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.