So I’m reading the Water Margin (Shui Hu Zhuan 水滸傳). Written in the 15th century, it’s the most famous vernacular novel in Chinese history, together with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Well, I’m not actually reading it (it’s long). I’m watching the 2011 TV show. Which is long too, but very neat. The Water Margin is the story of 108 men. Good men, strong, noble, virile men who are wrongly abused by the governmenet, and thus rescind their loyalty to the state, and run to the hills to form bands of bandits to fight for their manly honor. The story is based on the Song Dynasty, particularly the reign of the infamous Huizong (1082-1135), who was so fucking awful he deserves a post for himself. The novel is fiction, often very, very wild fiction; but it is loosely based in actual events on the era. There’s an earlier novel about evil bandits in the mountains doing evil things. The Water Margin tripled the characters, and made them into good, noble men. It also sold like crazy, becoming the second most famous novel in the world, while it’s more truthful predecessor was forgotten for 900 years.
The Song Dynasty gets a lot of good publicity for being wealthy, commercial and urbane. Indeed the Chinese economy boomed like it never would until well into the 19th century. The Song state also solved the problem of military warlords running petty kingdoms in their domains; the exam system became the only path into officialdom, and the strengthened mandarinate run a tight administration without obstruction by the army, the eunuchs or the palace women. Obviously the Confucian establishment, to this day sees the Song Dynasty as the golden age of sagely government and efficient bureaucracy.
But that’s, of course, bullshit. The Song state was plagued with bureaucrat factionalism, corruption and anarcho-tyranny. In fact the Water Margin is, if anything, a 960,000 word story of anarcho-tyranny, 850 years before Sam Francis had to coin the word for Western audiences. The Song bureaucrats who run the country were only concerned in grabbing taxes from the populace, and use them to bribe their superiors to strengthen their purses and factions; while wide swathes of the country were left to bandits to roam and rob all the caravans that passed close by. The law was enforced inasmuch as it the act may benefit a particular bureaucrat; else who the hell cares. And who is going to check？ Everybody has their backs covered by powerful faction leaders at court. And so our 108 heroes were, oh so against their wishes, into lawless banditry.
There’s of course lots to talk about the Water Margin, and how it reflects the values of lower-middle class Chinese during the last 1,000 years. I’ll write about a couple of stories that reflect how they thought of women. Feminism of course is one of the biggest problems of modern Western culture, so it’s useful to see how another powerful culture thought of women and how they should be treated.
Now, Chinese literature is pretty good; but it has never done well abroad because Chinese names just don’t sound human in European languages. It’s very hard to relate to Zhao Gao grabbing a deer to Huhai. Hamlet killing Polonius on the other hand sounds great. And Leonidas fighting Xerxes is pure awesomeness. So I’m going to change the names of the characters to Homeric ones chosen at random, and will put an annex showing the real names for those interested.
One of the most famous stories on the Water Margin is the story of Cassandra. Cassandra was a servant in a wealthy household. She was also extremely beautiful, famous around all the province. The master of her household, not surprisingly, took a like at the girl, and tried to take advantage of her. She, surprisingly, wouldn’t have it, and went to the master’s wife to rat on her master.
Which was a very stupid thing to do; as the wife couldn’t really do much about it, and the master got real pissed at this uppity servant. So he decided to give her away on marriage to the ugliest guy of the province. He went all the way to find an ugly, hunchbacked, and dirt-poor street seller of steamed buns, and gave Cassandra to him for free (Traditionally Chinese girls were given in exchange of a hefty bride-price). The ugly street peddler, Ennomus, couldn’t believe his luck, and took this beautiful and smart lady with him.
This arrangement though just couldn’t work out. She was predictably miserable, hated her unfortunate fate, and wouldn’t let Ennomus touch her. All the town was rife with gossip about the ugly poor peddler with the hot wife, and all the cool youngsters on town routinely harassed him, and went to his house to try to grab her from his house. “Such a fine piece of mutton, how did it get into the dog’s mouth!”. Soon there were rumors that Cassandra was banging one of the cool kids, and Ennomus decided to move to a different county to avoid the dishonor.
So moved they did, and soon good fortune visited Ennomus. His younger brother, Amphimachus, came back home after years of absence. While Ennomus was short, ugly and just plain disgusting, Amphimachus was 6’5″ tall, handsome, strong, muscular, extremely virile and the best fighter in the whole province. He was also a prodigious drinker, and after drinking 30 jars of wine, he encountered a tiger in the forest, who he, pissed drunk though he was, killed with his bare knuckles. “Tiger-killer Amphimachus” was soon the sensation of the province, and the local governor hired him as chief of police. He was also a very filial brother, extremely happy to meet his brother Ennomus, who had raised him as a child, they being orphans. So Ennomus know had the coolest guy on earth living with him. Now let’s see who dares joke about him and his hot wife!
Indeed nobody dared joke about the wife of the Tiger-killer’s brother. Poor Cassandra was also very happy. What a handsome brother-in-law! Seems fate hasn’t abandoned me. Sheesh, why wasn’t I given to him and not his hunchback brother. But hey, he is living here, right? If, you know, something were to just happen between us, what could Ennomus do about it? He certainly wouldn’t dare fight his brother. And with a little bit of luck ew could even sign some transfer contract or something.
Alas Amphimachus is, as all the Water Margin heroes, a Good, Noble, Virile man. In the original, literally a hero-good-man. 英雄好漢. And hero-goodmen just don’t care about women; certainly not about filthy sluts. There is nothing more dishonorable than touching one’s brother’s woman. And so Amphimachus told Cassandra, after pushing her to the ground. “Either you stop being such a slut, or the next time I see you, my eyes may recognize you, but my fists will certainly not!”.
