What follows is my thesis. It is a comparison of Chinese and Western Culture using the virtues of each society’s most notorious fictional Bandits; Robin Hood and Song Jiang. Song Jiang is the leader of 108 Outlaws from the Chinese work whose title translates to Outlaws of the Marsh. It remains one of the most famous Chinese novels that the average Westerner is mostly unaware of. For the sake of Comparison I used the Victorian Era novelization of the Robin Hood story written by Howard Pyle, and the 120 Chapter version of Outlaws translated by Sydney Shapiro. The paper has been broken into two parts for convenience.
There is a story. You heard it first when
you were a child. This story involves a battle between good men
and evil men. When it begins the evil men are winning. A talented
man, with a light heart, is punished for a wrong that was never
committed. A pattern emerges slowly. All across this nation evil
men act out of spite and greed and jealousy. They use their offices
of government power to persecute men who are strong and brave
and talented. These men have few choices left to them and are
forced to join a group in a secluded spot in the wilderness, away
from the arms and eyes of government. As the story progresses this
small group of outlaws become a band of the most noble and
talented men in their nation. They choose among them a leader
who is recognized as the best among equals. The men practice and
train together until they are an incredible fighting force. Many of
them shed their inner demons to become men of the utmost virtue
and tolerance, upholding all the ideals that the men of position and
power have forgotten. Soon, the government realizes the danger of
these men, and sends forces against them. The outlaws, often
outnumbered, repel them with cunning and bravery. Despite their
hardships, the persecution from those lesser officials, and the
solitude of the pariah, the outlaws passionately support the leader
of their nation, who they think is misled by corrupt underlings.
They feel those in the highest echelons in government have slowly
poisoned every virtue of their country that they wish to defend.
Their highest hope is simply to be recognized for their talents by
the leader of their country. Between battles with the government
these men do their utmost to punish the corrupt and greedy, and to
help those in need who have been wronged. They are universally
accepted by the poor and downtrodden, and universally reviled by
those in the high sectors of their society. Occasionally, when a
member of the outlaws is captured, no expense or caution will be
spared in the effort to rescue them. After fighting a long and
protracted war of attrition with their own government, the wildest
dreams of the outlaws come true when they are recognized and
forgiven by the leader of their nation. They are drafted into
fighting foreign enemies of the state. However, upon returning
victorious from a campaign against the enemy, the outlaws find
that the dream was deceiving. The band is divided, and though
they are given respectable positions, they find that nothing has
turned out the way they wanted it to. Though they have been raised
in position, the corruption around them has not abated, and the
abusers of power have not fallen in position as a result of their
efforts. The leaders realize that position and recognition are
nothing next to the freedom and fulfillment they felt in living with
so many stout and likeminded people in their bandit lair. In the
end, the hero of this story is poisoned, and the group is all killed or
else dispersed throughout the country. We are left to believe that
the corruption endemic to the government will continue unabated
for all time, and that the efforts of the best men in the country, to
lead by example, and change things for the better were not enough
to battle the wickedness found in the hearts of small men.
The first time you encountered this story,
you were likely a small child, and the book was filled with colorful
pictures. You may have seen the cartoons on TV or in the movie
theatre. You may have read a modern version of this story, with
guns instead of arrows. This story has rippled across the ages and
generation of your country until the detritus of derivative works
have made it unnecessary for children, and even adults, to become
acquainted with the source material, the original stories. Indeed,
the original novels of these works have become antiquated
If you are a citizen of the People’s Republic of China then you know this story as Outlaws of the Marsh. If you are a citizen of an English speaking country then you know this story to be The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. The major plotlines of each tale are woven in a way that creates striking similarities across both cultures. In fact, it is near impossible to find a review of Outlaws of the Marsh in an English periodical or website which does not immediately draw comparisons to Robin Hood. This similarity becomes all the more fantastic given the attitude toward foreigners that persisted into the Manchu Dynasty, in the mid-nineteenth century, when the punishment for teaching Mandarin or any Chinese dialect to a foreigner was death.
