If you haven’t done so already you may want to read Part I before continuing.
“The idol of today pushes the hero of yesterday out of our recollection; and will, in turn, be supplanted by his successor of tomorrow.”
As we return to our tree on our sunny afternoon, to our Chinese and Western cultures passing along their stories, it seems logical to discuss the most eminent heroes of both tales. The leaders of our brigand armies, and discuss what it means to be a hero. Why do we praise certain individuals, even criminals, above others?
Does heroism have an expiration date? Do our clichés of self-sacrifice stand the test of our increasingly cynical and pragmatic times? Do we return, battered and bitter, to our sunny spot beside the great tree with hope for our future heroes, or cling to glorious remnants of our imagined past? Are the virtues of our dead bandits gathering dust with their paperbacks?
Let us consider more thoroughly the leaders of our parallel bands. Though Outlaws of the Marsh spends the first 40 chapters chronicling the rise and fall of dozens of heroes individually, Song Jiang the Timely Rain becomes the novel’s driving protagonist mid-way through the work. His commands are always followed to the letter for the remainder of the story. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood opens and closes with the individual adventures of the hero for whom the book is named, and despite the occasional chapter to describe one of Little John’s personal adventures; the narrative follows Robin’s exploits closely, with the rest of his yeomen and friends riding his coat tails. If we consider Robin Hood and Song Jiang to be these two cultures’ temporary arch-types of the hero, what can we discern about values at the time? More importantly, how have those values stood the test of time, or been reshaped over the anvils of our struggles and reformed in the crucibles of our history?
Song Jiang was renowned in the “Gallant Fraternity” for his generosity, not only to “bold fellows from far and wide,” but indeed anyone who asked him for money or help in some way. Song Jiang did not begin his tale with “stealing from the rich” but he certainly had his share of “giving to the poor.” Song Jiang is said to be “fond of play with weapons,” which seems to be the description of any of the outlaws who were good fighters but did not hold a military position. As a general, Song Jiang is always left standing at the battle lines while other heroes drive forward to fight the enemy in single combat. Song Jiang is neither the best swimmer, nor commander of naval craft, as those duties are often given to the three Ruan brothers of Stone Tablet Village. We are left to believe that Song Jiang is far from the best among equals in terms of his fighting prowess, and also far from the best strategist, as the outlaws all defer to the somewhat omniscient Wu Yong.
“The Scholar does not consider gold and jade to be precious treasures, but loyalty and good faith.”
So where did the strength of Song Jiang lay? What was it about him that bade men to defy armies and emperors to follow him so unflinchingly? Loyalty. The first and strongest bond that held the outlaws to Song Jiang, and also the virtue that bound Song Jiang to his tragic fate was loyalty. Song Jiang christens the main hall of the bandits’ fortress “Loyalty Hall,” which is an act that was copied later by a number of rebel groups in China (Shi, 1993). For Song Jiang this virtue is held most strongly to the Emperor, and a close second to his family and the band. This loyalty to the Emperor was of paramount importance to Song Jiang, even after two offers of amnesty became ruses to trap or capture the outlaws, Song Jiang still held out for the next offer, that would finally allow him to serve his emperor. Unlike the romanticized notions many have about mobs and organized crime in the United States, it was mainly desperation that drove bold men to Liangshan Marsh, but it was loyalty that kept them there long after the dangers of their previous lives had passed. Loyalty is often what connected these heroes before they joined the band in Liangshan. The 108 bandits were always aided and sheltered by those who were part of the “gallant fraternity,” that nebulous network of Chinese who chiefly recognized those of skill and courage.
Does this particular virtue, which Song Jiang held in such high regard, and which bound those of greater skill and courage to him and his ideals, still translate into today’s China? Do the Chinese people of the Communist PRC still guide their lives by a belief in loyalty as we are led to believe the best men of their society did so many centuries ago? According to Godwin C. Chu in a recent book, loyalty remains one of the Chinese people’s strongest values. Among the two forms of loyalty in ancient China, xiao, or loyalty to one’s father and family was always second to zhong, or loyalty to the emperor. In its more modern incarnations the deference to the emperor was replaced with Chairman Mao’s cult of personality. It has now found a somewhat murkier foundation in deference to the Communist Party. As a foreigner living in China it is sometimes hard to tell what many of my students or colleagues truly believed and how much of their words were guarded. Sometimes it seems hard to tell where the propoganda of childhood ended and individual thought began. To live in China is to view all survey based research with a skeptical eye, just as many Chinese view Western media and research with a not completely unfounded view that it is often a search for flaws and negativity.
