Saturday, 13 February 2010 01:31

Why I Love...The Water Margin

Written by  Jo Othick
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Why I Love

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by Jo Othick

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.

There are some TV shows you saw as a child that you treasure in recollection for many years but are incredibly disappointed with when you see them again as an adult – The Goodies was one such show for me.  Then there are shows that live up to every rosy memory.  For me, the last one of these was Children of the Stones, but now I can add another in The Water Margin after lashing out serious amounts of money on the box set this Christmas.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it is based on one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature. It tells the stories of nine dozen heroes who dared to struggle against the evil Prime Minister Kao Chu and is often described as “the Chinese Robin Hood”. The TV show was filmed by Nippon TV in 1973 and turned up on BBC2 in 1976, when I was but a wee lass. 

I was hooked from the first episode.

I wasn’t actually old enough to be aware of the different distinctions of literature at that age an my initiation to adult SF & Fantasy was several years away, but in retrospect The Water Margin embodied everything that I was to come to love in those stories – people using their unique skills and (occasionally) superhero powers to fight against oppression, legends and predestination, magic, heroic sacrifices, a totally unredeemed bad guy, really shiny swords – it was all there: Tolkien with top-knots, George Lucas with black sand instead of yellow.  OK, the English dubbing wasn’t always great and some of the effects (especially that of super-speedster Tai Sung) were laughable but the story had heart, you really wanted the good guys to win, all of the characters were unique in their own way and it had some great quotes – my favourite being “To a frog in a well, the sky is only the size of a bucket”! 

When the run ended part way through I was devastated but fortunately I was alerted by the TV reviewer in my father’s copy of the Financial Times (of all things) to its return about a year later. In between there wasn’t any merchandise to buy, but I did force my mother to order a copy of the seven inch single of the theme tune by Pete Mac Jnr/Godiego and it’s probably still up in her loft somewhere.

Of course, you never got to meet all nine dozen heroes (less than 20 appeared and only about 15 got real screen time), which was something that really bugged me in my overly pedantic childhood. There was also a distinct lack of female heroes – Hu San-Niang was very cool with her two swords (which featured in my design of fantasy females forevermore) but her character was largely defined by her hopeless love for the grieving Lin Chung and her sister (who was the only thing close to another female warrior, though largely memorable for the amount of thigh she showed) died in her second episode so that a male hero could grieve. My hormones had yet to kick in (although now I realise there’s some very sexy looking men in it) so my loyalties moved around depending on who was being particularly awesome at the time.  My mother’s favourite was Shih Chin (The Tattooed Dragon) but I was put off by the fact that in his early episodes he had tendency to throw off his top during fights to reveal some rather prominent man-boobs!  I think that he ended up with Hu San-Niang in the stories – which I am embarrassed to say I’ve never got round to reading.

The show wound its way though 26 episodes to a rather abrupt end, and I’ve never found out whether the abruptness was in the source material or as a result of cancellation.  Nevertheless, it’s an awesome show and if you don’t want to lash out sixty –odd quid (or fancy popping round to see mine) it does get shown occasionally on channels like “Men and Motors” and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who loves heroic fantasy.

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