What martial arts storytelling owes to The Water Margin, wuxia novel from 14th century adapted for Japanese TV and by Chang Cheh for cinema, and how its themes and style still resonate
- The Water Margin tells the stories of 108 outlaws who rebel against corrupt officials during China’s Song dynasty and has been adapted for film and television
- Its theme of the righteous fighting for justice, the way it sketches characters and their mannerisms have served as prototypes for writers and directors
The classic 14th-century novel The Water Margin, attributed to Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong, wasn’t the first book to talk about heroic martial artists, but it has proved the most influential.
Its 120 chapters tell of 108 outlaws who inhabit the marshes of Mount Liang in Shandong province, eastern China, where they fight for justice against the corrupt officials of the waning Song dynasty.
“The Water Margin establishes the literary formula whereby righteous men choose to become outlaws rather than serve under corrupt administrations …” wrote one film critic.
“The episodic sketching of each individual character and their adventures are prototypical, and in their episodes, we see the seeds of the fighting styles and mannerisms of the later wuxia characters.”
The book’s labyrinthine storyline gradually brings the stories of the 108 heroes together, and can be roughly divided into sections which describe how each of them became bandits because of their disillusionment with the state, their combined exploits against corrupt local officials and military commanders, and the outlaws’ demise fighting alongside imperial troops to help quell an uprising against the emperor.
“[The book plays out as a] huge collection of stories and characters presented in movement across a vast landscape,” write John and Alex Dent-Young in their approachable and exciting three-volume English translation, published by Chinese University Press.
“Events have a mysterious celestial origin, but they unroll with a logic and vigour that are entirely human … each of the characters is clearly established as an individual, generously supplied with defects to balance their heroic qualities … the emphasis on martial arts and hand-to-hand combat cannot be denied,” they write.
The book is attributed to Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong, but has its roots in numerous folk tales.
The world of The Water Margin – which may be the first work to contain the phrase “Jiang Hu” (literally translated as “rivers and lakes”), which denotes the shady underworld inhabited by the martial arts fraternity and outlaws – provided a smorgasbord of ideas for wuxia film directors such as Chang Cheh.
At its core is the idea that if the state is corrupt, the just hero should withdraw from it and fight against it, rather than try to change it from within, which would be a fruitless endeavour. (This idea was sometimes used as a call to arms for insurrection, and this led to the banning of the work in different periods of history.)
The heroes, like Chang’s martial artists, are always outsiders, or insiders who have been forced to become outsiders because of an injustice committed against them or because they cannot stomach the corrupt activities of the officials. The world becomes split “between the wild and the cultivated, the mountain and the marketplace, with ambivalent values attached to each”, write the Dent-Youngs.
Good men can often be found among the evil parties, and the heroes often have bad tempers and indulge in unnecessary slaughter.
Society is not chaotic but highly structured, with powerful judges and policemen who enforce the law, and problems only arise because the servants of the law are corrupt. But even the corrupt officials must be seen to obey the law, and assassinations and murders take place in secret to avoid legal reprisals.
Chang filmed three of Shaw Brothers’ four Water Margin adaptations, although he says in his memoir that he left most of the directorial work on The Delightful Forest and All Men Are Brothers to his co-directors, former cinematographer Pao Hsueh-li and Wu Ma respectively.
The Delightful Forest is a story from earlier in the book, and focuses wholly on how the impetuous and often drunk fighter Wu Song came to join the rebels. The hero is played by Ti Lung, who is on top form, the kung fu is fast, and the cinematography is as stylish as one would expect with a former cinematographer at the helm.
All Men Are Brothers is a war film which depicts the demise of the heroes when they are enlisted by the Song Emperor to fight a rebel. In spite of its unusual sea-fighting scenes, the third film is often shoddy, featuring some badly executed zoom shots, and even wobbly camerawork.
Chang’s oeuvre typically revolves around male bonding and brotherhood, and the director says he was attracted by the idea of this happening on a mass scale between the 108 heroes. The endemic violence of the book – its brutal scenes have been criticised throughout its history – was also a good fit for Chang’s blood-drenched film style.
“Literature and films depict the violent as well as the tender areas of life,” he wrote in his memoir. “These are legitimate means of venting the violence and passion of humanity.”
An appreciation of the Cantonese language, and a growing familiarity with Hong Kong’s Southern-style martial arts, spurred his adaptations of the work, Chang says.
“I first read The Water Margin when I was a teenager [in mainland China], but only when I came to Hong Kong was I able to gain a new understanding of it,” he wrote.