Back in 2008, I was living in Beijing. As you may expect, my Chinese literature course at the CUN involved reading the four cornerstones of Chinese literature (their resemblance to actual stones is remarkable). Having grown up in the UK I was glad to have the opportunity finally to read these works of the 14th and 15th centuries that have had such wide-ranging influence over Chinese culture ever since. So I was tricked by the professor into finishing two of these chunky works in six weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed Romance of Three Kingdoms, but little did I know what I was getting myself into with Outlaws of the Marsh, or Water Margin.
More seasoned oriental culture enthusiasts may remember a series from Japan’s Toho that was broadcast in the UK during the 1970s, preceding and setting the standards for the Kenneth Williams Chinese waiter style British voice acting employed in the BBC version of hugely memorable Monkey. Younger friends may have watched Heroe: 108 on Cartoon Network. Both the 1970s Toho series and the 108 kitsch crazy warriors of the children’s series were based on the novel Water Margin. As with many works in the Chinese literary cannon, the novel originated from popular folk tales inspired by a major revolt during the Song Dynasty, which were compiled into a novel by the Ming scholar Shi Nai An. I read one of the three editions of varying lengths, which are recognized as cannon. It consisted of 100 chapters.
Galloping through the novel I needed record cards just to keep up with who’s who. Such a work deserves to be savoured and read more than once and would inspire different feelings at different points of one’s life. However, having gone through with it, I discovered that doing a quick first read through a classic such as this is actually a pretty good way to do it, it helps you avoid getting lost in the minutiae of language or period details. The trick is to spot the patterns. So I have decided to write a survivor’s guide for all those who may want to attempt this hefty feat.
The Survivor’s Guide To Water Margin
(There will be 8 lucky rules)
1 All inhabitants of WM have peculiar digestive systems that can survive solely on amino acids and ethanol, in other words, meat and spirits.
2 There is never a shortage of meat. If you feel peckish, just grab a leg from the body lying nearby, of the person you’ve just killed, may be some liver and kidney too.
3 Upon encounter with date merchants, RUN!
4 All women are evil. Do not approach them.
5 Li Kui is gay (he just doesn’t know it), if you’re pretty and a woman, watch out, he’s one hell of a jealous bitch! If he sees you, he WILL kill you.
6 Never steal a chicken, or you might start a war.
7 If you ever find a woman sexually attractive, then shame on you because only pouffy scholars and lecherous monks carry on with women, and they always end up with their organs spilling out all over the place. Real heroes work off their libidos with spears, looting and killing.
8 When you are drinking at a country inn and suddenly find yourself heavily drowsy and helplessly sinking into sleep, DON’T PANIC, if you are any of the following:
a criminal, all criminals are considered good guys.
a monk, killing a religious personage is, well, just not something that one does (unless they have been carrying on with women, of course)
a prostitute, it is considered that they work hard to earn a living, their vast array of acquaintances means that one always sought to stay on their good side
None of the above? Then just relax and sink comfortably into the triazolam-induced sleep, secure in the knowledge that you will be helping to perpetuate the world of Water Margin, by being turned into a meat bun.
First published on Myspace in 2008
Posted in Culture and tagged book, china, Chinese, classics, culture, Heroe 108, literature, Outlaws of the Marsh, Toho, Water Margin