Reading Shi Naian’s WATER MARGIN, a medieval Chinese novel…wait, who am I kidding–you know it as the inspiration for SUIKODEN

Not much to post today. I’m at the California School Library Association convention in San Diego. Dead tired for some reason. Must be the jet lag (now that I’m thirty, I’ve begun practicing my dad jokes).

Been reading another ancient chinese novel: Water Margin. Very, very different from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Romance was a coherent story–it was about the dissolution and reformation of an empire. But it had such a vast scope that huge sections felt like summary. Water Margin is very different. It’s about a loose collection of bandits who get together in the Liangshang Marsh. Summaries of the book will tell you that they’ve been driven into the marsh by the corruption of the Song Dynasty’s officialdom. But…that’s only partly true. In general, they seem like a pretty greedy and callous lot. I think that’s part of the charm of the story, though. Their opponents are bad, and so are they. Part of the message, I think, is that people aren’t going to be better than their government. When officials are corrupt, the people will be as well.

The story is so all over the place. Right now I’m reading an extended episode wherein the wife of the brother of one of the bandits plots to kill her husband, with the help of her lover (this story forms the basis for another long Chinese novel: Plum In The Golden Vase). It took me awhile to wrap my head around the idea that I was going to stick with each character for awhile and then move on, and that from there on out, those earlier characters would only be sidenotes in later tales.

But I am enjoying it. I appreciate that it’s structured in concrete scenes with real incidents. And there’s a liveliness to it. I also like the odd morality, which is something I always appreciate about foreign or ancient classic. People do things that are so awful (for instance, one of the most righteous heroes murders his concubine when she tries to blackmail him), and the book will tiptoe around it, being like hmm, how can we judge this. Good books will contain enough nuance that you can read both praise and condemnation into them. For instance, in The Iliad Achilles talks about how he could have stayed at home and ruled and lived a long life, but he chose to come to Troy, even knowing that he’d die young, because it would mean his glory would last for thousands of years. And the epic is clearly like, yeah, you go Achilles…good decision. But…at the same time…it contains a hint of distaste: enough so that you’re allowed to think the question, “Maybe he should’ve stayed home…”

Similarly, Water Margin allows you to think the question, “Maybe these aren’t heroes; maybe they’re just a bunch of lawless brigands…”