Loyalty in China now, at least in the major cities, doesn’t correspond to the virtue of a blind loyalty to the government, but a kind of loyalty to the idea of what it is to be Chinese and to the Chinese nation. Thus, this sense of loyalty could be what trickles into or avoids true responses to questions which might color the people or nation in a negative light. My reasoning for this statemant revolves around an almost endless number of personal conversations and situations while living here. One in particular revolves around a situation that probably received little media attention in the West, and a huge amount in China. In the hypersensitive months leading up to the Olympics, a French company named Carrefour, (like a French Wal-Mart) was the target a a huge internet and cell-phone based grass roots boycott. This was the result of Tibetan seperatist protestors in Paris going outrageously over the line, and trying to steal the torch from a Chinese woman, Jin Jing, who was consigned to a wheel chair. In late April as this was all coming to a head, without prodding from the government, this nationalist fervor was reaching a temporary fevered pitch. I sat in my office at an English training school, and my colleagues and I noticed that our MSN messenger lists began filling with users whose name was changed to I♥China(username). I went into a class to talk about stereotypes, which was the planned lesson, and after I mentioned a stereotype of the Chinese a 45 year old woman threatened to beat me up.
Many companies have attempted to convert this patriotic loyalty to brand loyalty with mixed success, but suffice it to say that loyalty, though directed and channeled in a different way, is still an incredibly strong and important virtue of the modern Chinese character.
Loyalty in Robin Hood, though established by the actions of the characters toward one another; particularly risking their lives to rescue Will Stutely, and later Robin Hood risks his life to rescue Little John, was not nearly as pronounced or emphasized as it was in Outlaws. In one chapter, after winning a fighting contest in Nottinghamtown, Little John is taken into the service of Robin Hood’s arch enemy the Sheriff of Nottingham. He becomes a trusted guard, confidant and advisor. Instead of using his position for purposes of infiltration or spying Little John rather begins to enjoy himself, and is reluctant to give up his soft bed and belly full of fresh food. It is a full six months before his loyalties to Robin Hood finally kick in, and he returns to Sherwood Forrest with a comical apology offering of a single recruit and the Sheriff’s silver tableware.
In America today, no debate on loyalty to the nation can be discussed without the obfuscations of the new focus on the war on terror and the “us vs. them” atittudes that have become so pervasive. Yet I think the underlying factor is that American patriotism is not some idyllic notion about the value of “American culture.” American loyalty more often grafts itself less on ideals and more on results. In otherwords, the idea of America, despite its claims that the country is united by its ideals of freedom, is much more likely united by a belief that America represents a lifestyle devoted to achievement and progress. To take an example from an important historical moment, the American centennial is 1876,
“The message for public memory here had been that the past was an important prologue to the attainment of a sophisticated material civilization; working-class interpretations of a past supportive of equal rights were not to be heard at this event. It was American material progress, and inferentially, the group of industrial leaders supposedly responsible for it that merited citizen loyalty and respect.”
This theory will probably seem very intuitive to modern immigrants to America, driven as many of them are to the pursuit of wealth and a better life, and to those lucky immigrants that find it, the other aspects of American culture and life then filter into the next and likely fluent English generation. The loyalty through progress motif is sacrificed when Americans can drum up a substantial adversary such as “The Communists” or the “Terrorists” the focus always returns to what we can do rather than who we are. Though Robin Hood and his band demonstrated a very clear loyalty “to King and Country,” when the Kings were all deposed and the Empires collapsed many Western nations found the solace of the pursuit of materialism. It can even be argued that Europe as a whole is now grappling with the exact opposite loyalties as the mainstream Chinese, whereas the Chinese are in the process of finding aspects of their culture, country, and possibilities to be proud of, western European nations are slowly allowing pieces of their own culture to be consumed by the looming bureaucracy of the European Union. Progress has trumped cultural pride.
“Modesty is not only an ornament, but also a guard to virtue.”
