Student Question

In Luo Guanzhong's Outlaws of the Marsh / Water Margin 水浒传, how does the author define a 'hero', and what examples support or contradict this definition?

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Water Margin (a.k.a Outlaws of the Marsh, Tale of the Marshes, All Men Are Brothers, Men of the Marshes or The Marshes of Mount Liang) is a fourteenth-century novel presumably written by Shi Naian, although many believe that it might have been written by his pupil Luo Guanzhong. It is the third novel of the Four Great Classical Chinese novels, and as such, it has been translated into many languages and has been used in many other forms of art, literature, and entertainment, such as TV, film and video game adaptations, comics, songs, paintings, and even board games.

The story revolves around a group of 108 bandits called the 108 Stars of Destiny (a.k.a. 108 Stars of Heavenly Earth, 108 Stars of Heaven and Earth), who lived in the Song Dynasty of China. Their concept is based on the Taoist belief that each person’s fate and destiny is predetermined by the stars. They are divided into two groups: the 36 Heavenly Spirits and the 72 Earthly Fiends. They have been reborn on Earth as heroes who will fight against injustice and immorality.

However, an interesting fact about the heroic group of bandits is the fact that they represent 108 demonic overlords who were banished by Shangdi (the “Emperor”)—the absolute God of the universe in Chinese theology and classical and mythological Chinese texts. Thus, their individual personalities and their moral compasses are far from perfect.

For instance, Song Jiang (a.k.a. Tiankui), the Leader Star and the commander of the bandits, was known as the “Protector of Justice and Righteousness." Because of his benevolence, selflessness, chivalry, and generosity, he was also called “Timely Rain,” and because of his dark complexion, he was occasionally called by his peers "Filial and Righteous Dark Third Son" and "Dark Song Jiang."

Despite his good nature, there are many flaws in his character. One apt example of this is his concubine. Song Jiang had a concubine named Yan Poxi, who didn’t really like him and, with time, even began to resent him, as he didn’t spend any time with her. Yan Poxi’s mother insisted that her daughter be with Song Jiang because he was the one who paid for her father’s funeral. So it’s safe to assume that Yan Poxi wasn’t interested in Song Jian and did not have any romantic feelings toward him. She only became his concubine because her family wanted to express their gratitude toward him.

Unhappy with the way Song Jiang treats her, she starts an affair with his administrative assistant Zhang Wenyuan, through whom she learns of Song Jiang’s group of bandits. Thus, she threatens to report him as an outlaw if he doesn’t allow her to marry Zhang, let her keep all of her belongings, and give her gold bars form Chao Gai. Being the righteous and benevolent person that he is, Song Jiang agrees to the first two conditions but doesn’t fulfill the third one, as he only had one gold bar from Chao Gai. Refusing to believe him, Yan Poxi continues with her threats, and Song Jiang kills her in anger.

Many readers believe that this essentially shows that Song Jiang is not the saint that he is usually described to be—not because he lost his patience and angrily killed his concubine, but because he didn’t really show any remorse or regret for doing the terrible deed. Instead, he burned the letter form Chao Gai and escaped from the Yuncheng County, thus choosing to escape from his problems, instead of staying and facing the consequences of his actions. He is also obviously vengeful and refuses to accept that the different opinions of others are as relevant as his own opinions. Interestingly enough, almost all of his bandits share similar characteristics with their leader.

This only shows that the author didn’t want to create perfect characters who are always selfless, moral, ethical, and righteous. Instead, he wanted to create real humans, who feel and experience real emotions and face real problems. Essentially, instead of heroes, he wanted to present anti-heroes, who were in perfect balance with their inner and their outer natures. That is why he based his heroes’ personas on demonic overlords. He wrote them as courageous individuals who are always ready to accept and fight for justice and the greater good, but they are also fearless bandits who are not afraid to face and even delve into darkness and villainy, especially if it guarantees their success.

The goal that Shi Naian had when creating his (anti)heroes was to represent the dualism of the Yin and Yang concept of Chinese philosophy, Taoism and cosmology. This describes how opposite forces are always interconnected and interdependent in nature and perfectly complement one another, thus creating one harmonious whole; in other words, one force cannot exist without the other, or the light cannot exist without darkness, and vice versa. This is why the 108 bandits are written as archetypal heroes who are not always entirely morally consistent.

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