Saturday, 7 May 2016

Review: Outlaws of the Marsh

Outlaws of the Marsh is one of four great Chinese classical mega-novels (the others being Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Story of the Stone/Dream of the Red Chamber).

I use the term ‘mega-novel’ deliberately; this isn’t for someone wanting a weekend book (unless you can read 400-500,000 words a day). Editions vary significantly from a 70 chapter to a 120 chapter version. The one I read was the Foreign Languages Press box set in four volumes (100 chapters), translated by Sidney Shapiro.

Another easily accessible (in English) version is the Chinese University Press series (volumes bought separately, but it’s the full 120 chapter version). The translation of the latter may be slightly superior, from memory, but the cost is about six times more [I’ve read one volume, The Tiger Killers].

I’ve read Outlaws of the Marsh twice before, and it’s easily my favourite Chinese classic. It’s worth noting the first chapter is rather different to the rest of the book (effectively setting up the premise). The story cracks along at a fast rate of knots, and there are numerous memorable characters (my own favourite is Sagacious Lu, a Buddhist monk who enjoys getting drunk and acts of violence).

There’s no one main character. The closest would be Song Jiang, but lots of characters get much page time, including Wu Yong, Dai Zong, Li Kui, Wu Song, Sagacious Lu and many more. The narrative style is brilliant, it weaves numerous major characters’ arcs together, dropping off a character here and picking them up there. With dozens of main characters and over two thousand pages to play with, this works very well indeed.

There’s a minimum of flimflam description. This is a book crammed with dialogue and action, and is much lighter on describing landscapes and so forth.

It’s also not the most politically correct of books. One of the principal ‘good guys’ is a step away from being a mad axeman. Although some of the chieftains are women (most notably Ten Feet of Steel), the general treatment of women is of its time.

A concise summary would be Robin Hood and his Merry Men (emphasis on the latter) set in ancient China, with lashings of blood. I really enjoyed it, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste because of the style.

If you’re interested in this, you may also want to read my review of Three Kingdoms.



  1. Would Outlaws of the Marsh be the original story behind the TVs series the Water Margin?

    1. Hey, Paul.

      Never seen it, but my understanding is that it was the story upon which the TV series was based.