From arguing over who is justified in taking the honored seat at a dinner banquet, to kowtowing to everyone in the Gallant Fraternity, the minutia of modesty is ingrained in Song Jiang’s character. Whenever Song Jiang embarks on a mission with the outlaws or meets another character within the gallant fraternity he will inevitably introduce himself with, “Though I am just a petty functionary from a distant district,” or “Though I am just a man of no learning,” or “Though I am a man of no skill.” Heroes will often argue for minutes over who has the right to sit at the head of the table when visiting each other. This self deprecation and modesty fit into a Chinese social hierarchy in the novel through the ranking of the chieftains from Song Jiang’s first chair down to the 108th chair. It seems like a contradiction of character within the novel, to fight and strive so hard for recognition, and then to be unwilling to feel pride for one’s achievements socially; yet that is precisely what the outlaws do.
This behavior still resides in the hearts and minds people in China. Though I can personally attest to this only in the responses of students who, when asked always respond that, they are not very good at “basketball, playing an instrument, singing, speaking English, being a student, or playing computer games.” The girls I know who closely resemble stick figures will often talk about how they are, fat, ugly, etc…though that is normal to American culture now as well. A good example of this seemingly peculiar degree of self-effacement, which I remember well, comes from an American man’s book called River Town. The book described his experiences living in Fuling, a small city in Sichuan province, and working with the Peace Corps in the late 90’s. Peter Hessler enters a 4km road race in which he absolutely bursts past the other runners, literally crushing the entire field of 2,500 other racers, and when asked by his Chinese tutor about it responds that, “It’s not important, in fact, I didn’t run very fast at all. There are probably better athletes who didn’t participate.” He tells us that his teacher praised him for his modesty, and he pats himself on the back for figuring out a small piece of the elaborate puzzle of Chinese culture.
There is a question of whether this modesty is false and imposed by Confucian values, even for the characters in the 13th century, or if the modesty is genuine. But we can confirm, that at the very least, modesty is necessary for keeping up appearances, regardless of the heart behind it. Modesty is worth discussing not only for its abundant use in Outlaws of the Marsh, but for its complete and utter absence in The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. There is never even a shadow of modesty lurking beneath the leaves of Sherwood Forest. To feign modesty, to reveal even a crack in the confident façade of leadership or position in feudal England was simply an excuse to be relieved of one’s position.
“He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself.”
The third virtue of Song Jiang I’d like to discuss is fairness, or reciprocity. This is one of the paramount ideals that drive all of the bandits from both of these tales. The societies that generated them have done so through their lack of reciprocity, through the fact that the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful, through treachery and deceit and corruption, while those who live within the rules setup to govern a society are largely punished for their compliance. This is the essence of unfairness that led to the exile of Song Jiang and Robin Hood, and what led their virtue of reciprocity to shine as a lighthouse beacon for the rest of the bandits to follow. Though they pursue their balancing acts in different ways, through vengeance or humiliation, the authors have given the downtrodden masses a vehicle with which to express and act out their outrage. A quote from a rather obscure source on Chinese fiction from 1898 sums up the ideas of the outlaws reciprocity rather well:
“Unscrupulous, defiant, stern as the fates, but
true in covenant and brave in conflict, these men and women are
not of the smiling, temperate, human sort; they are terrible: beings
of the cave and the mountain den. Their implacable demand…for a
justice which the law is too feeble and too corrupt to give
underlines the cruelties and oppressions of an age when right is
defenseless and authority takes the side of the wrong-doer.”
-G.T. Candlin from Chinese Fiction (Chicago, 1898)
The outlaws are at various times during the novel made out to be not men of the cave, but avenging angels, or more appropriately demons, as is translated in the text. The infrequent appearances of supernatural forces in Outlaws of the Marsh creates a slight narrative distance, which may excuse some of the more horrendous acts, but to a western audience it may seem difficult to rectify heroism with some of the more gory actions in the novel.
Song Jiang represents reciprocity in a number of ways, but the most profound example is how he treats defeated enemies, specifically generals of the Emperor’s armies that come against him. Generals Dong Ping and Huyan Zhou were chosen to lead the vanguard of the Emperor’s troops against Liangshan Marsh, and after their capture became two of the Outlaws’ most tenacious heroes. After one battle Song Jiang even captures Marshall Gao, the principal villain of the novel, and releases him in exchange for the promise of working toward an amnesty for the outlaws. In the context of the novel, reciprocity often comes in the form of recognition of skill that was discussed earlier. Song Jiang and the outlaws represented the balance of unfairness on the part of officials, since they lived outside the law they could live by any law they chose, and they chose the laws that men in the Gallant Fraternity had lived by. When Song Jiang slew his mistress Poxi, who was trying to blackmail him after discovering his connection to Liangshan, and fled to the home of Chao Gai, he was accepted him with open arms, and told that, “Even if you killed an official appointed by the imperial court or robbed a government treasury, I’d have no compunctions about concealing you here.” If the government or lesser people persecute an honorable man, the virtuous will shelter them, if a warrior proves his mettle in battle even as an enemy the outlaws will use them to punish those they worked for.
