Outlaws of the Marsh

“There are hairs in this dumpling that look a lot like pubic hairs.”

“Ximen was frolicking with Golden Lotus upstairs. At the sound of Wu Song’s voice he farted with terror and pissed in his pants.”

The Goriest, Raunchiest Chinese Classic of All Time

I’ve been reading Sidney Shapiro’s translation (1980) of the 14th century Chinese classic Outlaws of the Marsh, aka The Water Margin (authorship usually attributed to Shi Nai’an, Luo Guangzhong — author of Romance of the Three Kingdoms — or both). It’s highly readable. In fact, I’m finding it addictive.

It’s full of badass characters and it goes along at a clip. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny in places. It’s almost all action and plot, with very little introspection or showy writing (though there was a flowery metaphor concerning how the blood flowed out of someone’s head wound). The narration tells you when it’s leaving a character behind or skipping over something. If you’ve read Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds, it has some of that feeling of “an Ancient China that never was” but it feels more like a tall tale than a myth — more Robin Hood than King Arthur. Apart from a legend told at the beginning that frames the story, there hasn’t been any magic in it yet, though chapter titles hint that there might be some further on.

The translation uses modern-sounding terms like “grog shop”, with occasional slight archaisms like “clove him in twain” — perhaps with humorous purpose, or perhaps the original dips into slight archaisms of its own? With the vernacular language and the highly organised and bureaucratised medieval Chinese milieu, which can seem like a modern enough world on its own, it feels contemporary as well as ancient.

I remember reading, as a fan of “Monkey”, a translation of Journey to the West, and being frustrated by its slow pace. If I remember right, the translator had cut out a lot of incidents in order to do justice to the details and style of the text within a volume that could be picked up in one hand. I was a kid, and I was expecting the book to be like the TV show. Outlaws of the Marsh, so far, is not unlike a TV show — episodic and busy. The start has a bit of a patchwork feel, as it skips from character to character, though the framing legend helps to ward off the sense of a shaggy dog story. Then it settles down and concentrates on one guy (whose personality reminds me of Monkey) — or at least, it has been concentrating on him for a couple of chapters now. It looks like it’s going to move on to other characters, but hopefully without jumping around as much as it did at the beginning.

Anyway, I’m pretty hooked on the fun of it all. The Kindle edition that I bought is entirely no-frills. It doesn’t even have page numbers, and there are a few typos and ebook conversion errors, but not enough to be terribly intrusive. But it was only $3.49, and it’s 768 pages. Bargain, mate!

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