Outlaws of the Marsh

Shi Nai'an + Luo Guanzhong

translated from the Chinese by Sydney Shapiro
Allen & Unwin 1986
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008 http://dannyreviews.com/
Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin or Marsh Chronicles) is a 14th century Chinese novel about a group of outlaws from two hundred years earlier, at the end of the Song dynasty, who gather at Liangshan Mountain, protected by marshes, and defy armies sent against them.

It begins with the largely unconnected stories of individual figures, describing how they fell out with the law, or in some cases were lured or induced to compromise themselves, and their adventures before reaching Liangshan. These heroes come from a range of backgrounds and include impetuous fighters, cunning thieves, clever thinkers, and loyal friends. Set in mountain fortresses, tea houses, inns, private houses, courtrooms and on journeys by road and water, their tales involve stratagems, seductions, betrayals, warnings, and a wealth of other incidents.

In the later part of Outlaws of the Marsh the focus is on the military campaigns of the outlaws, with single combats and battles, under the leadership of Song Jiang. The depictions of warfare here are highly stylised, but show something of the problems faced by imperial armies in the more watery areas of China.

Ending with a description of the hundred and eight outlaws at the peak of their success, this volume is a one volume abridgement of Shapiro's 1980 Foreign Languages Press translation, in four volumes totalling over two thousand pages. The only accessory information is a three page introduction by Shapiro, offering a little background on the position of the work in Chinese culture. There is no explanation of the abridgement, other than "retaining all the most famous and entertaining episodes of the original in all their excitement, pageant and glory" (blurb) or "the famous favorite episodes in all their excitement and rich detailed colour" (introduction).

That makes this particular edition useless for scholarly purposes, but reworking for a popular audience is entirely in the spirit of the original stories and a version of this length should attract a much broader audience. A dozen or so reproductions of woodcuts — without captions or source details — illustrate some of the key events.

November 2008

External links:
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Related reviews:
- books about China + Chinese history
- more Chinese literature
- more historical fiction
%T Outlaws of the Marsh
%A Shi Nai'an
%A Luo Guanzhong
%M Chinese
%F Shapiro, Sydney
%I Allen & Unwin
%D 1986
%O paperback, abridged
%G ISBN 0048200271
%P 458pp