beset by the jealous machinations of those corrupt officials. In the final phase of the novel, the men of Liangshan Marsh are sent against China's northern enemy, the Liao Tartars. In one of the novels most memorable passages, we come to a climactic battle in which the forces of the Song Dynasty under Song Jiang are arrayed in the plains of Manchuria against the mighty Liao army, an army that includes a division of 5,000 female warriors. The war between the Chinese and the Liao is real; the participation of Song Jiang's men is--perhaps--imaginary. But the fruits of victory will bring Song Jiang and his men nothing but a much greater and more deadly challenge.Much of what happens in Outlaws of the Marsh seems oddly familiar, as though these are people and ideas we have seen before. The idea of criminals being assembled as an elite fighting force being just one such theme. How did this come to be? The legend of Song Jiang is the equivalent in Chinese culture to the West's King Arthur and Robin Hood put together. It is as influential in Japan as it is in China. Many of the ideas of from Outlaws of the Marsh seem to have been used in Kurasawa's epic 1954 film "The Seven Samurai." That movie was, in turn, the inspiration for American films such as "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Dirty Dozen." So Song Jiang and his heroes live on in forms they could never have imagined.The translation by Sidney Shapiro provides an excellent balance of readability and historical flavor. To read Outlaws of the Marsh is to be immersed in the culture of 12th century China, at one moment oddly familiar, at another completely alien. To be sure, 108 major characters is a lot, but each one is an individual with his or her own characteristics and personality, and each of the 100 chapters is a fresh new adventure. It is a novel that is immensely and compulsively readable, with each chapter ending in a cliffhanger posing a critical question and the words: "Read our next chapter if you would know." Is this, perchance, the greatest, the most entertaining, the most enduring novel ever written? Read Outlaws of the Marsh if you would know.

Review by

A whole lot of fun that rarely slows down.

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