Monday, November 19, 2007

Outlaws of the Marsh

Every great civilization has them. The English have the Shakespearean plays - tragedies, histories and comedies. Today, these are studied in schools and form the basis for attaining competency in English Literature. This is true not only in the Bard's native land, but also in many of Great Britain's former colonies, especially those that have made English an important part of the national language competency. Singapore is one of these.

The Chinese have their own literary classics. The most popular and widely read are the four great classical novels: Three Kingdoms, A Dream of Red Mansions, Journey to the West and Outlaws of the Marsh. Every child in a Chinese household would likely have heard of or read, by age 10, about the naughty monkey that is Sun Wu Kong in Journey to the West and Wu Song the tiger killer in Outlaws of the Marsh. These classics have in turn been made into movies, such is the popularity of the material contained in them.

However, how many Chinese outside of China can claim to have read any or all of these 4 classics in their entirety in the original language? I haven't, and probably never will. So I am doing the next best thing - read these in their entirety in the English translations. I have completed Three Kingdoms, and have just completed the 3-volume Outlaws of the Marsh. That's 2 down, 2 to go. But more about the Outlaws of the Marsh.

This novel was written in the 13th century AD during the Ming Dynasty by Shi Nai'an and Luo Guan Zhong (who also wrote Three Kingdoms). A complete translation in the English language by Sidney Shapiro is available as a 3 or 4-volume set (depending on the specific edition). It is this translation that I spent the last month or so reading. The story revolves around a growing group of bandits who took residence in Liangshan Marsh, an inaccessible, water-bound mountain that became the scourge of the Song Emperor and his corrupt officials for more than 3 years.

The story tells of how various people - weapons instructors, military officials including Generals, and even a clerk, came to take refuge in Liangshan Marsh. Throughout the first part of the epic, the recurrent theme revolves around how people were forced to commit crimes against corrupt officials, which eventually drove them to take refuge in the Marsh. Some were tricked into joining the bandits in Liangshan Marsh. Yet others, mainly Generals defeated in battle by the bandits, joined the bandits because they couldn't face their corrupt civilian masters. The characters and circumstances in this classic are varied enough to provide hours of suspense as the stories unfold. Some plots were predictable. An example is how Song Jiang, the eventual leader of the Liangshan bandits, made it a habit to recruit people who his bandit brothers defeated in battle. It didn't always sit well with his brother bandits who had expended much energy defeating them, but, as the novel suggests, it was destined that the full complement of bandits reach 108. Song Jiang must claim credit for attracting good, skillful and intelligent men AND women into banditry.

But of course, these bandits made it a point of robbing only the rich. They left the poor and needy alone. In fact, they often provided for them. They were the Robin Hoods of China. Incredibly both stories -of the bandits of Liangshan Marsh and the robbers of Sherwood Forest, were written between the 11th and 13th Century AD, barely two hundred years apart. However, there is probably more blood and gore in the Chinese novel - something that I wasn't too comfortable with. One of its most violent protagonists, the Black Whirlwind Li Kui, killed without blinking an eye (as the Chinese would say). Of the 108 bandits, he was probably its most effective when it came to killing people - both the good and the bad. This quality, however, was put to great effect in some of the more difficult battles that Song Jiang's outlaw army had to fight.

In the end, many of these 108 outlaws were to die under various, and might I say, honourable, circumstances. Don't jump to last the volume to find out about this. It is best to start from the beginning and let the story unfold gradually. This novel will give you hours of suspense.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Three Kingdoms

It took me about 2 months, interrupted by living and working, to finish the 3-volume unabridged translation of this Chinese classic by Moss Roberts. This is an excellent translation. In particular the Chinese poems and verses that litter the entire book have been rendered very well in English. Being a Chinese, I could sense the Chinese 'flavour' and spirit in these translations. Besides the main text, Moss Roberts, who is a Professor of Chinese at New York University, has included substantial footnotes and a scholarly essay on the "Three Kingdoms" book, discussing its origins, its history and development as well as the many versions of "Three Kingdoms".

But on to the "Three Kingdoms". This is a part history, part novel of the period of Chinese history between AD 190 to 280. The novel begins with the corruptive influence of the Eunuchs at the Han Court, which would bring the Han Dynasty to an end. It begins with the 'blood-bonding' of the 3 main characters of the book at the Peach Garden - Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu (referred to in the book as Lord Guan).

The country was eventually divided into 3 Kingdoms. The first was formed by Cao Cao, who founded the Kingdom of Wei in the North through the usurpation of the Han Empire. Cao Cao never became Emperor, though. His son, Cao Pi was its first emperor.

