Shi Nai’an / Luo Guanzhong: The Outlaws of the Marsh

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.


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