Reciprocity is shown more viscerally in the novel in the punishment of enemies who do not conduct themselves in a way befitting one of the virtuous. The punishment dispensed by Song Jiang and his allies was often on a level of over the top goriness. If the source material were copied accurately to the movie screen, The Adventures of Robin Hood would likely be produced by Disney, and Outlaws of the Marsh by Quentin Tarantino. There is one episode where Song Jiang, the paragon of virtue, takes a knife and eviscerates a deceitful enemy of the outlaws and after pulling out his heart and liver orders the dead man’s organs to be made into a soup. The lengths and violence the outlaws go to in order to settle a score with a wrong doer are extreme to say the least.
And yet I think these oaks at dawn and even,
Or in the balmy breathings of the night,
Will whisper evermore of Robin Hood.
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson
In Robin Hood we find many similarities and also many differences to Song Jiang. Robin Hood unlike Song Jiang happens to be, or we assume to be, the first to take refuge in Sherwood Forrest, unlike Song Jiang, who joined the group sometime after his friends had taken control of the fortress at Liangshan Marsh. Robin Hood is a younger, more playful protagonist completely averse to killing any person innocent or guilty after the unfortunate incident that leads to his exile, excepting the universally reviled Guy of Gisbourne. Robin Hood also maintains his grip on the yeomen at his command by a combination of charisma and personality, personal vision for the group, and his status as far and away the most skilled archer. There are a number of times Robin is beaten in tests of strength and cudgel play, by Little John, the tinker, and his younger cousin Will Scarlet, but he maintains his “best among equals” role through his continued proof of skill with a bow and arrow. Though Song Jiang may have been responsible for the goals and direction of the group, with commands such as, “We must rescue brother Bai Sheng as soon as possible,” or “Attack Zhu Family Village,” his commands were almost always followed immediately by Wu Yong’s master plan. Robin Hood, on the other hand, contained both the vision and the tactics to steer the group through any obstacle. It is Robin who directs the bandits to their positions, and it is Robin who decides how the money they collect is divided, or indeed who they can safely take money from. When Will Stutely is captured it is Robin who comes up with the plan, albeit crude, to rescue him. When the Sheriff sends all of his police into Sherwood to find the bandits it is Robin who directs their concealment.
“He who cannot give anything away cannot feel anything either.”
The virtues or characteristics that allow Robin Hood to hold his seven score yeomen to him, and to their continued survival, are not necessarily the characteristics that make him the West’s archetypical bandit hero. The paramount of these virtues is generosity. Robin Hood’s generosity is what endears the Lincoln green clad merry men to the people of Nottinghamshire, and it is what allows them to travel and operate in broad daylight with impunity. This is not only shown to the reader through the actions of Robin Hood and the band but indeed pounded with little subtlety into the reader by Howard Pyle in the first chapter where he writes:
“So, in all that year, five score or more good stout yeomen
gathered about Robin Hood, and chose him to be their leader and
chief. They then vowed that even as they themselves had been
despoiled they would despoil their oppressors, whether baron,
knight, or squire, and that from each they would take that which
had been wrung from the poor by unjust taxes, or land rents, or in
wrongful fines. But to the poor folk they would give a helping
hand in need and trouble, and would return to them that which had
been unjustly taken from them. Besides this, they swore never to
harm a child nor to wrong a woman, be she maid, wife, or widow;
so that, after a while, when the people began to find that no harm
was meant to them, but that money or food came in time of want to
many a poor family, they came to praise Robin and his merry men,
and to tell many tales of him and his doings in Sherwood Forest,
for they felt him to be one of themselves.”
Generosity in the case of Robin Hood is an operational imperative, whereas the Outlaws of Song Jiang seem to place generosity on a somewhat lower scale of importance. Though Chao Gai repeatedly states that no harm is to come to the average people, including the merchants they steal from, it is never made clear whether the bandits ever dispensed any of their riches to the peasants surrounding the water-girt fortress. They would leave much of the food and supplies for the people after sacking the Northern Capital, and taking what they needed for themselves, but it seems that the Outlaws comprised such an overwhelming force as to make simple neutrality with the people seem a blessing to them. They do make a genuine effort after they are amnestied though, and offer much of the wealth of their fortress to the surrounding countryside in a ten day close out.
