Monday, 9 June 2008

The Inspiration of 'The Water Margin'

These days British children have so many televisual role models to look up to everyone from the Bratz to Tracy Beaker to Young Dracula to Harry Potter or Hermione Granger the owners of Pokemon or Storm Hawks or even a Transformer and of course old stand-bys such as Doctor Who. Back in the 1970s there were fewer characters that gave you role models. Of course Doctor Who was around then, but who were you when you had to have a role to act out in the playground. For the boys who liked football you were someone from Manchester United, Liverpool, Leeds United (yes, these days unbelievable) and for those with an eye on the future, Wimbledon. However, when not playing football and having tired of Doctor Who we came down to characters from two series which seemed to be repeated constantly on British television in the late 1970s and early 1980s: 'The Flashing Blade' (1967) and 'The Water Margin' (1973). 'The Flashing Blade' was a French series dubbed into English and cut from four 75-minute episodes into twelve 22-minute ones. It seems to have been set during the War of Mantuan Succession (1628-1631) between France and Spain-other Habsburg lands-Duchy of Savoy as the action revolves around the siege of Casale capital of Montserrat in 1629 and a French agent to relieve the French garrison there. So lots of dashing men in loose shirts and riding boots fighting with swords and flintlock guns.

Even more enduring was another dubbed series, 'The Water Margin'. This was first aired in the UK between 1976-78 in the UK early evening, despite scenes such as that in the first episode when a man's chopped off head is shown bouncing along, quite heavy stuff before the watershed. It was repeated in 1987 at the time of the general election and I had been watching it religiously as they ran it on consecutive nights. However, after 13 episodes it was halted due to election coverage (I think there were other reasons for this as I will discuss below). The wonderful thing about 'The Water Margin' was that it has a serious story and a great theme tune (as I have discussed before) but there is also humour and wonderful fight scenes. Some of it, especially around the exploitation of people is realistic but other elements were fantastical such as a man who could run the speed of the wind. The story was written by Shi Naian (1296-1372) and completed by Luo Guanzhong (possibly 1330-1400), and was based on the activities of Song Jiang and his 36 companions in the Huai River region of China in the 1120s before their defeat by government forces in 1126. The book came to be considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. In 1757 it was produced in Japan as the 'Suikoden' ensuring that the story became embedded in Japanese culture too.

The story of 'The Water Margin' is about 108 heroes very diverse in nature and abilities who come together to oppose the government of the Song dynasty, who hid out in the marshes of Liangshan Po (i.e. literally the water margin of the region). This was one of the winning elements of the series for fans because everyone had their favourite whether it was the disgraced hero soldier (Ling Chung), the tiger-fighter (Wu Sung), the 'ox' (I think Lu Ta), the tattooed swordsman, the man who could run as fast as the wind or one of the female characters, one of whom fought with two swords (Hu San-niang). The stories were dramatic with lots of personal sacrifice and betrayal, but with comradeship leading to victory of adversity. The dubbing was typical of that of martial arts movies of the 1970s not helped by the fact that many of the western dubbers had to do voices for more than one of the characters. However, the series was fast and exciting. I have never seen the whole thing right through and hope to be able to afford to buy it on DVD. I once saw the whole thing on video cassette stretching the whole length of a shelf in a small video shop in London, it looked very impressive but I would not have been able to afford it (or carry it home).

So, one can see why 'The Water Margin' appealed to youthful viewers, but why it endures is because of what it encourages us to do in our modern society. I particularly felt this during the Thatcher years when it was being shown. The references to 'the cruel and corrupt government' seemed as relevant in the 1980s as it might have done in the 1120s. Other titles for the novel are 'Outlaws of the Marsh', 'The Marshes of Mount Liang' and 'All Men Are Brothers' which is probably why the Communist regime still under Mao Zedong in 1973 was happy to allow this Chinese classic to be filmed by a Japanese company in China, not seeing the irony in the focus of the story. The message of 'The Water Margin' was hammered out each week first of all in the title, intoned by Burt Kwouk. You can find and hear it on YouTube and see why it always provoked a reaction. It seems that the opening line is not included which was 'As sparks fly upward, man is born unto sorrow' which sounds like a generic Chinese motto. However it then went on into specifics:

'The ancient sages said: "do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon?" So may one just man become an army. Nearly a thousand years ago in ancient China, at the time of the Sung dynasty, there was a cruel and corrupt government. These men riding are outlaws - heroes - who have been driven to live in the Water Margins of Liang Shan Po, far to the south of the capital city. Each fights tyranny with a price on his head, in a world very different from our own. The story starts in legend even then, for our heroes, it was said, were perhaps the souls reborn of other, earlier knights.'

How great is that, it says that by banding together you can become strong and defeat a cruel and corrupt government. In addition at the end of each episode was a summary with a moral about what needed to be done next. In some ways it was very much like a Western and one can see easy parallels between the characters of 'The Water Margin' and gunmen in some Westerns such as 'The Magnificent Seven', of course itself derived from the Japanese 'The Seven Samurai'. This reference, I think was seen by the creators of the series as can be seen at the end when some of the heroes literally ride into the sunset with a rather clip-clopping tune. I think the parallels stem from ideas of duty and responsibility that come from handling a sword or a gun, something that seems very much forgotten in our age which seems so violent but in fact is almost on par with say 12th century China, 16th century Japan or 1880s USA/Mexico.

Thus, you had an action series which gave you suggestions for a way to live under a regime you did not feel was right, far better than sermons. It gave a sense of strength and that this was a serious series to be paid attention to compared to more popular entertainments. Watching across the numerous episodes and remembering all the characters seemed to give it gravitas. Everywhere you look there are positive reviews about this series and I know it probably would seem dated today, but it is a series I think it is important for children to watch and learn from. As it said in the last epsiode: 'Legend says these were reborn heroes already shaped for what they did by what they had done before. How often must it be done again; over and over again? As often as is necessary. Governments still govern, yet when sage and fool; king and peasant find a cause and Earth and Heaven mingle, there will come times when good and peace prevail. "Before you seek change", the sages said, "be very sure you have savoured all the joys of the present." Sometimes there is nothing to do but wait for the rain. Only men who face the time without illusion or fear will endure any fate to its end.' This suggests that there are some people who have the strength to resist 'the cruel and corrupt' and bring Earth and Heaven to mingle, it is up to those with that strength of character to bring about the necessary change and not shirk it as so many seem to these days in favour of an easy life that simply perpetuates misery for so many.

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