Shi Nai’an / Luo Guanzhong – The Outlaws of the Marsh (translated by Sidney Shapiro)

The Outlaws of the Marsh By: Shi Nai'an and Luo Guanzhong

Well well, I just reviewed an American classic, The Great Gatsby, so I suppose it’s time to review a Chinese classic – The Outlaws of the Marsh, also known as Water Margin.  One of the four great Chinese novels.  Chinese people would know it as 水滸傳.  It is unclear whether it was Shi Nai’an or Luo Guanzhong who wrote the novel and the contribution of each person to it.  Now I am no scholar so I have no idea.  There doesn’t seem to be any contention about the book being written in during the Song Dynasty (960AD – 1279AD), however since the story also happens to take place in this time peiod.  I used to have a playstation game titled Suikoden which is based off this story.

Quick lesson from the Math teacher: 36 + 72 = 108.   108 represent the number of main characters in this novel.  Now you are probably wondering how the heck you are going to keep track of 108 characters which is no easy feat, but you actually don’t have to.  Each character meets a new character and that new character goes on to meet the next character and so on.  When characters who were left behind become significant again there is always something to remind us of who they are.  No one character dominates the novel for too too long.  Well actually one particular clerk gets some special attention because he eventually becomes the leader of the Liangshan Marsh.  This goes on for about 50 chapters (half the book) and then the focus shifts to non stop battles the bandits fight.

Each scene and each of the 100 chapters is precise and to the point.  When a character enters a straw hut, it is simply introduced as the straw hut.  The author does not go on page after page describing all the smells and sites of the straw hut.  This is exactly how the author can fit all 108 characters into a 1540 page paperback.  To the author, the story is far more important than all the little details that might help draw the reader into the story but does nothing to enhance the story itself.  The exciting story is enough to engage the reader in my opinion.  This is a very different mentality than almost all the books I have read so far.

Now let’s talk about these 108 characters for a bit.  Obviously I’m not even going to try to introduce any of them but let’s talk about them as a whole.  They are all outlaws as the title of the novel suggests but are they also heroes despite robbing, pillaging, burning villages, and murdering?  Do we have 108 Robin Hood type characters running around the book?  Well, I suppose you have to read and decide for yourself.

Despite there being 100 chapters, each chapter is very short – about 40-50 of my Kobo screens on, I believe, medium font size, whatever that amounts to in paper.  Probably around 10-15 pages.  This is the absolutely perfect chapter size in my opinion except each chapter ends on a cliff hanger which defeats the purpose of the short chapter!

There are a bunch of famous one-liners that yes, do make sense, but you would appreciate them a lot more if you know what the original Chinese phrase is.  Now that isn’t the fault of the translation, but simply the result of having to make a translation of a poetic phrase.  Do you translate literally word for word and lose all meaning or do you rephrase to keep the meaning but lose the poetic phrasing?  I feel the choice the translated made strikes a great balance.  The same can be said about the sprinkling of poems we have throughout the novel.

I guess now I should read the other 3 Chinese classic novels too.  西遊記 (Journey to the West) and 三國演義 (The Three Kingdoms) are rather long though.  Do I really need to read it if I already know the story?  Do I?  Maybe I’ll start with 紅樓夢 (Dream of the Red Chamber) which I’m sure I’ve heard of before but don’t exactly remember.

Outlaws of the Marsh is definitely worth the read and cool to see how the Chinese classics compare with classics of other cultures/nations.  However, if you are going to only pick one of the classics to read, pick Journey to the West.  In my opinion the most entertaining story, though I am obviously biased toward fantasies.  But seriously, how could you go wrong with a story whose main character shares the same name and characteristics as a super saiyan?

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