The second was formed by Sun Jian's descendents - Sun Ce and then Sun Quan. They occupied the Southlands, which eventually became the Kingdom of Wu. The third Kingdom was founded by Liu Bei (aka Liu Xuande) who occupied the Western Riverlands and formed the Kingdom of Shu. The story's progress from the weakening of the Han court to the formation of the Kingdoms took a long time in the novel's narrative as the author, Luo Guan Zhong, fleshed out the characters and events of the times. The stories are gripping, especially when Zhuge Liang appeared in the story. Surprisingly for such as major character in the story and in Chinese folklore and history, he didn't appear till the second third of the novel.

Only when Zhuge Liang, or more often referred to as Kongming in the novel, appear did the fortunes of the virtuous Liu Bei improve. It is exciting to read of the many strategies employed by Kongming in winning almost every battle that he fought with Cao Cao, Sun Quan and Sima Yi. The only one that he lost - at Jieting - was due to insubordination rather than poor strategy. While characters like Liu Bei, Cao Cao, Kongming were real historical figures, the novel does give them, especially Kongming, supernatural powers to predict future events and control nature's elements of wind and water. It even has the dead Lord Guan, a fictional character in the novel, appear as a Ghost to help his second son, Guan Xing, win a battle.

The novel contains enough betrayal and deception, war, masterful strategies, human weaknesses and heroism, and characters who are larger-than-life to keep one enthralled throughout the entire narrative. It used to be that such characters as Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei, Cao Cao, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu appeared in stories on radio quite often. I remember my father listening to stories on the radio about these characters during his lunch break from work back in the late 1960s. But I could never really understand nor place them within a specific context or a historical time period, until now.

After reading this book, I understand better when people refer to these heroes and villains. Perhaps the only thing I didn't quite like about the stories was the constant narratives of wars and battles. It seems that Politicians and Generals in those days did nothing but fight each other either in self-defence, expand the empire or regain it. The only creative things that came out of the stories were the inventions of the Martial Lord Kongming. Even then, these brilliant inventions were for war.

This cycle of war never really ended even when the Kingdoms were eventually reunited. Dynastic China continued to cycle through a string of emperors, strong in the beginning, weakening at the end to be swallowed up by another, which would then form the next dynasty. Brilliant as Kongming was, he used his fertile and creative mind to restore and sustain a failed dynasty - the Han. Liu Bei's son, Liu Shan, who was put into Kongming's protective care, and for which he staged so many battles, was eventually to degenerate into a women-and-wine-loving emperor, hardly worthy of the loyalty and dedication of one of China's most brilliant military strategist.

This is a really good book, especially if you need a translated version.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Old Chinese Classics

I am an ethnic Chinese but has been schooled in English all my life. My mother-tongue is Chinese and I learnt Chinese as a second language. Though I take tremendous pleasure in reading, I have never thought of reading Chinese language books as pleasurable. The reason is that I would be plodding along and skipping words and thus, meaning, because I may not recognise the Chinese characters and phrases. This handicap has restricted my access to the many Chinese language books that are published and its Chinese social, cultural and historical thought. As a Chinese, that was and remains a great loss. So imagine my delight, as I was passing through Beijing Capital Airport to find full English translations of the Chinese classics "Three Kingdoms", "Outlaws of the Marsh", "A Dream of Red Mansions" and others being sold. Actually, I shouldn't be surprised as, after all, the bookstore is in Beijing Airport, which catered to the travelers' interests in China and the Chinese.

You might be surprised at my 'discovery' for surely, such books are available in metropolitan Singapore, especially where roughly 70% of its inhabitants are ethnic Chinese? But truth be told, I have never been able to find a full translation of these books in the more popular bookstores, not even Popular Bookstore - a bookstore that began its business selling Chinese language books. The best there was were books written in the graphic style (think comics), and thus were abridged versions. I suppose if one looked hard enough, one would find them sold in some obscure bookshop. Strangely, I never looked up the public libraries. In any case, I bought the "Three Kingdoms" for RMB130, which is roughly S$26. This particular translation came in three volume hardbacks. I also put my money down on the 3-volume hardback "Outlaws of the Marsh" at a similar price. It was really a bargain. Considering that the same "Three Kingdom" books cost US$40, before shipping, on, it was a steal. So when you next in Beijing Capital Airport, be sure to drop by the bookshop (sorry, I did no notice its name) for these invaluable translations of the Chinese classics at bargain prices.

But why buy anyway? Because the stories in these books are gripping...