How does the generosity of Robin’s group and the relative lack of generosity of the Outlaws affect our culture’s notions of how a hero, or role model should act in today’s world? There may no longer be contingents of outlaws robbing from the rich but there are huge benefits for those still “giving to the poor.” The trend, much like we see in Robin Hood, is that after domination there is charity. It doesn’t matter how many toes you step as you rise toward success, as long as you give back some shoes after you get there. The image and legacies of the wealthy elite are often completely governed by the question, “what they do with their money” and not the question of how they made that money in the first place. Corporate Philanthropy and billionaire generosity has now become a sort of contest of one-upmanship in the West among economic rock-stars the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Sir Richard Branson. There is a kind of unspoken understanding in Western cultures that it is ok to tear and claw your way past your competitors, the ends do justify the means, and moral sacrifice is justified to achieve individual greatness. However, the robber barons and fat cats cannot carve a legacy of love with those they stepped over without offering the wealth they pillaged upon the altar of philanthropy before, or in the event of, their deaths. In a culture so fixated on the accumulation of wealth it often becomes the number of zeros inked onto the check of the last donation more than those that adorn the last bank statement that determine greatness, or separate the heroes from the horrors.
Corporations in the United States and abroad have increasingly used donations and sponsorships to craft an image that is amenable to customers. This is accepted as a business model because this kind of charity is expected in the West from those who are wealthy and successful. Where the feudal lords of the 17th century have disappeared, people in consumer cultures are increasingly directing their ire from the barons of yesteryear to the corporations of today. As it was necessary for Robin Hood to strike at the corrupt individuals, advocacy groups are forming in the greenwood of the internet to strike at the “evil corporations.” It is in this climate that generosity or at least the perception of generosity can prevent the masses from defecting to another company. This attitude about giving has not percolated into the masses of China however. There are probably a number of reasons for this, and as many of them are rooted in recent political and social history as longstanding Confucian leanings.
It would be absolutely wrong to say or imply that Chinese people are not generous, but, the idea of giving one’s money back to the poor does not seem to be ingrained into the culture the same way it is in say the United States. I was living in Shanghai at the time of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, and the outpouring of money and sentiment seemed absolutely overwhelming at times. Almost every shop and business began taking donations from customers and employees. Some of this sentiment, combined with the pre-Olympic hypersensitivity, was fed by the modern equivalent of Song Jiang’s loyalty to the emperor, and now loyalty to China. For many giving to help the earthquake was taken as a sign of donating to help not just people, but to help one’s country. The western paralell can be found with Americans who donated extensively to a September 11th fund that had a relatively small number of injuries or lost property to mend or rebuild, but a substantial amount of patriotic fervor and damaged pride connected to the act of giving. According to a recent article, “philanthropy is not the preserve of the rich in China.” It does seem though that Western ideals are on the move with business practicalities in the philanthropic realm to conform to WTO standards, whereas “China arguably has no history of an organizational form like the Western donative-style charity” until the 1990’s they are making significant strides to do so in recent years.
“The history of the world is full of men who rose to leadership, by sheer force of self-confidence, bravery and tenacity.”
Though charity seems to have become a virtue necessitated by one’s success, Robin’s second virtue is probably one that helps more on the road to becoming a hero than the effects of one’s success. This is the force of personality that Robin Hood embodied, a drive not only to do the things he did, but to believe that his course of action was the right one, and inspire people to follow through with them. This is Robin’s confidence. During the entirety of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood there is not a single moment where our hero questions one of his actions, beside the act of murder, albeit of self-defense, which made him an outlaw in the first place. All of the obstacles placed in the path of our hero were demolished, and he smiled and laughed his way into and out of the hands of the Sheriff of Nottingham repeatedly throughout the novel. Robin does not seek counsel, he does not show doubt in front of his men, to do so would invite doubt from them as to his ability to lead. This may be one of the reasons that American presidents, indeed most politicians, are so reluctant to ever admit fault or mistake, including the former President George Bush, who was uncomfortable with the idea that he had done anything wrong until the eighth year of his presidency (Holland, 2009). Without the benefit of action, or battle, as the heroes of Outlaws of the Marsh had, we are left with the force of personality to inspire those beneath or following.
