Outlaws of the Marsh: A Somewhat Less Than Critical Commentary
Outlaws of the Marsh describes the events which lead 108 people (105 men and 3 women) to abandon lawful society and band together as leaders of the outlaw fortress on Mt. Liang in the Liangshan Marsh. Many of the men are forced into banditry because of ill treatment by corrupt local government officials, e.g. Lin Chong. Some of the men join because of crimes committed in the heat of the moment, e.g. Song Jiang and Wu Song. Other men join because they are framed for various crimes by the outlaws and, knowing that they will receive no justice from a corrupt government, have no choice but to become outlaws themselves, e.g. Lu Junyi. Many of the men join simply to be associated with the gallant leaders of the outlaw band, e.g. Ou Peng and many lesser outlaws. Finally, some of the men join simply because they are hardcore criminals with a flagrant disregard for the sanctity of other people's lives, e.g. Li Kui.
The world of outlaws is called the "gallant fraternity". Virtuous outlaws are expected to obey the laws of chivalry: rob only the rich, support the poor, kill only the evil, have mercy on the innocent. In addition noble outlaws are expected to display the virtues of filial piety, complete loyalty to other members of the gallant fraternity, and respect for the precepts of Buddhism and Confucianism, as well as respect for the emperor. The apparent contradiction between obeying the emperor and breaking the laws of the empire is justified by the presence of corrupt local government officials, who trick the emperor and keep him ignorant of their graft.
At face value, Outlaws of the Marsh is simply an extremely well-written action novel, with moments of comedy and moments of tragedy. What elevates Outlaws of the Marsh to the level of a classic of world literature is the depth of the characters who lead the band of outlaws. The best characters in the novel are multi-dimensional. They strive to obey the unwritten laws of the "gallant fraternity", while at the same time they are forced by circumstance (and sometimes simply weakness) to break them. It is in the portrayal of individuals seeking to balance their lives between the noble goal of "cultivating virtue" and the horrific reality of butchering their enemies that Outlaws of the Marsh rises to the level of great literature. It is a trait shared by another classic Chinese novel, "Three Kingdoms".
Many people are murdered in Outlaws of the Marsh. For example, in Chapter 31, Wu Song "The Pilgrim" murders nineteen people in a single night. The first four were in self-defense and three of the next 15 were in revenge, but the others, including wives, nursemaids, and three children, were killed simply in a bloody rage. From a contemporary point of view, there is no crime greater than murder of children. However, one must consider that according to Chinese law of the time, a family shared the responsibility for the actions of all of its members. Entire families could be legally annihilated for the faults of a single member. In this culture, Wu Song is simply dispensing the same manner of justice as the government does, albeit his is done without judicial sanction.
In the gallant fraternity, premeditated betrayal is the greatest crime. A mistake made in a moment of passion or a drunken frenzy is forgiveable. Even Song Jiang the most noble of the outlaws kills his wife in a moment of passion. Later on, Song Jiang refers to this murder as a "judicial mishap". Likewise, Li Kui kills dozens of innocent bystanders in a misdirected vengeful fury for which he recieves virtually no reprimand. On the other hand, when Huang Wenbing, former deputy prefect of Jiangzhou, informs on Song Jiang to the Prefect Cai, simply out of spite, he is captured, then slowly tortured by Li Kui (at Song Jiang's order) before he is killed.
In defining crime in the gallant fraternity, the bottom line is that if a man has sufficient justification, he can break the laws of the empire. However, if he acts in a premeditated manner out of spite or strictly for personal gain, he betrays the deepest precepts of the gallant fraternity, for which there is no acceptable justification and no punishment too severe.
In Outlaws of the Marsh, both predestination and free will, apparently in contradiction to each other, play a prominent role. Predestination is derived from the concept of reincarnation. When the Mystic Queen of Ninth Heaven visits Song Jiang's dreams in Chapter 42, it is made clear that Song Jiang is playing out a role, which is a punishment for a crime committed in a previous incarnation. Furthermore, the queen herself predicts Song Jiang's future. With the past and future already painted in, there seems to be not much room for free will.
Even the banding together of the outlaws is due to some supernatural force. When Song Jiang and Li Kui meet, there is no explicit reason for Song Jiang to take so strongly to the brute and drunk, Li Kui. Yet Song Jiang immediately identifies him as a man of honor and a leader in the gallant fraternity. This recognition is due to the fact that both are reincarnated Stars of the 36 Heavenly Spirits, released by Marshal Hong many decades before, and predestined to come together to wreak havoc on the earth.
On the other hand, when the outlaws act, they act as if they had some free will in determining their courses of action. One can liken their position to swimming upstream. Certainly the swimmer can exercise his free will and perform the stroke of his or her choice. The swimmer can also choose to veer toward the right bank over the left. At the same time, the swimmer is immersed in a larger current over which he has no control. Eventually, when the swimmer tires, the current will carry him downstream.
The outlaws of the marsh are in a similar position. Although, like Song Jiang, they may strive to fulfill their father's wishes and submit to their punishment, suffering exile in a distant prefecture, eventually the current of their fate catches them unaware. Like it or not, Song Jiang becomes a member of the outlaws at Mt. Liang. His actions to the contrary merely postponed the inevitable.
Wu Song the Pilgrim kills a tiger with his bare hands.