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Moral Rightness in “Outlaws of the Marsh” by Shi Nai’an

Outlaws of the Marsh or Water Margin is a classic 14th-century Chinese novel written by Shi Nai’an. The plot of the story, which has four volumes and from 100 to 120 chapters, tells about the adventures of 108 demons that incarnated in the form of people and became noble robbers living on Mount Liangshan. Their leader Song Jiang created the slogan “free justice for the sake of heaven” and thus demonstrated his loyalty to the emperor and eternal principles of goodness and justice. Many acts of the protagonists that violate law and order are justified by the dishonest service of corrupt governors who deceive the emperor. This paper aims to present situations where the heroes of Outlaws of the Marsh do the right thing for the wrong reasons and discuss what they should do in such circumstances.

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Song Jiang, the leader of the gang, had a real prototype who led a band of robbers in Shandong and Henan provinces during the Song Dynasty. The band surrendered to the government and was mentioned in the History of Song or Song Shi, an official Chinese historical work describing the Song Dynasty times between 960 and 1279. The novel is based on the historical tales of the Shandong region, from which the idea of 108 Stars of Destiny was borrowed.

According to the Outlaws of the Marsh, the robbers from Mount Liangshan in Shandong Province are incarnate demons who are accidentally released from captivity by Marshal Hong in the first chapter. It seems natural that the very origin of the robbers determines their actions. In terms of Confucianism, the noble deeds of gang members towards residents, whom the protagonists often save from cruel officials or other “pious” townspeople, are not good since the heroes do the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. For example, when one of the gang members, Shi Jin, rescues the artist’s daughter from Perfect He, who kidnapped her to make her his concubine, he is doing the right thing.

However, since he acts from personal motives and administers justice himself, Shi Jin does the right thing for the wrong reasons. According to the Confucian tradition, which promotes correct behavior, decency, good manners, politeness, and ceremony, the only proper reason for justice is a duty to the emperor. Perhaps this is why the novel culminates in gathering the 108 Stars of Destiny at the Grand Assembly, where they receive amnesty from Emperor Huizong of Song, on the condition that they prove their loyalty.

Another example of the right thing done for the wrong reasons is protecting the squire’s daughter Liu by a warrior who lived among the monks, Lu Zhishen. Upon learning that Zhou Tong, the leader of bandits from the mountains surrounding the Plum Blossom village, is pursuing a woman and wants to force her into marriage, Lu goes to her bed instead of her, takes Zhou by surprise, beats him, and Zhou escapes. However, to do the right thing, Lu had to hand Zhou to the authorities. Later, Zhou Tong meets Lu again, having already learned that he is a monk, and, shocked, vows not to disturb Liu’s family.

Interestingly, the novel contains some symbolic, almost mythological plots. For example, Lu Zhishen, traveling with a gang of vegetable thieves, demonstrates his extraordinary strength and pulls out a deep-rooted willow tree with his bare hands. In China, the willow is a symbol of meekness, spring, grace, and erotic love; besides, willow branches were believed to ward off demons. Lu Zhishen is associated with willow – as he protects femininity and meekness, but he misuses his strength by uprooting the tree.

Thus, a discussion was presented that analyzed the heroes’ deeds in the novel Outlaws of the Marsh. Although the 108 Stars of Destiny were noble robbers, they were guided by the wrong reasons in their right actions, as they administered justice at their discretion. According to tradition, the right reason for justice should be to fulfill a duty to the emperor. In the third part of the novel, after receiving amnesty for their righteous and unrighteous deeds, the heroes rise to the emperor’s service, thus returning to the point of balance.

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Reference

Nai’an, Shi, and Guanzhong Luo. Outlaws of the Marsh. Foreign Languages Press, 1980.

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StudyCorgi. "Moral Rightness in “Outlaws of the Marsh” by Shi Nai’an." August 12, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/moral-rightness-in-outlaws-of-the-marsh-by-shi-naian/.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Moral Rightness in “Outlaws of the Marsh” by Shi Nai’an." August 12, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/moral-rightness-in-outlaws-of-the-marsh-by-shi-naian/.

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StudyCorgi. (2022) 'Moral Rightness in “Outlaws of the Marsh” by Shi Nai’an'. 12 August.

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