Review: A Chinese classic Novel “Outlaws of the Marsh”

In the Chinese literature, there are four extremely popular novels of all time. One of them is the “Outlaws of the Marsh” or as it is known in other English translations, as “The Water Margin, Men of the Marshes, or The Marshes of Mt. Liang. Other three Novels are “Journey to the West, The Three Kingdoms, and Dream of Red Mansions”.

Outlaws of the Marsh is a 14th century Chinese novel written by Shi Naian and Luo Guanzhong, about a group of outlaws from two hundred years earlier, at the end of the Song dynasty, who gather at Liangshan Mountain, protected by marshes, and defy armies sent against them. There are many English versions of this novel, the popular one is translated by Sidney Shapiro and the one that I read is adapted by Jin Shibo. Jin Shibo used sample English and tried to be precise in the narration of different characters in the story telling.

Furthermore, this novel can be categorize into historical fantasy because of the factual events from the Song dynasty and the super hero type powers that many of the outlaws possess, one could say that the book contains the social commentary given in the political and social context of the events.

The story is surrounding Song Jiang and the rise and fall of the band he unites to fight against the injustice and corrupt government. The novel begins with unconnected stories of individual figures, mostly describing how they fell out with the law, or how they joined the band of the outlaws, and their adventures before reaching Liangshan. Moreover, the narrative style is brilliant, weaves numerous major characters together, dropping off a character here and picking them up there which give a rhythm to the story telling.

The characters all met with unlucky fates, some were framed by corrupt officials while others befriended unwholesome characters. Many became fugitives after killing in honor, fury or while trying to protect innocent people. Eventually, the fate of all these heroes gathered them on the Mount Liang, where they united as brothers under the sole motto “Reclaiming justice under Heaven’s decree”.

The authors have put efforts to carrying levels of detail describing the fantastic skill each of the member posses in the group. Wu song for example, is strong enough to kill a tiger with his bare hands, Dai Zong is able to run nine times faster than the average man, and perhaps the most enjoyable Li Kui, the barbaric looking guy, who gets annoyed easily but always, remains loyal to the greater cause.

The first half of the book focus on how 108 brave men come together, fighting off the government troops who seek to infiltrate and destroy their strong hold in the Mountain of Marsh.

The group having been more or less assembled, the second half of Outlaws of the Marsh tells of the group’s slow dissolve. In the second half of the novel, the mode of the book shifts from comedy to tragedy, or more specifically, from fun adventure to depressing drama.

In the last half the leader of the band, Song Jiang struggle to fulfill his wish, for the emperor to grant amnesty to him and his brothers (members of the band). However, the emperor sees the outlaws as a threat and tried to overwhelm them with military force. After fighting the outlaws, the imperial armies couldn’t defeat them because of their incredible powers and warfare skills.

Eventually the emperor grant them pardon, and the order for their arrest were dropped. They abandon the Mount Liang and journeyed back to the capital where they were deployed in the Imperial Army. Unfortunately, it was a trick because they were strong and they couldn’t be defeated, so the emperor gathered them under his flag to fight with the rebellion of Fang La, they squashed the rebellion but suffered many casualties. Only 27 of the original 108 heroes survived but they were not spared by the emperor, even though they destroyed the rebellion of Fang La. As a victory present, the emperor sent wine to Song Jiang adding slow poison which closed his chapter.

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