Tag Archives: Suikoden

Outlaws of the marsh (水浒传)

Outlaws of the marsh (水浒传)

Outlaws of the marsh is one of (many) different titles of the Shui hu zhuan, one of the four classics of Chinese literature (the others are Journey to the West, The romance of the three kingdoms, and The dream of the red chamber). It’s also known as The water margin, All men are brothers, and occasionally by its Japanese title, Suikoden.

Note that three of the four classics are perpetual video game/anime fodder.

Plot summary

Told as a series of vignettes, The water margin follows 108 bandits/heroes as they eventually take refuge in a marsh fortress where they band together and seek revenge against the corrupt officials who have wronged them.

There’s also a third volume in which the bandits fight on behalf of the government but its authenticity is questioned and I haven’t actually read that one.

So how is it?

There’s a saying in Chinese that I think I’ve mentioned here before. It translates as “the young shouldn’t read The water margin, the old shouldn’t read The three kingdoms.” To over explain, The water margin’s heroes are not good role models. They spend most of their time as bandits and their only real redeeming feature is their commitment to each other. Even when one of them attempts to “lie low” they end up getting drunk, getting a giant tattoo, and ransacking the temple where they were supposed to be hiding out. Another chapter includes a discussion of the secrets to a successful seduction, one of which is “having a tool as large as a donkey’s.”

Really it’s not significantly different than the unexpurgated Book of one thousand nights and a night, or the Canterbury tales. Modern English editions of the latter tend to tone down the language considerably and for most modern English speakers reading Middle English is exhausting at best. The distinction between modern written Chinese and the language of The water margin is significantly less pronounced than with Chaucer, and since the target audience for most translations is academics the “low humor” is more evident for most readers. It’s closer to Rabelais than Chaucer in that respect, though Rabelais is more current.

Enough lit crit. The water margin actually reads pretty well for a moden audience. I’d go as far as saying it’s the most accessible of the four classics. That the protagonists are outlaws help to reduce the degree of baker puns knowledge required. 

It reads like a serial adventure. Each chapter is mostly self contained which makes it easier to pick up and put down without committing to a lengthy session. That’s mostly a benefit but after a dozen or so chapters the fact that almost every chapter follows the same basic formula can start to wear.

Translation notes

I’ve read parts of several versions, both in Chinese and English. Assuming that most people coming here who read Chinese won’t care about what I have to say about that, the best translation I’ve read is probably the one titles Outlaws of the marsh, but…

It’s out of print and incredibly expensive if you can’t find it at a library. 

Unfortunately, good translations are surprisingly difficult to find. Wuxia novels have this issue too, to the point where huge swathes of a fantastic genre are just completely unavailable in English. The translations that are available are frequently by graduate students rather than professional translators and frequently err on the side of the overly literal or overly poetic (see Fox volant of the snowy mountain for a translation that manages to be both).

Recommendation

The translation issues above, alongside poor availability, make it difficult to recommend. I do anyway, but carefully.

I generally recommend Outlaws of the marsh (that’s the edition available in my local consortium) to people who only read “literary” fiction or to Literature teachers looking to expand their horizons. 

If it was more widely available I’d recommend it to all those parents of teenagers who complain that their child only reads fantasy novels (or whatever genre is the current bête noir of excessively serious parents) but even then it’s still “literature” enough that teens or younger readers who aren’t reading above their grade level probably won’t stick it out long enough to get to the really fun parts.

In general I’d recommend the abridgment of Journey to the west released under the title Monkey, which is more accessible and more widely available before I’d recommend this but since Monkey is essentially a superhero story I’d recommend Outlaws of the marsh to the truly stuffy types as the “it’s one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature” will only go so far in getting the obnoxious literary snobs (who I didn’t believe really existed until I got a job at a public library in an absurdly wealthy modern-day Mayberry) to read it. Expecting them to read a book about an immortal flying monkey is probably expecting too much.

Le maistre chat, ou, Le chat botté

If you couldn’t tell from my user name, I’m a huge fan of the “Puss in boots” story. There are a couple of reasons for that. If I’m being honest, the fact that it stars a cat is probably the biggest one.

