Weapons! Violence! Manly men! Bad guys!

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Shi Nai’an during the Yuan Dynasty

Seventy chapters. That’s how long it takes to assemble 108 heroes and their army on Mount Liangshan. According to my calculator, that is 1.543 heroes per chapter, to the first four significant figures. Now, there are only thirty chapters remaining in the book, so surely, there must be more to the deal. Water Margin is still going strong as a martial arts action slaughterfest set in Imperial China.

The one thing that stands out very strongly in the book is just how easily the various generals and government officials who ultimately join the Mount Liangshan heroes are swayed from their original careers. Now, surely there’s a bit of plot magic here, and maybe even cultural ignorance on my part, but failure to triumph seems to be as tolerated as well as hemorrhoids by the imperial court. And that failure seems to be punished disproportionately, usually by beheading or some exile. Rather than face any form of punishment, many of the bandits join out of a desire for self preservation.

However, Song Jiang, the paramount leader of the outlaws is a virtuous and good man, who is able to convince his followers that they should fight for the good of the nation. They set about offing local officials who are corrupt and tyrannical. Of course, the amount of gift giving, bribery and destruction that goes on in the name of saving people would make the Communists in Beijing green with envy. This is in the context of actual gold and silver (!) being used as the de facto currency in China during the Imperial period, as a sort of hybrid barter/money economy. That is a LOT of precious metal being handed about.

This ingrained social “custom”, where gifts are given freely in the name of generosity and kindness (and hoping to gain favour and a future connection), to show you are humble and a top class member of society still goes on today in China. Old habits die hard, and would be immensely strange in the West, where many would imagine this kind of practice is bribery in all but name. Taken to the extreme, of course, it can land people in lots of trouble down the road.

Of course, we cannot forgo mentioning the main comic relief of the story, the impetuous and always angry Li Kui, also known as the Black Whirlwind. His main weapons are twin battleaxes (this bloke must surely be analogous to Dwayne Johnson) and he goes into battle in the buff. In. The. Frickin’ Buff! If this character is not the ultimate manly man, I don’t know who is. His vulgarity and quick temper make him dangerous to everyone, even himself, but he was fiercely loyal to Song Jiang and The Cause, so his adventures (read: wild bouts of bloodlust) are more comical than anything else.

Water Margin continues to be massively entertaining, simply because every single chapter has some action in it. It’s pretty filled to the brim with gore, splattered brains, innards and lots of decapitations, but the level of violence is no worse than the modern epic fantasy series Game of Thrones. Steady on, as we plow head on and finish the last portion of the book!

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