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Outlaws of the Marsh –

Outlaws of the Marsh

Wednesday , 6, September 2023 3 Comments

This is a guest post from Jared:

Outlaws of the Marsh is one of four classic Chinese epics. The most famous of these four epics is probably Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. Numerous international video games are based on this novel about the tripartite civil war that ended the Han dynasty. A runner-up to Three Kingdoms (as it is also called) is Journey to the West, featuring Sun Wukong, the monkey king. Numerous movies and television series are based on this epic some of which can be found on several streaming services like Amazon Prime and Hulu. The least famous of the epics is Dream of Red Chamber, a family saga about a noble Chinese family. Outlaws of the Marsh, despite the lack of international fame, remains a Chinese favorite that readers of standard historical fiction would enjoy for many reasons.

The story is also called Water Margin or All Men Are Brothers. It was primarily written by Shi Nai’an but Luo Guanzhong is also credited as an author, indicating he added the last 30 chapters to Shi’s initial 70. Luo Guanzhong is generally acknowledged to be Shi Nai’an’s protege. The book is set in the Northern Song dynasty ~1120 A.D. and tells the story of 108 outlaws who came together at the Liangshan Marsh to battle government corruption. The tales have some degree of historical accuracy though many liberties are taken. It is a true epic, spanning roughly 25 years. The most popular version found in English has 100 chapters and over 2100 pages of story.

The book follows numerous the outlaws and their exploits, though ultimately 108 gather to tell a unified narrative. To paraphrase the podcaster John Tzu, if the tale of Robin Hood had a cast as big as The Iliad with the cultural importance of The Odyssey it would begin to be comparable to Outlaws. The first half of the book tells the adventures of one or more outlaws at a time. An important and interesting concept introduced in the book is the “gallant fraternity”. This refers to a loose association of brave and generous men who fight corruption and know each other by way of reputation. As the chapters move forward, one hero comes to know another and recognize him as a member of the gallant fraternity. In this way, the outlaws are introduced quickly. For the first 50 chapters or so, the narration follows one or two heroes at a time as they go on the adventures that will ultimately take them to Liangshan Marsh. Each of these stories is highly entertaining and many have become television series in China.

The protagonist and leader of the outlaws is Song Jiang. Song is well-known in the gallant fraternity for always helping another member in need. He gets in trouble when he finds his wife cheating on him. He is willing to grant her a divorce, but she tries to blackmail him for helping some other outlaws get away with a crime. This enrages Song and he kills her. This ultimately puts him on the path that leads him to the gallant men of Liangshan Marsh. Stories like this abound for ~30 characters.

When enough of the heroes gather in the marsh, the government starts sending armies against them. Through military strategy, guile, fate, and righteous decisions, not only do the bandits beat the government troops, they convince the commanding generals to join them in the marsh.

Fans of the pulps will love certain elements of the storytelling. For the most part, the prose is dry but moves the plot forward at a lightning pace. There are no passages that ruminate on a character’s feelings or dwell on the internal turmoil of a man struggling with his emotions. The action is swift and ever-present. At times, however, the prose makes space for beautiful metaphors and analogies. A lot can happen in just one page in this book which means that a lot happens over the course of its 2100 pages.

Another entertaining aspect of the book is the nicknames. Every character has a nickname in addition to their family and given names. These nicknames come by way of reputation. For example, Song Jiang is called Timely Rain or Defender of Chivalry. Many of the names get creative. A short hero named Wang goes by Stumpy Tiger Wang (which is especially funny in English). Some can also be quite long, like Fan Rui The Demon King Who Roils The World.

A compelling aspect of the book is the idea of ancient Chinese morality. On several occasions, some of the heroes go to a tavern and are drugged by the tavern keepers. Just as the heroes are about to be butchered and their flesh made into steamed buns, they awaken and make friends with their captors. The captors realize that they almost butchered Song Jiang, for example, and wake him up. After Song is lucid, they all have a big laugh at the misunderstanding. It pays to have a reputation in the gallant fraternity. This seems very foreign to American readers, but ancient Chinese morality was different. It emphasized generosity, courage, and filial devotion. Murder and theft were only bad in relation to the character of the victim.

It is also amazing how the characters do not hold grudges. They maintain an attitude that focuses on the present. If something happens to them, that is the will of fate. Anxiety is something that is completely foreign to the heroes of Liangshan Marsh.

Outlaws of the Marsh is as easy to read as it is complex and entertaining. 2100 pages will fly by. The story sucks you in from the start and does not let go. The villains are easy to hate. The heroes are easy to love. The ending is thoroughly satisfying and memorable.

  • Codex says:

    Do you have a preferred translation? The one pictured I found on Amazon translated by Sidney Shapiro.



    • Anti-Rationalist says:

      That is considered by people doing comparisons as being the best version. It’s also one of the complete ones.

      The Folio Edition uses one of the Abridged translations which cuts out chapters or reduces them to events recounted by the narrator or characters within a few sentences.

  • Mr. Tines says:

    My introduction to this classic was though the Japanese TV adaptation made in the ’70s, dubbed (and at times cut for early evening broadcast) by the BBC. The dub is of its time, but the series as a whole holds up well even 50 years later. As usual, it can be found on the internet archive

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