Visions of Paradise

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Outlaws of the Marsh

Outlaws of the Marsh (Chinese title Shui Hu Zhuan) is the second of the four classic Chinese novels. It is a much more brutal tale than Journey to the West, mostly because while Journey is pure fantasy, Outlaws is basically a realistic novel with fantastic overtones. Its basic theme is a satirical look at Chinese government and society during the Song Dynasty. One of the darker aspects of Chinese society that it examines is the self-serving attitude of people in authority, an attitude very similar to that of westerners, as demonstrated in the truism power corrupts. Outlaws of the Marsh is filled with corrupt authority figures who frequently abuse and torment people under them with no qualms of conscience.

Many of the people mistreated by authority are branded as criminals when they are in fact no more guilty than their judges, often totally innocent. Gradually many of these people drift together and form an outlaw society centered around Liangshan Marsh. From there they exact vengeance on their evil tormenters as well as on any other authority figures deserving of punishment.

The plot of the epic falls into two parts. The first half concerns the misadventures of people who, either through no fault of their own, or through their efforts to help other innocents, fall afoul of authority and join the outlaw society. The second half describes the efforts of local and national authorities to stem the growing power of the outlaws.

What makes the epic brutal is that it is set in medieval China during the 10th century. Life was not particularly precious then. When the outlaws exact vengeance on a cruel official they feel justified in killing not only the official but his entire family and retinue of servants and assistants. Some of the murders are fairly graphic, although told in a matter-of-fact manner intended to make a point rather than to offend. At first this brutality bothered me, especially since the outlaws are portrayed as an honest, high-principled group. Gradually I realized that I was viewing the novel from a modern perspective, while instead I should have been doing so from a medieval viewpoint. Violence and murders occur routinely in such western epics as Beowulf and The Song of Roland, and they do not bother me because such actions are part and parcel of the culture in which they take place. Once I knew to treat the attitudes and beliefs of the outlaws from a medieval perspective, it became easy for me to realize that by the standards of their era and their culture they were indeed good people performing what they considered a positive service for the society from which they were ostracized.

There is no single focal character in Outlaws of the Marsh similar to the monkey king in Journey to the West. The ultimate leader is Song Jiang, a very good man whose caring and honesty made him the obvious leader of the outlaws. Although, in true classic Chinese manner, Song repeatedly tries to turn over leadership to other outlaws he considers more worthy than himself. Only the constant urging of his closest comrades convinces him to retain the title.

But where the monkey king takes center stage in nearly every scene of Journey to the West, Song only occupies a small portion of Outlaws of the Marsh. The outlaw troop consists of thousands of soldiers with a carefully-drawn cast of leaders who are each given a chapter to illustrate their character and reason for joining the outlaws. While I certainly cannot describe all of them here, I will mention briefly two notable outlaws: Sagacious Lu is an army leader who comes to the aid of a bedeviled stranger, ultimately leading to his own branding as an outlaw. He disguises himself as a Buddhist monk, although he is generally too crude in manner to be convincing in such a role.

Li Kui, also known as the Black Whirlwind, is the most unstable of the outlaws, wont to kill innocents out of rage as readily as he would kill deserving evildoers. But he is totally loyal to the outlaws, and Song Jiang in particular, so he remains as one of them in spite of the need of the other outlaw leaders to keep a close watch on him.

What I actually enjoyed most about this epic novel was its splendid view of medieval Chinese life and society. The setting ranged from rural villages to imperial cities, from the emperor himself to starving peasants, from high-principled Buddhists to unprincipled prefects. I learned much about Chinese culture and Chinese philosophy, about their attitude towards life and death, family and loyalty, emperor and religion.

In structure Outlaws of the Marsh is basically a war epic, a format I usually reject quite emphatically. Yet before this novel was over, I was rooting for the outlaws against their enemies. I actually cheered at the scene when Sagacious Lu appeared out of the shadows and saved a seemingly trapped outlaw by slaughtering his opponent. And, most significantly, I was terribly saddened in the last volume when the happy ending near the end of Volume Three turned to tragedy as the violent existence of the outlaws boomeranged on them, leading many to tragic deaths.

Both as fiction and as a look at medieval China, I recommend Outlaws of the Marsh very highly. It is successful as a war epic, as a medieval saga, and as an in-depth look at a violent and tragic time in Chinese history.


  • Do u know of any books/references that writes reviews about Outlaws of the Marsh?

    I'm currently doing a literature review assignment for my university project. Thought that perhaps you can perhaps give me some guidelines...

    By Blogger Jia Ling, At 8:32 PM  

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