The Shuihu Zhuan (apparently, this means something like Water Margin, but it has been translated into English under many other titles) is accounted to be one of the great classic Chinese novels. I chose to read this one first because it was not written in classical Chinese (so it was not primarily for the elite) and because, according to the experts, it incorporates much more about the lives of ordinary Chinese people than do the other classic novels.
The Shuihu Zhuan is based upon a particular oral storytelling tradition going back to the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) concerning a group of bandits who took refuge in marshes, and it also has written predecessors such as Old Incidents in the Xuanhe Period of the Great Song Dynasty, which appeared around the mid 13th century. To complicate matters, the text(s) with the name Shuihu Zhuan has been modified many times and appeared in many different editions of varying length. On top of this, the experts are in disagreement about the authorship of these texts. Moreover, there appear to be four different translations into English of various versions of the "text". So with which version and which translation would one begin?
On the basis of the reviews of my GRAmazon friend, Helmut Barro,(*) I chose a recent translation which is also the most complete. The longest version of the Shuihu Zhuan comprises 120 chapters and dates back to 1573–1620. Two recent Chinese editions of this version underlie this translation, according to the translators.
Generally speaking, the Shuihu Zhuan is about a band of 108 bandits (corresponding to the 108 demons released in the first chapter by a foolish and self-important general), its formation, its adventures and its demise. But that is just a framework upon which is hung a close look at the hard life of Song dynasty Chinese, when life was extremely cheap and when everyone had either to grin and bear the injustices of their superiors or light out to the bandit-infested marshes and wild borders of the Middle Empire. Prisoners had to bribe their captors to survive for long, otherwise they would be starved, beaten and worked to death. The reader is shown the activities, social relations, apparel and housing of the time in detail. The life of local landowners, shopkeepers, soldiers, monks and bandits is described instead of that of the courts. And one finds that personal loyalties, cemented either by blood relation, adoption or a long series of gifts, banquets and mutual favors, are more important than any other bonds. Those with Chinese friends and lovers will also fondly recognize the central role played in this book by food and drink.
The Broken Seals contains the first 22 chapters of Shuihu Zhuan. A number of the main characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are introduced and their individual adventures are related. The bandit band begins slowly to accrete these individuals but is yet far from its full complement at the end of this volume. They, and nearly everybody else in this book, are often cruel and murderous, that is, when they are not giving each other gold and silver and drinking dozens of cups of rice wine all night. They are most definitely not the merry band of Sherwood Forest. And though, at least not yet, the characters in this book do not fight while running weightlessly along the tops of trees, many of the battles fought require a willing suspension of skepticism, otherwise a good part of the fun will be missed.
So, a hyperbolic view of life in medieval China, replete with adventures and told in colorful and salty prose interspersed with often enjoyable poetry - how could one resist?
(*) If you understand German, then I recommend that you read his reviews of three of the four English translations in GRAmazon.