If the human brain is nearly identical in all creatures of the human species, then we could call the near infinite amount of possible reactions between electrons zipping along synaptic relays the threads in the tapestry of the human imagination. If we follow the metaphor a bit further, both of these tales were cut from the same cloth.
There are plenty of historical anecdotes to hold up as a testament to this phenomenon. There is the simultaneous discovery of the radio by Marconi and Graham Bell; the simultaneous discovery of the field of mathematics known as calculus by Newton and Leibniz; and the list goes on and on. Throughout history people separated by huge areas of space arrive at the same driving thoughts at the same time. That incredible pattern of symmetrical thought across distance seems almost common place now. Humanity has been plugged into the intangible hive-mind of instant global communication. But these two works have been handed down to us from writers whose most convenient communiqués travelled by horseback messenger.
We can also find these peculiar similarities between cultures through symbols. Many of the heroes in Outlaws of the Marsh wore bandanas that bore the mark of the swastika. I can attest to personally seeing the tomb of a Bishop long-dead and buried at Salisbury Cathedral enshrined with swastikas. Carl Jung claimed that our symbology was a single aspect of a collective unconscious shared by all human beings across any existing physical boundaries. He often cited the Orouboros, the figure of a snake or dragon eating its own tail, as one of the symbols that held significance in China as well as the cultures of Africa, the Middle East and those religions that spiraled into Europe, and also for Meso-American ancient cultures. This peculiar synchronicity has also been described as “a reservoir of the experiences of our species.”
In a moment of synchronicity, when I was teaching children in a town called Kun Shan, an eighteen minute train ride from Shanghai, I came across a child who had drawn a swastika in his notebook. Having Outlaws of the Marsh on the brain I asked him what the symbol meant, and the students around him peering over immediately chanted “Fascisma” (fash-is-ma). So the stigma of Nazi Germany has apparently sapped that symbol of its identity in China as well as the West. It is worth noting that those same children were playing a game of cards, in which each card depicted a Chinese hero, and the outlaws were heavily represented in the game. All of this was happening inside of a classroom that uses a computer based English teaching system known as Dyned, and at that very moment we were using Dyned’s version of “Robin Hood.” Though the stories are not identical, nor were they released at precisely the same moment, I think based on the speed of ideas and life in the 13th to 16th century, that these stories and their creation qualify as two long capillaries in the circulatory latticework of what Carl Jung called a collective unconscious.
Symbols can often be simple enough that a number of theories or stimuli can account for their similarities despite the great distances between cultures unable to communicate directly. Though we may find similar symbols around the world, how often is it that we find nearly simultaneous narratives in cultures so isolated from one another? Inventions and sciences are rooted to the tangible plane and they involve investigations into the workings of the world. But how is it possible that literature, specifically works of fiction, that require no anchor to natural phenomenon or kinesthetic experimentation, can erupt from a brain to a pen so synchronously without the benefit of shared observation? This longing to express the themes and ideas of these stories finds a kindred spirit in the myths of creation held almost universally by cultures around the world, many of which have already passed into history.
However, creation myths are the stories that pre-date our cultures, written to provide some shelter to the unanswered questions of the dying, or the unending and impossible questions of curious children. Creation stories are similar because they deal with subjects universal to all cultures, and often questions posed by our advanced cultures today. What does it say then, about these two stories, and these two cultures, that they could craft such an imaginative and parallel narrative? My answer is that these stories may help illuminate which needs, or possibly which longings, members of our two worlds share; and the stunning variety and absolute contradictions between the characters’ actions in these two narratives may help explain why we go about fulfilling these longings in such different ways.
