All Men Are Brothers

by Shi Naian
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794

The stories that make up the plot of All Men Are Brothers originated many years before the novel as a whole was composed and probably have some basis in fact. There are many more versions of this novel than of other Chinese novels. This may be the result of the vastness of its scope and characterization, or the suitability of the novel to shorter versions. The translation of the shortest version runs to more than twelve hundred eventful pages. One hundred eight named chieftains form the band at the close of the book. The plot outline given above conveys only a little of the extraordinary bloodthirstiness of these “good fellows,” who slaughter entire households of their enemies, who occasionally indulge in cannibalism, and whose reasons for becoming outlaws are not always noble. The characters, however, are vividly portrayed, the story is always interesting, and all is presented with the greatest realism and vigor. Long attributed to Shi Naian, the novel, many scholars claim, may be the work of Luo Guanzhong or of another author whose identity is unknown.

All Men Are Brothers was translated into English in 1933 by noted author Pearl S. Buck. Buck, the daughter of American missionaries and the wife of a missionary, was familiar with the Chinese people and culture. Buck titled her translation All Men Are Brothers because she thought the literal translation of the title (“water margin novel”) was too remote for the sensibilities of Western readers. Her title comes from the Analects of Confucius and is intended to capture the novel’s human spirit.

Readers may wish to distinguish individual bandits from others by means of the vividness of their characterizations and the uniqueness of their stories, but readers should not expect to keep the identities of the myriad bandits straight, beyond some exceptional personalities and incidents. Perhaps not every leader of the bandit gang is meant to be identifiable; the text, unlike the average Western novel, contains many inconsistencies, errors, and improbabilities. For example, none of the more than one hundred chieftains dies in the numerous fights and battles before the assembly at the end.

Perhaps, to Western sensibilities, these imperfections flaw the novel as a conscious literary creation. Given the early date of this novel, and the fact that it is probably a compilation of the work of multiple storytellers, weaving fiction in and out of some probable historical events, complications, errors, and improbabilities are to be expected. Also, Chinese readers have exhibited tolerance for error, incongruity, implausibility, and lack of completeness, especially when vitality, energy, spirit, and underlying psychological truthfulness are as evident as they are in All Men Are Brothers. The truth of a Chinese novel lies more in its insight into and sympathy with its characters than in its crafted, careful exposition. Portraying a world of emotions, sensibilities, feelings, and actions is often, to the Chinese reader, in opposition to, or subtly at odds with, a strictly factual, totally explainable, plausible world.

Broad generalizations are often used to discuss this complicated, highly episodic, and well-peopled novel, but few generalizations can be accurate for the novel as a whole, beyond that of a compendium of Robin Hood-like, best-loved bandit stories, renowned in Chinese literature for their variety, inventiveness, dramatic surprise, and knowledge of human nature. Even these generalizations are not always applicable to the text: The bandits often have little socially redeeming value, help only themselves, and often are unnecessarily violent.

Despite the fact that the novel was probably composed after a period of storytelling, its incidents and moods are surprisingly consistent and uniform in narrative structure. They are also almost always captivating, enlivening, thrilling, adventurous, spontaneous, and varied, with much of the appeal of the unseen endings of modern Western mystery stories.

Seen at various times as a textbook for outlaws and an actual sourcebook for the nicknames of real bandits, it has also been seen by some as a political metaphor for the actions of Chinese Communists after 1949 and by others as a glorification of peasant revolutionaries. It could be argued that nearly any use or misuse could be made of a novel so large and various as All Men Are Brothers. This work, however, has a unique popularity in Chinese literature, transcending use or even explanation of a band of bandits who see themselves as mostly generous-spirited but who have been forced by the oppressions of life and government into banditry and outlaw life and now glorify a marginal life in the boundaries of the safe swamps that they make their hideout, headquarters, and refuge. That so much life, liveliness, inventive incident, and devilish and repugnant charm should issue from the least likely, and perhaps least deserving, of characters is one of the great unexplainable fascinations of this highly popular novel.

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