05 – On Sworn Brothers, Homoerotic Heroes, and Crappy Endings

I’ve finally finished reading Shi Na’an’s “Water Margin”, also known as the swashbuckling Chinese novel, “All Men are Brothers”. (Also known as “Outlaws of the Marsh”.)

Although I’ve seen quite a few snippets of the novel over the years, I’ve never actually read it all the way through. For one, I always thought I should read it in its original Chinese, which I can do but will probably take twenty years for me to finish. I read much faster in English and Filipino.

After plodding through chapter after chapter of the heroes’ exploits, I can’t help but understand why this is Mao Zedong’s favourite novel. (I ought to cite that nugget, but I’m a little lazy.)

Mao Zedong, unlike his historical contemporaries, was not fond of reading philosophical or military books. He was a librarian, but still he preferred books that were considered “trashy” or even “uneducated”. Romance novels, wuxia stories — these were the books that he loved reading. He was so pedestrian in his literary choices that it’s unsurprising how he initiated the backlash against China’s scholars and nerds.

I’m not judging Mao’s taste. Everyone needs to chill the fuck out and read some trashy, pointless novel once in a while. The thing with “Water Margin” is that it might not be the “Confucian Analects”, but it does have its merits (and it is one of the Four Classics of China). Quickly: “Water Margin” is the story of 108 heroic bandits who rob corrupt government officials in order to help the poor. The original Robinhoods, if you will, with their base in Liangshan Marsh. The bandits are righteous and kind, and though they may be insanely powerful at martial arts, they only use their powers for good.

Record scratch.

That’s where things get crazy. This isn’t your average good versus evil. The thing that’s very interesting about “Water Margin” is that the heroes aren’t exactly perfect. They may have good intentions, but they are not above killing children if it means getting what they want.

Song Jiang ordered that a (kind and not corrupt) prefect’s child be murdered so that Zhu Tong (the child’s guardian) would have no choice but to go on the lam and join their forces.

Wu Song killed an entire family because the father plotted against him and ordered his death. That includes the women, the maids, the staff, and the children.

The children.

Li Kui murdered an entire household to satisfy his bloodlust, even though the head of the family had already surrendered and assisted the bandits.

Going back to Mao Zedong. How could the man not love the novel? Song Jiang — described as a righteous man despite his penchant for murdering entire families for vengeance — is beloved and respected. Whatever evil he commits is due only to his commitment to the greater good. He may kill innocent people once in a while, but he cries about it and he feels bad, so that’s okay. In the end, it’s all about doing what’s right for the majority.

The parallels are so obvious it’s barely necessary to explain further.

And so, the ending: it’s crap. I swear, I’ve never read an ending this horrible, and I’ve read that epilogue thing on the last Harry Potter book. What is the point? Everything they did was for naught. They fought for the emperor and the brothers sacrificed their lives, only for Song Jiang to end up poisoned by the same corrupt officials he worked so hard to fight.


Perhaps now we can understand why Mao was so paranoid. Everyone’s out to get you when you’re the only “good” man in a rotting government, see.

On a happier(?) note, I suppose every article/write-up/blog post on “Water Margin” must mention this little nugget: so much bromance, doods.

So. Much. Bromance.

Every scene of parting is filled with tears, and the brothers can barely tear themselves away from each others arms.

Bro. Fucking. Mance.

I mean, the girls are there, but they’re either sluts or suicide fodder. The virtuous just keep killing themselves, while the sluts get killed in horrific ways.

Men, though? There’s so much man love in this novel I think I grew a testicle.

Interestingly, the novel is the template for the brotherhood/homoerotic themes of modern day triad movies. Now you know why all those virtuous women get raped and killed in gangster flicks. It’s so the men have something to go on a murderous rampage for. And of course, who needs women when you’ve got brothers?


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