Luo Guanzhong

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In Luo Guanzhong's Outlaws of the Marsh, what does the portrayal of bandits reveal about his concept of a "hero" or hao han?

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The heroes of Water Margin come from lower-class or marginalized backgrounds and act according to strict moral codes whose allegiance transcends everything from class origin to family ties to gender identity—and the law itself. And in a society as strictly Confucian as dynastic China, where historically strict adherence to the letter of ritual was valued above actual belief, this last element is crucial to what has made this such a radical and enduring tale in the history of Chinese culture.

Both the Song dynasty (which forms the setting of this story) and the Ming dynasty (when this most famous iteration was first published) saw a rise in interest in Neo-Confucianism, which, in short, distinguished itself philosophically from other schools of Chinese thought by emphasizing the role of individual reason in forging a harmonious relation to the world, as opposed to both the lofty metaphysics of Buddhism or Daoism and the slavish adherence to ritual promoted by classical Confucianism. This context informs the subversive application of the term "hao han" to a group of social misfits who have elevated themselves above traditional centers of authority by dint of their rationally derived morals and fierce loyalty to one another.

Finally, while hao han (好漢) translates literally to "good guy," the second character, han (漢) has specific linguistic origins in distinguishing ethnic Chinese people from "barbarians" or outsiders—it's the same word used today to denote people of specifically mainland Chinese origin, or to specify the language spoken in Beijing as opposed to that spoken in Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Taipei. Thus the bandits' use of the term for one another implies a certain attitude toward their own identity with respect to the tension between moral action and official position in establishing one's right to membership in a "civilized" society. The use of the term in this Ming dynasty text will reflect all of the 500 years of historical change that separates it from the events it is based on, with all of the ideological shifts those centuries of upheaval entail.

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Outlaws of the Marsh / Water Margin 水浒传 by Luo Guanzhong In Luo Guanzhong's novella, the bandits refer to each other hao han 好漢. Although usually translated as 'hero', the word hao han literally means 'good guy'. What does Luo's portrayal of the bandits in Outlaws of the Marsh tell us about his idea of the archetypal 'hero' (or hao han)?

The outlaw gangs are depicted in two different phases. While their behavior is truly outside the law at the beginning, after they are stopped, they begin working on behalf of the state and their activities are considered heroic. These evaluations seem to depend almost as much on the motivations for their actions as on the actions themselves. Luo Guanzhong thus conveys that the heroes of these tales, which he updated from versions written some two centuries earlier, have the enduring qualities of nobility, generosity, and strong convictions, as well as a physical prowess that renders them heroic.

The 108 outlaws led by Song Jiang form a veritable army. Historically, they are known to have been active in China’s Huinan region in the early twelfth century. They roamed the countryside so boldly that they even attacked government forces, until those commanded by Zhang Shuye were able to pacify them. Once their campaigns ceased, they received amnesty in exchange for defending the kingdom from internal and external enemies. Their exploits defending the borders and combatting rebels earn them their heroic reputations.

Although earlier versions of the outlaw-heroes’ tales (in which there were usually fewer than 108) were well known, as the boldness of their exploits were magnified in successive generations, so too was their number. Their reasons for joining were as diverse as the mens (and a few women) themselves, which included ordinary men and scholars as well as ex-military officers. Those who had held official government positions had often gotten into trouble by opposing corruption and had to flee unjust punishment. Many were killed, however, in battling the government forces sent to detain them. Their bravery was so great that the rulers decided to let those remaining stay at liberty, as long as they worked with the government to keep the country safe, especially from foreign invaders.

Because the outlaws’ actions often were for the protection and benefit of the common people, they are considered “social bandits,” of the type known to English-speaking readers through Robin Hood, to whom these outlaws are often compared.

A recent analysis by Yoko Miyamoto notes several qualities of the hao han, including advanced martial skills and a finely tuned devotion to justice. Thus, their actions are motivated by their desire to correct social wrong-doing. They are extremely loyal to other band members. Recognizing in others the motivations that led each of them to join their fellows, they also accept into their ranks those who became fugitives by opposing evil leaders or are falsely accused.

Miyamoto uses Eric Hobsbawm’s now-classic definition of the “noble robber” type of social bandit. Although such figures operate outside the law, they are not revolutionaries; that is, they support the central ruler but oppose corrupt local-level officials. By taking a principled stance, they are heroic figures.

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