Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450
Nothing is definitely known about Shi Naian (shee nah-ee-ahn), the man who has been generally accepted as the author of All Men Are Brothers ever since 1644, when Jin Shengtan wrote his seventy-chapter version of the novel with a preface of his own composition and forged Shi’s name to it; an equally good claim can, however, be made for Luo Guanzhong. Until the early 1930’s all that could be said of Shi was that he probably flourished in the middle decades of the fourteenth century and was perhaps an older contemporary of Luo. Then a researcher named Zha Yuting reported that he had found evidence to support the claim that Shi was a native of Huai’an in Jiangsu, that he was the teacher of Luo, and that Jiangyin was the place where he wrote the novel. A census taker reported that he had come upon two documents in the archives of a clan in the Dongtai district of Jiangsu. These give the information that Shi Naian’s real name was Er, that he was born in 1296 and died in 1370, that he passed his jinshi examinations in 1331, and that after serving two years as a magistrate of Qiantang in Zhejiang, he resigned because of disagreements with his superiors and devoted the rest of his life to writing. A list of his writings is given, which include not only the Shuihu zhuan (under a slightly different title) but also several additional historical romances generally attributed to Luo, with the remark that he was helped in his work by his pupil Luo Guanzhong. At first these reports gained wide circulation, but soon doubts began to be voiced and the dispute over authorship of the novel resumed.
Actually neither Shi nor Luo could be the only author of the extant versions of the novel, of which there are at least five (in 100, 110, 115, 120, and 124 chapters respectively) that antedate Jin’s version. Historical and legendary romances such as Shuihu zhuan and Sanguo zhi yanyi lived first in the oral tradition of professional storytellers. After a time some of them were set down in crude, sketchy form and were used largely as promptbooks. Shi and Luo, who lived under the oppressive rule of the Yuan dynasty, were the first two authors who rewrote some of these romances and arranged them into a novel about 108 brave men and women banded together in their fight against tyranny. When literary hacks began to make up more elaborate reading versions of these romances from about the middle of the sixteenth century on, they appropriated the Shi-Luo names rather than give their own, since it was not to one’s credit in those days to be responsible for such light literature.