Still, it’s an interesting fairy tale because it has perhaps the most obnoxious main character of all the classic fairy tales, and the cat’s behavior would have rendered it a villain in many other stories.

In Puss in boots, for those unfamiliar with the tale, a miller dies and leaves his posessions to his three sons: the eldest inherits the mill, the middle son inherits the mules, and the youngest son inherits the cat. Initially despondent, the youngest son uses his remaining funds to buy the cat a pair of boots. The cat, through a campaign of bribery, theft, threats, and deception, manages to trick the king into thinking that the young son is actually a wealthy noble. The son marries the princess, and everyone lives happily ever after.

It’s an interesting story. The human characters are completely passive. The son does whatever his cat tells him, however nonsensical. The princess has no personality whatsoever. Divorced from its fairy-tale context, Puss in boots is the story of a con artist who manipulates his gullible master into riches. Perrault’s moral is that even without a rich inheritence it is possible to be successful with hard work. The fact that the miller’s son does absolutely nothing and ends the story a wealthy noble married to the princess notwithstanding. The second moral, which doesn’t seem to have much of anything to do with the story, is that being young and well-dressed makes it easier to win the love of a princess. Puss in boots is, according to illustrator George Cruikshank “a clever lesson in lying”. The real moral of the story is that it’s easier to trick your way to wealth and success than it is to earn it honestly. In an attempt to mitigate this issue, according to the link above Cruikshank changed the story so that the miller’s son was in fact the deposed marquis of Carabs. The cat’s activities were then justified as an attempt to regain his master’s rightful position.

The fact that the miller’s son’s first inclination is to eat the cat could provide a different interpretation to the story: the cat’s activities are his desparate attempts to save his own life. Still, one thing that’s interesting is the human hero of the tale is largely passive and almost completely irrelevent. Unlike the other “clever trickster” type tales in the commonly accepted Mother Goose canon, the youngest child isn’t particularly clever or special at all.

We are supposed to root for the heroes of Puss in boots not because of their behavior, but because they are the ones the story is about. There’s a similarity to one of the four classics of Chinese literature: The water margin (Shui hu zhuan, also translated as “All men are brothers” or “The outlaws of the marsh” and widely known under the Japanese version of the name: Suikoden). The water margin is the story of a group of bandits who hole up in a fortress in a marsh and fight the government. It’s true that the government officials they fight are corrupt, but the majority of the story involves the “heroes” taking part in more traditional bandit-type activities, including robbing passing travelers and kidnapping the daughters of wealthy merchants. One of the bandits is initiated into a monastary by a wealthy benefactor in order to avoid the authorities. He ends up drinking heavily and laying waste to the temple.

It’s a fun story, but along the same lines of Puss in boots: the “heroes” behave more like the villains of other stories.

There’s a saying in Chinese, it translates to “The young shouldn’t read The water margin, the old shouldn’t read The romance of the three kingdoms”. Like Cruikshanks’s view of Puss in boots, The water margin is seen as sending an inappropriate message to children. The Chinese saying goes on to suggest that The romance of the three kingdoms, a story largely focusing on political scheming and betrayals sends an inappropriate message to older people. The water margin will be the subject of a later post, if this blog still exists at that point.

Now that I consider it, Journey to the west has its share of this issue as well, and it’s a common theme in Chinese literature. It’s also found in the the Japanese Momotaro stories. The various Native American trickster figures, the most well-known of which is Coyote, the European Reynard stories, the Anansi stories of Africa and the Caribbean … all feature the trickster animal whose motives are frequently selfish rather than altruistic. As I write this, it seems to me that Puss in boots stands out less for its irreverent amoraliy than the fact that it takes the classic trickster animal story and places it in a mainstream collection of fables ostensibly presenting good moral guidance.

I love Puss in boots because it’s the anti-fable. Also, it portrays a disturbingly accurate picture of what life with a cat really is like: you do whatever they tell you to, and you end up the better for it.*

 

*Results may vary.