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Book Review: The Water Margin

By (June 2, 2011) 2 Comments

The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh)

Shi Naian

translated by J. H. Jackson

Tuttle Publishing, 2010

The Chinese prose epic known as Shiuhu Zhuan (The Water Margin) was first published around 1368, although its roots extend far beyond that date. The book tells the various and only tenuously connected stories of bandit leader Song Jiang and his followers, actual historical figures from the reign of the Huizong Emperor during the Song Dynasty. That 1368 novel was a masterpiece of synergy, pulling together a vast oral and written background of tales, poems, and dramas concerning this rag-tag band of outlaws, and it saw print just as the Yuan Dynasty was being supplanted by the Ming, a time of bitter social turbulence when the story of (mostly) good men driven to the outlaw life by Imperial corruption could be guaranteed to strike a chord in readers.

Masterpieces of editing have a long tradition in Chinese literature as well, where an editor’s scholarly re-crafting of the work under his hand can gain him a renown almost equal to the work’s author. The authorship of The Water Margin has always been contested; was it written by Shi Naian, as tradition asserts? Or did Shi Naian get help from his pupil Luo Guanzhong? Or perhaps did Shi Naian not exist at all, except as a clever pseudonym for Luo Guanzhang, who also wrote the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (unless he didn’t)? Debate continues, of course, but in the meantime we’re on more solid ground with those re-crafting editors, beginning in earnest with Li Zhi, who created a definitive 120-chapter version of the work around 1592. This was a story of loss, righteous brigandage, and ultimate redemption, with heroes obtaining an Imperial pardon in the last batch of chapters.

In 1641, another titanic Water Margin editor, Jin Shengtan, published a radically different but no less definitive 70-chapter version in which there’s no amnesty, no pardons for wrong-doers regardless of how admirable they might be or how corrupt was the Imperial system that drove them to their criminal lives in the first place.

The Jin Shengtan edition provided a radically different reading experience from that of its illustrious predecessor, and it was this shorter version that got its first English translation in 1933 by Pearl Buck, who called it All Men Are Brothers. In 1937 this edition of the work was translated again, by the enigmatic J. H. Jackson, about whom little more is known than the fact that he translated this book.

Further translations of course followed, most notably that of the longer version of the Shuihu Zhuan done by Brooklyn’s Stanley Shapiro in 1981 under the title Outlaws of the Marsh. In the way of translations, each has its fierce partisans, and no one is more aware of that fact than Edwin Lowe, whose lovingly curated edition of the Jackson translation of The Water Margin is now published in plump, gorgeous paperback by Tuttle Publishing. Tuttle also produces the other three of the legendary Chines “Four Great Novels,” Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and The Dream of the Red Chamber (as well as a very pretty edition of the rudely-omitted Tale of Genji), and in his introduction to the present volume, Lowe strikes  winning note of self-deprecation:

Readers of this edition must understand that this is in no way a new translation, or a reinterpretation of the Shuihu story. In my more fanciful and vain glorious moments, I see myself merely continuing the Chinese literary tradition of editorship and revision of Shuihu Zhuan rather than “changing” or “re-writing” Jackson’s The Water Margin.

But why should this be vainglory? Lowe has taken Jackson’s massive and still-enjoyable work, somewhat forensically assessed its strengths and weaknesses:

… we can assume that Jackson’s Sinological knowledge, like his ability with the Chinese language was in fact, quite considerable. Contrastingly and with a precision that may actually have been pedantry, Jackson translated such obscuranta as of the names of Chines star constellations into their English language equivalents …

… and produced a seamlessly updated and improved version of somebody else’s work. This is the very heart and essence of that Chinese literary tradition of editorship, and its service to that literary tradition is manifest: great old translations shouldn’t be forgotten in the rush for novelty. Wise on Lowe’s part to see this, and applause-worthy of Tuttle to give the final product such a lovely physical rendition. Readers who already own a copy of Shapiro’s great volumes (and readers who don’t are urged to correct that oversight at the earliest convenient moment) will want this new reprint right beside them, and readers who’ve never yet experienced the wild, raucous, noble, adventurous world of such upstanding characters as Wu Song and Dai Zhong (and of course the sublime Song Jiang) and such seedy rogues as Li Kui and Lu Da will find no more approachable introduction than this. Perhaps even make it an entire summer of The Water Margin? Just a thought.

The 108 Heroes of "The Water Margin"!