“Do you know Leonard Cohen?” Sidney shouts. He’s trying to be heard over the album that’s blasting through his hutong apartment. “This is one of his live sessions. I think it’s just wonderful. I like to play it really loud and do my taichi.”
Sidney Shapiro’s 90-something years old. He moved to Shanghai looking for a job in 1947. And he’s lived in Beijing since liberation. In China’s literature circles, he’s a legend. He married a movie star, lived through the Great Leap Forward, defends the Cultural Revolution, and scuffed with Jiang Qing. More than those, he translated one of China’s greatest books — 1,600 pages long — into English.
Sure, that sounds boring. But check out these sweet snippets…
“The farmer… smashed their skulls with his hoe, spattering brain matter.”
“Liu Tang and Yang Xiong brought their policemen’s staves down on Wang’s head with such force that his brains spattered and his eyes bulged, and he fell dead.”
“He whipped out a knife and cut off Ho’s ears. Blood flowed copiously.”
The book is “Outlaws of the Marsh” (水滸傳). It’s about 700 years old and it’s one of the great works of Chinese literature. It exists where Robin Hood meets The Ramayana. And it’s got everything.
The prince, impressed by his winning several archery matches in a row, had given him his daughter in marriage. But Xuan Zan’s ugliness had so revolted the girl that she died.
Tips for scoundrels….
“These seduction cases are the hardest of all. There are five conditions that have to be met before you can succeed. First, you have to be as handsome as Pan An. Second, you need a tool as big as a donkey’s. Third, you must be as rich as Deng Tong. Fourth, you must be as forbearing as a needle plying through cotton wool. Fifth, you’ve got to spend time. It can be done only if you meet these five requirements.”
“Frankly, I think I do. First, while I’m far from a Pan An, I still can get by. Second, I’ve had a big cock since childhood.”
“Ximen was frolicking with Golden Lotus upstairs. At the sound of Wu Song’s voice he farted with terror and pissed in his pants.”
And this book is considered a classic? Not just a classic, but one of the FOUR greatest books of Chinese literature.
“There are hairs in this dumpling that look a lot like pubic hairs.”
“What’s in these?” he asked. “Human flesh, or dog’s?”
There are three different TV series based on the length of it, and a half-dozen movie adaptations. There’s at least one porno version. There are video games, comic books, operas, and more.
Toilet humor, you see, is considered an art in China. The Farrelly Brothers would have thrived here. Even Mao loved to litter his quotes and poems with references to his farts and shits.
And really, this book is awesome. Once you get past the blood and viscera, there’s even epicurean poetry that makes me crave a Shandong feast.
The waiter went downstairs and soon returned with a jug of “Moonlight Breeze on Lovers’ Bridge”—a fine liquor, and a tray of vegetable dishes and tidbits to go with it. Then came fat mutton, crispy chicken, less-steeped goose and fillet of beef, all served on vermilion plates and platters.
“I was saved by Song Jiang,” Sidney told Liz and me. He’d spent the turbulent China years, during the cultural revolution, translating it into English, avoiding all of the infights and the political battles that surrounded his coworkers. The only problem was the title.
“I wanted to call it Heroes of the Marsh,” he said, “but Jiang Qing wouldn’t have it.” Jiang was Mao’s witch-like wife. She was worried about celebrating rebellious miscreants. So she sent a pair of thugs to his office. “So I changed the word to Outlaws,” Sidney said, then laughed. “I don’t think she realized it’s a positive word in the West.”
I didn’t realize that either.
The book is about 108 rebels — many of them historical figures — and it seems strange to glorify them at all. They take to the mountains of Shandong to fight corruption and injustice, but dole out as much drunken violence as they can muster. They see themselves as heroic figures, but blindly slash and rape and maim with joy. Even a razing of a church is seen as a passing error.
“I used to tend the vegetable garden in the Guangming Monastery,” says Zhang Qing the Vegetable Gardener. “I got into an argument over a small thing and lost my temper. I killed the monks and burned the monastery to the ground. But nothing happened.”
And that’s one of the heroes.
Here’s another. His name is Li Kui. He’s known as the Black Whirlwind for his dark skin, incredible temper, and the two axes he waves in circles as he dives into crowds.
“These two big axes of mine haven’t had any action for a long time,” said Li Kui the Black Whirlwind. “I’m glad to hear we’re going to fight and pillage again. Let me have five hundred men and I’ll take the Northern Capital, hack Governor Liang into mincemeat, dismember the corpses of Li Gu and that adulterous female, and rescue Lu the Magnate and Shi Xiu!”
Hooray! Oh, he’s told off time and again, but it never really holds. Here’s one of my favorite Li Kui adventures. He’s been irritated by a holy man’s attitude…
Li Kui groped for his two axes, quietly opened the house door and, step by step in the moonlight, made his way up the mountain. The double portals of the Temple of Purple Void were shut, but the fence around the compound was not high, and he cleared it in a leap. After opening the portals in readiness for a retreat, he crept into the grounds till he came to the Hall of Pines and Cranes. He heard someone within chanting scriptures. He crawled closer and poked a hole through the paper window. Luo the Sage was seated alone on his dais. Two smoking candles on a table before him shed a bright light.
“That wretched Taoist,” thought Li Kui. “He deserves to die.”
Stealthily, he crept to the latticed door and, with one push, swung it creaking open. He charged in, raised his axes and brought them down on the Sage’s forehead. Luo collapsed on his dais. His flowing blood was white. Li Kui laughed.
“The varlet must have been a virgin. He’s still got all his male essence. He hasn’t used any of it! There’s not a drop of red blood in him!” Li Kui took a close look at his handiwork. His ax had cleaved the Sage’s hat and split his head right down to his neck.
“Today, I’ve removed a trouble-maker,” Black Whirlwind observed with satisfaction.
It’s a little strange.
But, at the same time, this book reads with an odd relevance, today. These 108 are disgruntled. They believe in the Emperor, and in China, but they’re sick to death of the greedy, embezzling, toadying provincial leaders. They’re sick of corrupt leaders imprisoning the innocents, stealing the contracts, polluting their cities. They’re looking for a change.
It sounds familiar. I know the book is still being read, and referenced, regularly. It’s sold in every bookstore. Every child knows the stories. But how do you think a contemporary remake might be received?
(It’s something I’d like to see.)
Discuss below, or buy the book here.