On the Three Stages of Contradictory Comments of The Water Margin
From the Ming dynasty to the present day, the particular subject matter of the novel shuihu zhuan (The Water Margin or Outlaws on the Marsh) has polarized commentary on it more than any other work of pre-modern Chinese fiction. The continuous evolution of that commentary can be divided roughly into three stages. In the Ming and early Qing periods, the argument centered on whether the novel's protagonists were ‘loyal and righteous’ or ‘bandits’, two seemingly opposing views that were, in fact, both formed in the interest of defending established ideology. In the late Qing dynasty, while society underwent violent change, and prose fiction as a whole was devalued, there were those who saw in Shuihu zhuan «the beginnings of democracy and civil society», but there were also opponents who found in it the roots of civil unrest and national collapse, branding it «the cancer of the Fiction lists». Over the last half-century, the newly-established government’s initial championing of ‘reasonable revolt’ has clashed with greater support for the rule of law after Reform and Opening Up. While these three critical oppositions to Shuihu zhuan have not all addressed the same question, their approaches in intellectual engagement have been similar, inspired as they were by the novel’s descriptions of revolt against and protection of the established order. For this reason, the three-stage, spiraling advance of the conflicting commentary on Shuihu zhuan reflects, from a unique angle, changes in Chinese society, thought and literature.