It is also worth noting that both tales come to us after existing for a significant period in other forms before being novelized. Both stories bear the marks of traditional story-telling, though Outlaws of the Marsh more so than The Adventures of Robin Hood, whose theoretical breaking of the fourth wall occurs mostly in Pyle’s introduction and epilogue. Outlaws of the Marsh addresses the reader directly at the end of every chapter; though it is still debated in Chinese literary circles whether this is a mark of some kind of plagiarism from story tellers or a kind of homage to their venerable craft. The events in the two stories also occurred hundreds of years before their eventual novelization, and though each novel describes events that happened at a different period of world history, their novelizations were nearly synchronous. Our two cultures diverged in a wood, and on one sunny day almost magically entered the same clearing, sheltered under a great tree for an afternoon and shared a story. It is not why or how we came to be joined for that peaceful span, but why we diverged again afterwards that is the most interesting question.
“Don’t worry if you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition”
– Abraham Lincoln
One of the themes that worms its way through the sediment of each narrative is the struggle for the recognition of greatness. Since these characters are a reflection of a more violent time in history this often translates into recognition of skill with arms, more specifically archery in England, and every sort of weapon and fighting in Song Dynasty China. Outlaws of the Marsh has an almost limitless number of duels between heroes and the clashes of generals in front of their armies, whereas The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood focuses mainly on people who impressed the protagonist or Little John with some feat of strength, or sword play. There are exceptions to the rule of warriors in each work. Robin Hood invites the musical Allen A’ Dale into his band. Song Jiang later requires the services of Doctor An Daoquan, who is rather ruthlessly recruited into the group, and Song Jiang’s grand strategist Wu Yong never picks up a weapon throughout the story. Zhu Gui, the Dry-Land Crocodile, is praised for his ability to snoop around and ask the right questions to travelers, and Bai Sheng the Daylight Rat is added for his ability to infiltrate enemy positions.
Many of Robin Hood’s Yeomen fled to Sherwood Forest to escape from warrants or simply out of poverty, but had they been recognized for their abilities, instead of persecuted, all of them could have been a tremendous addition to the army or guards or police force of any town in England. A common story arch in Outlaws of the Marsh involved incredible fighting men fleeing to the wilderness when they had failed in some task, because the punishment for government officials or soldiers for failure was usually death. The men of no talent would often lie or deflect blame, but the proud and straight forward heroes who would later join Song Jiang chose exile over deceit. This attitude was echoed memorably by Lin Chong, when before decapitating a former friend who wronged him says, “Killing can be forgiven, but never deception.”
In Outlaws of the Marsh this drive for recognition is often sought within the circles of government and the army, and indeed many men such as Lin Chong the Panther Head, Dai Zong the Magnificent Traveler, and even Song Jiang himself held government posts; while people such as Lu Da aka Sagacious Lu and Yang Zhi the Blue Faced Beast already held moderate posts in the army. Many of the heroes of Outlaws of the Marsh had already begun striving for greatness and recognition through the usual and approved channels before their fall from grace. Consequently, the Yeomen of Robin’s band are not given a back story, and as such we never know if any, or at least the vast majority, of them ever really tried to gain a formidable reputation prior to their subsequent hard times. Robin Hood was on his way to an archery contest when he was forced to flee from the law, but we are never given any inkling of his aspirations beyond winning the prize offered, and possibly returning to impress the “bonny” maid Marrian, to whom his thoughts wandered as he strolled toward his destiny.
Despite the personal histories, or complete lack of histories, once the members of both sets of outlaws were firmly entrenched in their camp their desire not only to be recognized, but to be recognized by their King or Emperor became of paramount importance. They practiced and drilled and fought skirmishes as much as any army of their day could. This drive for recognition is painted with broad strokes of patriotism, individuality, loyalty and criminality. These forces become the central conceit by which readers can identify and then exalt these criminals as heroes. When lawbreakers keep a love of their country in their hearts they will endear themselves to every generation that wants to be proud of their country. If enough warriors bleed onto a cloth it will eventually resemble a flag.
