I first learned about this book when listening to an audiobook by Meir Shahar titled The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts. In what is turning out to be vain quest to learn more about China and Chinese civilization I have decided to read this classical novel from the Ming dynasty titled “The Water Margin.” This book is listed as one of the four classical novels of China in the company of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Journey to the West, and The Dream of the Red Chamber. Some sources listed The Plum in the Golden Vase as another classic novel but I’m not about to split hairs over the works that make up a potential literary canon. From what I have learned though a cursory study of secondary sources about Chinese literature is that there is an immeasurably deep Chinese literary canon that encompasses much more these famous novels, the Confucian classics, historical annals, the Art of War, and a handful of plays that most educated westerners are potentially conscious of. Set in the Song Dynasty, the Water Margin is a highly fictional story revolving around the exploits of 108 mostly heroic characters who inhabit a stronghold Liangshan Marsh. The characters live as outlaws away from the corrupt Song imperial authorities. After the first part of the book introduces that stories of seven main characters the action turns to their stronghold in the marsh where the bandits conduct raids on the nearby villages to support themselves.
As an American I have very little contact with any meaningful part of the vast expanse of Chinese literature. You could add in Indian, Persian, African, Islamic, Japanese or pretty much any other country for that matter. Only a very select set of foreign blockbuster titles make their way to any commercial success here in the US. Even fewer books and stories make their way to our consciousness from other cultures with well-developed literature. In my quest for knowledge this is something which I am not really comfortable with. I don’t want to be entirely ignorant of the stories that are shared among large groups of people. I think that having some familiarity with the books and stories that have shaped roughly one quarter of the world’s population is a worthwhile pursuit. And while one cannot know everything – there is only so much time and energy, the time and energy we do have is best employed in pursuits that have the potential for growth. To counterbalance this though recreation is needed to cleanse our minds and allow them to reset themselves in order to work productively. I believe that our own individual experience can be enriched by a concentrated study of world literature. In this case it is one work of Chinese literature. Literature in my opinion tells the personal stories of individual people while history relates to us the most important people, trends and dates. They both go hand in hand in understanding the human experience. Appreciating the nuances of other cultures is also a great way to contrast elements of other cultures with our own. This contrast then leads to a deeper understanding of our our individual selves. In short I believe that reading and taking on a relatively serious personal study of literature leads to the development of a better person.
This book is very long – I’m not sure how print pages long….the story is whatever 21,000 Kindle units come out to be. I’ve seen the Pearl S. Buck translation (All Men are Brothers) in the library and it is 850 or so quarto pages and this book is 70 of the 108 chapters. So far, I’m about 3/4 of the way through the book or on Chapter 74. It will probably take another few months or so to finish. At times, reading this book is an exercise in self-castigation while at other times it is a small window into a long established culture I still know precious little about. Most of the difficulty I have had revolves around keeping the 108 main characters straight in my head. From the secondary sources I have recently read about Chinese Literature some of the stories from the Water Margin serve as models for other stories in their literary canon which is not surprising as it is listed as one of the four great classical novels. Some well-established themes do seem to come to the surface in the story: the yearning for an accepted central government, the importance of the family and ethical conduct within one’s own group.
The book has a various array of characters which I think are best remembered by their colorful nicknames or their prior deeds. Early in the story there are seven or so main characters who have been the most memorable so far. After about the first quarter of the book these central main characters are developed and most characters thereafter receives mostly a superficial treatment. The book has taken a turn at the 70% point where the names of all the characters are presented to us and the action turns toward the capital city of the empire. To compensate for the lack of character development the author has employed their nicknames hinting towards their special skills. Interestingly, the action scenes are truncated in the translation that I am reading but the results of the scenes are more detailed. I like the author’s use of the tavern as a place where future actions are decided and where action takes place. This is mostly because I as a person like the idea of a tavern. Fortunately there are a lot of scenes and many taverns in this very long book.
I have found the best way to read this book is to read a bit and then put it down and then go back to it later on. It is far too complex and complicated to read straight through since the character count is simply overwhelming. Fighting the greedy urge to finish it quickly is a struggle for me. One point that I am struggling to understand is how this book potentially relates to the authors experience. It is my opinion that most if not all fiction has an element of autobiography involved and his distant character sketches in the second half of the book may be an attempt by a second author. The story does seem to comply with the official “party line” however as the bandits do eventually get together with the government. The early well-developed characters are memorable and lend a sense of familiarity with some of the complicated stories in this complex book. There are some commonalities and themes so far in the book: the use of deception as a strategy, the corruption of the petty government officials, and a sense of fraternity among the bandit band that does not exist among the legitimate imperial forces. The bandits are clearly the “good guys” and a case is made for a desire to have a legitimate dynasty and emperor. A number of imperial officers that turn into bandit leaders seems to point towards the bandits as having a more cohesive unit in this regard. Ok…that’s all for now. Have a great weekend – its Wednesday and I’m already thinking of it!