Review of Outlaws of the Marsh (4-Volume Boxed Set) by Shi Nai’an

I have long wanted to reread this established classic. The most complete edition I could find in print was the Chinese Classics 4-volume Edition from Foreign Language Press, weighing in at a slim 2,149 pages. Nonetheless, I would call this an un-put-downable page-turner. One of the original Proto-Wuxia novels from Ancient China, which was rich in both history and literary mystique.

Far superior, in my opinion to the other lengthy “Great Works” of Classical Chinese, namely The Story of the Stone (Dream of the Red Chamber), Golden Lotus, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Journey to the West, although everyone seems to have their personal favorite. The mixture of historical narratives with myths and legends is a phenomenon seen the world over, but hardly ever do we find a personal and epic masterpiece to rival this one. Sure, you can find any number of recountings of legends and mysteries, ghost stories and battles throughout Asian and European literature, but not until you fast forward to Lord of the Rings, will you find such a magical, and intimate journey of struggles, and tales within tales, and influential themes, seamlessly woven throughout the breathless adventure.

I imagine listening to these tales in their original language on a street corner, in the fourteenth century, as people once might have listened to Homer and Virgil recite their own vast creations, and the long-lost world comes more alive. Within a modest 100 chapters, averaging 20 pages in length, with constant cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, you follow the story of heroes and villains, conquerors and families, and brothers-in-arms and murderers, for lack of a better term. The violence and torture is often cruel and brutal, but I assume, perfectly accurate for the time it depicted (12th century). The purported author Shi Nai’an (with a credit to the master Luo Guanzhong) was telling these tales at a remove of a few centuries, while at the same time clearly passing comment on his own corrupt and traditional society mores.

The richness of invention and superb and often humorous character detail is priceless beyond words, and I was enraptured throughout the entire book, which took me only 2 weeks to read. Granted, the print is not as small as some paperbacks and the pages almost turn themselves during many of the riveting chapters. The fact that I am seriously considering rereading it after a few years, and remember many of the events it describes (except for the impossible-to-remember-for-a-Westerner names) is an indication of its staying power. Not to mention that the approach and conflicts have been reworked into literature, Chinese and otherwise, countless times. We got a Christianized translation from Peal S. Buck, at least one manga/ anime based on it, and arguably, several scenes/ themes from the films of Akira Kurosawa.

Also translated as Water Margin, with some translations available online, I would recommend buying this 4-volume edition before it disappears completely. You cannot seriously read Chinese literature without running into references to this epic. It would be like diving into Italian literature and trying to avoid Dante and Boccaccio.

Put down Game of Thrones and pick up this book which has endured for 7 centuries.