Here we have two traditional societies crafting epics simultaneously that uphold the virtue of their patriotic anti-heroes. Two cultures idolizing characters whose lifestyles eschew the acceptable actions of the majority, while keeping the spirit of the nation, particularly the hope and spirit of the working classes alive. The notion of the “working class hero” would not be a perfect fit for the Outlaws of China though. Many of Song Jiang’s band, including the initial leader of the group Chao Gai, came from extraordinarily privileged backgrounds; but it is important to note that regardless of prior position, or military prowess, each hero of Outlaws of the Marsh was ranked according to his ability and usefulness to the collective military establishment of the outlaws’ army. Robin Hood has a mix of tyranny and egalitarianism in the hierarchy of his band, which seems to have a modus operandi that shifts with the protagonist’s mood on that particular day. There are times when Little John, his right hand, and generally assumed second in command, is “benched,” for lack of a better word, for Will Stutely to go spying on the Sheriff’s men because he was shrewder.
If one of the central themes of both works is the desire to be recognized for one’s skill, in what I am claiming is an odd, temporary unity in disparate cultures, what does that tell us about our cultures that could possibly be relevant to our interactions in more modern times? The average person was no freer in Feudal England than Song Dynasty China, and the possibility of individual greatness no more likely for a Chinese peasant than an English serf. Yet the English speaking world since the collapse of aristocratic and autocratic control of resources has been the ballad of the self-made man, the uniqueness of the individual. Western nations have built constitutions entirely on the premise of individuals wielding power and authority, while working for their own benefit, and almost unwittingly and simultaneously, for the benefit of their nation. This is what the heroes of these novels personify, groups of people, working together and for themselves, while inspiring their countrymen and the nation to hold fast, even in the face of enemies inside and out.
This rigorous hierarchy and social stratification between even criminals in Song Jiang’s group is still a good mirror into the nature of much of modern Chinese society. This has been documented through numerous academic books, but more notably and widely read are the reports and books of business men, who tramp through the mire of Chinese socio-behavioral models in regards to interpersonal and business relationships. Our relationships in the business and personal world of the west today arguably still mirror those of the merry men of Sherwood, we follow and admire those who are both charismatic and skilled.
One thing the modern citizens of both societies can relate to is the fact that displays of physical and fighting prowess, so cherished among the fearless heroes of these tales, are an option now closed to us. Even if we decided to join the ranks of our respective militaries there is no more titular man to man combat between generals to turn the tides of battle. Our militaries are designed to be faceless, tactics en masse, strategies programmed to coalesce between air, land, and sea with projectiles fired most often by people who cannot even see their enemies. Even though members of both our cultures doubtless respect members of our armed forces tremendously, their tales do not often pass through our lips to our children, nor do their posters or names resound through our fictions or grace our childhood bedroom walls. No, the grace of the blade has been replaced with the ballet of an air filled ball, and the images once imagined of fighting prowess and courage on the battlefield have become the clarion calls of the opening whistles of sport. In China Yao Ming’s jump shots have eclipsed Gongsun Sheng’s magic spells and Liu Shan’s intrepid hurdling replaced Dai Zong’s light speed treks.
Sports stars though, are an exception in both our cultures rather than the rule. The same goes for our other demigods of tabloids and talk shows, the actors and musicians, whose faces fill giant screens or prance on our constructed rock and pop pedestals before filled stadiums. I think if we truly would like to follow this shared theme of personal recognition of skill, for passion that ties these epics together, we can look to the medium that paradoxically levels the playing field and at the same time offers us our individual slices of recognition. In a world so interconnected it threatens each of us with an abyss of anonymity the World Wide Web offers modern people their own arena for recognition.
Though we consider blogs, weblogs, YouTube, Google and FaceBook to be the dominion of the west, their Chinese copies and incarnations have exploded at a rate that dwarfs all the countries of the western world combined. This also comes at the time when the youth of China are becoming increasingly well educated in English, and already we see their influence bleeding onto our vaunted and treasured curiosities of Wikipedia and YouTube. Outlaws of the Marsh termed the network of bold fellows the “Gallant Fraternity” but China and the world, in moving away from our violent past, is now moving toward a “Hip Fraternity” where all the machinations of pop culture and its innovators are becoming the prized specimens held in regard by their own code of recognition and ethics.