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China now and then. . . Tale of 12th-century Chinese rebels; Outlaws of the Marsh, by Shi Nai'an and Luo Guanzhong. Translated by Sidney Shapiro. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (in association with Foreign Languages Press, Beijing). (Two vols.) $37.50.

This famous tale of a 12th-century rebellion in shantung was told and retold by storytellers for 200 years before being written down by Shi Nai'an and revised by the brilliant author and playwright Luo Guanzhong. Many editions have appeared since then, and several English translation, variously called "The Annals of the Water Margins," "Men of the Marshes," or, as Pearl Buck called it, "All Men are Brothers." This version by Shapiro is the first that covers the entire work, which he formed by combining the Chinese texts he felt most applicable to his purpose.

The Chinese editions range from 70 to over 100 chapters, and the conclusion sometimes ends with a pardon for the outlaws and sometimes not, according to the political climate prevailing at the time of publication. Whatever the details and the form, it has always been enormously popular in China. It is the account of a band of adventurers, rebels, and antiheroes, who establish themselves in a mountain fastness surrounded by marshes, from which they wage a sort of war against the government. Loyal to one another, physically brave, hot-tempered, passionate, their concept of justice is slight -- they are true outlaws in every sense. Professing to be friends of the poor and on occasion succoring the distressed, they are frequently an embarrassment to the peasants, who find themselves because of these wild "protectors" confronted with the dangerous option of turning bandit themselves or enduring an establishment that provides them no aid.

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The episodes swing forward with immense vigor and excitement, each one halting at a tense moment, so the listeners will return next day to hear the denouement. The cast is enormous, yet each character remains distinct; the style is bawdy, thrusting, colorful, incisive. Fights, physical prowess, food and drink, are major preoccupations. The events are household legends in the country -- everyone in China, for instance, knows how Wu Song killed the tiger. "Suddenly a wild gale blew, and when it passed a roar came from behind the thicket and out bounded a huge tiger.Its malevolent upward-slanting eyes gleamed beneath a broad white forehead."

The ferocious resentment motivating the rebels (often thieves and murderers, misfits in society) and the helplessness of the suffering poor make it a classic book of revolution. It was a favorite with the young Mao Tse- tung: Many draw an analogy between his Jinggungshan, his first revolutionary base in the mountains, and the Liangshanpo of the outlaws. Later, when he was the head of a government, his fondness for the book waned.

The Chinese language has altered relatively little since the novel was written, so the dialogue remains surprisingly modern, though the settings are sometimes archaic. The translator has given us a competent, honest, and intelligent rendition -- but not a brilliant one. The style does not shine forth in this edition with the intensity, force, and pungency of the original, nor are there suggested here the dire overtones that haunt Shi Naian's work. But translation is arduous, and we are grateful to have this one, with its very considerable merits. Colloquial expressions, puns, slang, and oaths are difficult to transpose -- and when put into Americanisms jar the mind. But on the whole one congratulates the interpreter with all sincerity.

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