Adapted by Ah Xiu & Ah Nan, illustrated by Yan Meihua
(Zhaohua Publishing House, Beijing) No ISBN
Older readers might remember the distinctly odd TV series The Water Margin which followed the adventures of a band of heroic outlaws who fought for justice against an unjust, oppressive and corrupt Government. You might even remember that the tales were based on the classic novel “Outlaws of the Marsh” by Shi Nai’an of the Ming Dynasty. (Early Ming actually; the author wrote most of the thing in the extremely late Yuan Dynasty – it’s easy to show off when the book being reviewed has extensive sleeve notes.)
First published in China in the mid fourteenth century, the story is actually set in the early twelfth century, in the Northern Song area, centred around Mount Liangshan where 108 leaders and heroes gather together to overthrow the decadent tyranny of the ruling class. By all accounts Mao Tse Tung was a great admirer of these tales.
Adapted in this book with great economy and beautifully stylistic art of an almost balletic grace is the first tale of the saga. Imperial Arms Instructor Lin Chong is framed for attempting to assassinate his overlord, Marshall Gao, but in actuality Gao has conspired to disgrace and remove Lin Chong because his wastrel nephew wants the Arms Instructor’s wife. In a culture strictly bound by convention and class it is no easy thing to get rid of somebody and the convoluted plan goes awry.
Lin Chong, although disgraced and tattooed with the mark of a criminal, is not executed. Due to the efforts of true friends such as the warrior monk Sagacious Lu, and the uniquely honest judge Prefect Teng, he is convicted of the lesser crime of improperly carrying a weapon within the confines of the inner Sanctum, and exiled to the remote Canzhou. To safeguard his family he publicly divorces his beloved wife, giving her back to her father to protect, and then departs for the long walk to his destiny.
To western sensitivities, this might seem an oddly downbeat place to close, but in setting up the narrative engine for the epic to come, it works, especially with the masterful black and white pictures imparting a rising sense of hope to counterpoint the injustice of the plot. And while I’m being technical, this is one of those rare examples of Chinese Picture Stories (that’s the term for them, and artist Yan Meihua was an award winner at the 1980 National Prize-awarding Ceremony) that includes word balloons on the artwork to supplement the traditional picture and text block format.
In a world full of comics and strips, quality art will always please the eye, and a great story can never be beaten, so why not try something a little more exotic the next time you need a hit of something graphical?
© 1982 Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House.