Throughout most of Outlaws of the Marsh Song Jiang seeks counsel from his advisors. Far from a failing, this nonetheless demonstrates a lack of confidence in his own commands at crucial points in outlaws’ struggles. Song Jiang’s self-confidence does begin to unravel toward the end of the novel as his heroes begin to die off one by one during the campaign against the revolting Feng La. After the loss of Zhang Shun, Song Jiang abandoned strategy and went for a perilously dangerous ceremony of mourning near enemy territory in Hangzhou near the West Lake. Song Jiang’s self-doubt as his men died became a recurring theme in the fourth book.
This doubt finds a recurrence in modern China, and like Song Jiang’s remorse it finds itself closely tied to the idea of loyalty and patriotism. The people I’ve spoken to in China still tread lightly in the shadows of shame. This is a nameless and often voiceless shame that has eaten at the heart of a China fragmented by foreign powers, and then broken under the crushing weight of Mao’s industrial and revolutionary policies of the mid to late 20th century. The students and working men and women of Shanghai are cocooned in a lack of cultural confidence, recently bolstered by forays into space exploration and the success of the Olympics, but bearing the burden nonetheless. The British have had to come to terms with the historical setting of the sun on their own empire, but the Americans have been bolstered by their own Superpower confidence since the end of World War II and subsequently the fall of the USSR. History will likely point to September 11, 2001 as a crucial turning point in the collective psyche and cultural confidence of Americans, but it is too early to tell quite yet.
“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”
The last virtue of Robin Hood’s I’d like to discuss in tandem with Song Jiang is the idea of fairness or reciprocity. Robin Hood also invited those that could best him into his own ranks. Those include most notably Little John, the tinker, and Will Scarlet, though the latter turned out to be his cousin, and undoubtedly would have been invited anyway. Robin too would punish those who he felt were doing wrong, besides the usual highway robbery, which included the outlaw Guy of Gisbourne, who we are told by the author would kill his own brother for money. Robin Hood’s idea of reciprocity can be taken from two separate encounters with the Sheriff of Nottingham. In the first episode Robin Hood, posing as a butcher, is taken in to a banquet being held by the Sheriff of Nottingham for all the butchers in Nottinghamshire. Robin Hood, acting as a bit of a wealthy gadabout, convinces the Sheriff that he is in dire financial straits and has to sell his crop of cattle. The Sheriff, seeking to capitalize on the young man’s lack of experience and desperation, foists a bad bargain on Robin Hood to buy his “horned beasts” from him at the very unfair price of 300 pounds. Robin then takes the Sheriff back to his lair and takes the 300 hundred pounds from him as a lesson not to try to swindle people. Some chapters later, after Little John returns to the forest bearing the Sheriffs silver tableware, Robin chides Little John, and after luring the Sheriff again to Sherwood Forest Robin returns the silver to a confused Sheriff. His reasoning was that the Sheriff had done nothing to deserve the theft in the first place.
I would argue that reciprocity in Outlaws of the Marsh often takes the form of eye for an eye and reciprocity in Robin’s world is more closely associated with Christianity’s golden rule. Much of this attitude is drawn from the scope of each respective novel, and the worlds those characters inhabit. Robin Hood and his band operated in a relatively small area, which allowed them to act on impulses and notions of justice respective of a familiar local population, the actions and consequences of their actions would be readily apparent to them. Song Jiang’s 108 heroes and hordes of nameless foot soldiers roamed freely and readily across massive portions of the Chinese countryside, their actions often had consequences for hundreds of thousands if not millions of unknown peoples and as such their actions could most often be characterized by small sacrifices in the name of the greater good of their nation.
Two characters whose stories personify the greater good motif are Lu Da known as Segacious Lu the tattooed monk and Li Kui, The Black Whirlwind. When Lu Da became a monk to avoid being captured by the police he continuously got drunk and destroyed parts of the monastery and seriously injured dozens of monks in fights. There were no moral or virtuous aspects of any of his behavior, yet when questioned by subordinates the abbot tells them that Lu Da represents a star in heaven and has a noble heart, so he is to be left alone to do as he will. In one episode of Outlaws of the Marsh Li Kui goes to find Gongsun Sheng because his magic is needed to defeat one of Song Jiang’s enemies. When Gonsun’s Taoist Master, Luo the Sage, refuses to let Gongsun join them Li Kui chops his head in half with an axe and kills one of his novices. Luo the Sage, to Li Kui’s amazement, is still alive the next day, protected by his substantial Taoist magic from harm, and describes Li Kui as, “One of the stars of heavenly spirits.” He further says that, “because many people on Earth behave too wickedly, as a punishment to them he was sent down to kill them.” Li Kui is essentially a killing machine throughout the entire novel, and more often than not his killing is indiscriminate. When his axes start moving anything in his way is mowed down, this even includes a four year old boy at one point of the story, who was killed to force Zhu Tong into a position where his only option was to come back to Liangshan Marsh to avoid the death penalty.