Oh poor Cassandra. The hot brother-in-law wouldn’t take her, so she was back to daily life with her poor, disgustingly ugly husband. And I mean very ugly. The TV show makes a good impression of how miserable it must be to live with such a man, what a waste of beauty it was for her to be there. Fortunately she wasn’t the only one to notice. Mecisteus, a scion of the wealthiest family on town, and a notorious womanizer, soon took notice of the beautiful Cassandra. And he just couldn’t let it pass for such a beauty to be the wife of an ugly hunchbacked peddler. Oh no, that wouldn’t do. As a lover of beauty, he had to do something.
Mecisteus used his wealth to bribe the governor into sending Amphimachus away on official mission. Then he got a local tavern owner to sneak Cassandra out of home with some womanly excuse, and he proceeded to bang Cassandra with abandon. Damn, she’s hot. Mecisteus was happy. Ecstatic. He, with 5 wives, and a notch count in the 3 figures, just couldn’t get enough of Cassandra. It might have been that she was also especially enthusiastic. Mecisteus, after all, was rich and handsome. And she really craved for a way out. Mecisteus promised to find a way to marry her. Cassandra wept with happiness. At last! Fate hasn’t cursed me!
Problem is Cassandra was, well, married. And the hunchback wasn’t going to divorce. Not even after the affair was found out, and he was made the laughing-stock of the whole county. Yes, being cuckolded was pretty much social death in ancient China. But… Cassandra was hot. Very hot. No way in hell he was going to find a finer woman if he let her go. Hell, no chance in hell he’d ever be able to buy himself a wife if she let her go. So no divorce for her.
That left only one option left. Kill the damn hunchback. Amphimachus is still away. Just poison the fucker and let’s be done with this quick. And so Cassandra poisoned Ennomus. She then cremated the body, put on her mourning clothes and faked the whole ritual as good as she could. And then the feared Amphimachus came back. Came back to see his dear brother, who raised him as a kid, his only family, was dead. And there wasn’t even a body to give offerings to. This evil bitch must be responsible. He soon found out the whole story, the rich Mecisteus, the affair at the tavern, the poison. Everything.
Tiger-killer Amphimachus, bursting with righteous rage, made all the neighbours gather at his brother’s tomb, and in front of them grabbed his sword and killed the beautiful Cassandra. He then cut her head, and took it out with him. He headed to Mecisteus compound, which he burst into, and threw Cassandra’s severed head into Mecisteus dining table. Fighting ensued, and Amphimachus also slayed Mecisteus, also severing his head. He then took the heads of the evil couple to his brothers tomb, and proudly told him, “brother, I have avenged you.” He then went to the governor’s office to give himself in.
This is one of the most famous pieces of the Water Margin, itself a classic in Chinese literature. It even served as the basis of a spin-off, the Jin Ping Mei, a classic novel in its own right, which tells the story of what would have happened if Cassandra and Mecisteus survived the endeavor, and actually married. My view of this story was that Amphimachus is an evil asshole. Yes, adultery is bad. But his brother had it coming. Cassandra and Mecisteus deserved each other. They were the perfect match. The pretty womanizer rich boy with the vain pretty girl. They loved each other, and looked great together. Ennomus only got Cassandra because her master was an evil bastard who gave her away as punishment. The marriage was so unbalanced that it was unhappy from the start, forcing him to move from his hometown. It was unnatural. It just couldn’t work.
And yet when reality reasserted itself, the blockhead tiger-killer drunkard bro, who had seen too many Bruce Lee movies, rejected the hot girl’s advances, and threw her away to the hunchback’s arms. Of course she run away. And she wouldn’t have killed Ennomus had he accepted the divorce. The greedy hunchback deserved the poison. Of course it sucks that your dear brother and only family gets killed. But as his brother he should have counseled him to divorce the slut and make a new life together. He could earn money to get her a new wife who suited him better. But no, the bro had to defend the “family honor”. As a result 3 people died. Bad. Very bad.
But that’s not the way that the Chinese see it. In the novel, the whole county is awed by Amphimachus show of prowess and his filial piety towards his brother. Instead of being executed, as the law demands for murder, he gets cipei, a tatoo in the face saying “prisoner”, and a sentence of forced conscription in the frontier army for some years. The whole exile is a charade, as his former comrades are commissioned to send him off, and he has VIP treatment wherever he goes.
Cassandra on the other hand became the archetype of the evil slut, who can’t control her lustful impulses and brings havoc to herself and her lover. Poor girl. Now this may be just me finding the actress on the show too pretty, and feeling undue compassion. But I still think her marriage was wrong to begin with, and she had a right to run away with whoever wanted to pay for her, without being beheaded by a drunk bro. But in China, the bro is in the right, and the unanimous opinion is that she deserved being brutally killed in public. Bros before hoes.
The obvious reason is that the lower-middle class Chinese who read and loved the Water Margin tales of brave bros fighting the government, were, well, lower-middle class bros with little access to women at all, while they lived surrounded by their menfolk. Large groups of young men hanging out often tend to produce very typical signaling dynamics: bros before hoes, binge drinking, martial arts, loud claims of unconditional loyalty. This works alright until there’s real money or women involved; then everybody stops drinking and fighting, and starts betraying everyone else. Biology always wins.
Cassandra: 潘金蓮 Pan Jinlian
Ennomus: 武大郎 Wu Dalang
Amphimachus：武松 Wu Song
Mecisteus: 西門慶 Ximen Qing