I think the nature of the death penalty today in the United States and the People’s Republic of China casts distant reflections on the values held by the heroes of the novels. China’s notion of the death penalty can be tied to some of the earlier values of loyalty to the nation and partnered with the collective issues of cultural shame. The United States, on the other hand, often utilizes the death penalty only in respect to the limited and poignant view of the impact of the crime directly upon others. This may help explain why China is maybe the only country that to this day executes people for some white collar crime, and corruption and dereliction of duty for some of its officials. In the United States criminals are sentenced to death after lengthy criminal proceedings, appeals, and testimonials from the families and witnesses to murder. The only other crime that America has, in its recent history, executed criminals for is treason. The most recent example of this more wide ranging death penalty use was extremely well publicized after the fallout of China’s melamine milk scandal. The scandal, which cost dozens of parents the lives of their infants, also cast a cloud over the entire government infrastructure of China’s food safety watchdogs, and thus cast a cloud over China; the two men deemed responsible were quickly executed. Many would argue that the death penalty and its utilization are a mark of a culture’s value of human life, but I think the reality of the death penalty more often than not is a measure of how highly the society values the impact of the crimes committed. Any crime that contributes to something that damages the prestige of The Republic of China, and thus feeds the inferiority complex associated with cultural shame is taken very seriously. Any crime that threatens to destabilize a country of far more have-nots than haves is punished with extreme prejudice in China.
“Past Scholars studied to improve themselves; today’s scholars study to impress others.
I often wondered, while reading Outlaws of the Marsh, why Martial Gao and his cronies were the only ones never punished in the book, while almost every last one of Song Jiang’s band was punished. Consequently, Robin Hood’s death sufficed to scatter the rest of his band. There was no need for them to die one at a time as in Outlaws of the Marsh.
When the creators, or at least the compilers, of these two stories gave their characters the flesh of ink, they were meant good and bad not simply to represent people, but to represent those parts of ourselves, those parts of each human being, that rise and fall with the within the waters of our times. Within each of us there reside the capacities of a Martial Gao or Sheriff of Nottingham, and there are equal parts Song Jiang and Robin Hood. We, as modern people, no longer have the wilderness of Sherwood or the water-girt fortress of Liangshan Marsh to retreat to when the bitter demons of our nature threaten to overwhelm us. We may gather our wits in the anonymity of the internet, but like the outlaws, we should gather there to take heart that so many others may join us. There they bolster our spirit and courage in the ways that the heroes of our tales did for one another.
These stories may appear simple now, the characters might seem banal and clichéd compared to the more complex creations of modern literature. But the reason both of these stories have been marketed to children in their modern incarnations is because elements of them, when simplified, are incredibly timeless. As scores of ancient humans created gods in the forms of animals to battle across the heavens and create the masterpiece of the world, so too did humans in medieval history have to create exceptional visions of themselves. They created brothers, and fathers, and sons, and even in the case of Outlaws of the Marsh, some daughters, and wives, and mothers who refused to be engulfed by the gathering darkness.
I am reminded of twin moments since I began reading the texts of these two works. The first occurred in my first week of living in Shanghai. While a friend and I were riding the subway to view the skyscrapers of People’s Square, a man; not dressed in rags, but old clothes nonetheless, began preaching to all of the car’s occupants in a booming bass. The words were, and still are beyond me in Chinese, but the passion in his voice was undeniable. When he finished speaking we looked at him and spoke to ourselves about what he possibly could have been saying. In a few moments he approached us, and began speaking in unbelievably fluent English. And he said:
“Young men, you may not be Chinese, but if
you live in China you have the same duty as Chinese people, and
that is to fight corruption wherever you see it. Corruption eats at
the heart of this country and unless all of us do our part nothing
will ever stop it. Good luck to you.”
Immediately after he spoke to us, the doors of the subway car opened and he disappeared. In my 18 months in Shanghai I have only seen the man two other times, doing the same spiel on the subways. I have heard other people talk about him occasionally, and he spoke to some the same way he spoke to us. Many disregard him as they would any vagrant or crazy person, but I think that any person willing to sacrifice all of that time and be paid nothing for it is either a relic; someone destined for greatness in an age of action, doomed to be born in our time, or a visionary who will never be taken seriously until it is too late. I know one thing for certain though, any Chinese man who could speak English as clearly as he could, barring the possibility that those were the only English words he knew and that it was a practiced speech, could be making quite a bit of money in Shanghai, doing almost anything.
The second encounter took place in America, when I returned to New York for a Christmas vacation. My first few days in New York I decided to go to the New York Public Library to do some research. The New York Public Library is a research library and thus none of the books there can be removed from the premises. I walked into a reading room filled nearly wall to wall with people and their laptops. As I moved through the room there was a single table almost completely unoccupied, except for one person with a stack of books. I realized after sitting down that nobody had sat at this table because the man sitting next to me had an unbelievably overpowering body odor. Like the subway saint in Shanghai, his clothes were well-worn, but far from rags. In front of him was a stack of biographies and continental philosophy tomes. In his hands he was halfway through a biography of Gandhi. Here again was an intriguing figure, and as the minutes droned on we began talking in the muted voices the living assume when surrounded by dead words. The man told me that he had trouble adjusting after a tour in Baghdad during the first Gulf War. When he came home a lot of things didn’t make sense anymore. He shuffled from odd job to odd job, and though he didn’t say it, the specter of alcoholism clung to his stories like footprints in a snowstorm; acknowledged but quickly fading. He came to this library everyday for the last three years, and claimed to have probably read more books than most of my professors. He returned here day after day, never bothering anyone, with the exception of his hygiene deficiency, devouring the thoughts of so many men and women about the nature of the world, and his place within it. I wrote down part of his story in a notebook as he was talking:
“I have seen men die, and throw themselves
in the most impossible, dumb-shit situations and come out without
a scratch. When I saw my friends, my superiors, my heroes risk
their lives and then come out of the fire thinking only of getting
some *girl* and some liquor as quickly as possible, I knew that
there was something missing, like it was only a game. And then
you know, I came in here one day because I was cold, and I said
screw it, I wanna read about war. So I typed war into one of the
little computers over there and wrote down some books, and when
they took that little piece of paper from me and took a good look at
me, they knew why I was here, and they probably thought I was
gonna try to steal them to use for making a fire in a trash can, you
know? Well I just opened one of those books, one about Vietnam,
Rumors of War I think it was, about ‘Nam. Before I knew it the
library was closing and they needed their books back. Something
just clicked so I came back here every day. I’m the first one in here
when it opens, and the last one to leave. Some days I don’t even
see the words; I just read something and space out about it for
hours, other days I’ll read two or three whole books. One day I
know everything’s just gonna click, set my brain on fire like, and
I’ll know how to do it.”
I asked him what it was the he wanted to do, and in response he closed his Gandhi book and tapped his knuckle twice on the cover. “Save the world, or at least a little piece of it,” he said. When I look at these two men, and the lives they lead, I can’t help but think about them as the discarded modern upholders of the virtues and ideals that permeated the two novels of this essay. One in America, one in China; both of these men live as virtual outcasts, and subject themselves to public ridicule on a daily basis, but pursue the things that they think are important with their whole being. Though I’ve said that people retreat to the new Sherwood Forrest of internet anonymity, maybe, even that is unnecessary. Is it possible that today the space between strangers has become so pronounced that all one has to do to remain untouched by the arms of corruption is act a little different in public than anyone else? Maybe what makes a hero today is the cold, impersonal distance between the passionate and the rest of us.
The virtues that the authors of these two novels held dear so long ago have clearly found their echoes in the success and struggles of modern life, but is acknowledgement all that is left for us now? The pursuit of virtue and the recognition of that virtue in others is a distinguished lifestyle difference. As we saw with corporate philanthropy, generosity is more often a business tactic than a deeply held belief. Loyalty to one’s country is often a matter of damaged pride and lack of self-confidence than a moral imperative. These two cultures, suffering from the same degree of tyranny and persecution, created heroes to justify their feelings of resentment toward an unfair system of rule. What remains to be seen is if with the taste of free air fresh in our lungs we collectively rise to the challenge of a murkier, thinly veiled oppression. As John Keats lamented,
And to all the Sherwood clan!
Though their days have hurried by
Let us two a burden try.
Will we remain docile and satisfied with the unfairness still remaining, or will we carry the dim light still emanating from the tapering candle of our heroic past?
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