A thousand years ago a court clerk in China, or rather an ex-clerk, watched the goings on in a village through a thicket of bamboo. The minutes crawled by for Song Jiang, the ex-clerk nicknamed “Timely Rain” for his helpfulness to those in need. Others called him, “filial and righteous third son.” Loyal to his family he proves to be in the book Outlaws of the Marsh. For Song Jiang to be caught here would mean certain execution.
Outlaws of the Marsh, attributed to the writer Shi Nai'an, is considered to be one of the four great classics of Chinese literature. It follows the events of a rebellion against the Northern Song Dynasty empire (960 A.D. -1160 A.D.). The Song government encouraged the growth of arts and literature among the educated but was severely hard on the common folk. Some Western readers have compared Song Jiang’s band of outlaws and rebels to Robin Hood. Or, maybe, another fictional revolt that begins, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
How this well-intentioned former civil servant could find himself hunted like a deer in the forest is a bit complicated. The best explanation may be human nature. People typically assume that others will act like they would in like circumstances. That was the sticking point, so to speak, that stumped Song’s would-be blackmailer. She knew he had been offered 30 gold coins as thanks for helping someone. A letter she found revealed that. What she couldn’t believe, or accept, is that he turned down the offer — inconceivable!
What would the coins have looked like? During the Song Dynasty (no relation to clerk Song’s family) most Chinese coins were cast into round discs from molten bronze poured into molds. A distinctive square hole is in the center. The term for them today is, “cash coins.” Several modern Chinese coins mimic this distinctive shape. One example is the 1990 10 Yuan Vault Protector. It is struck in one ounce of .999 silver and is 40 millimeters in diameter. The story leaves unsaid the details of the 30 gold coins — they could even be foreign coins that arrived in China via the Silk Road trade.
What might Song Jiang have looked like? His “image” is on one coin. In 2009, a 150 Yuan proof .999-fine gold coin that is 23 millimeters in diameter and weighs in at one-third of an ounce was struck by the People’s Republic of China. The coin is colorized and Song is shown wearing a red cape and holding a pennant. Behind him are the kind of boats the rebels would have used as they hid from the military in a marsh. Its stated mintage is 30,000.
Song Jiang and his blackmailer – a concubine forced on him by her impoverished mother after he pays for her father’s funeral out of charity – trade loud threats. Unwanted and ignored by Song Jiang, she needs the money to run away with her boyfriend. A knife is drawn. Now, as Song frets and lurks among the bamboo trees the ill-fated blackmailer lies dead. By Song Dynasty law if one member of a family cannot be punished for a crime then a close relative must serve the sentence instead. Song Jiang rightfully fears for his father’s and brother’s safety.
Under cover of night Song Jiang sidles up to the back entrance of his old home. He knocks softly. A curtain opens and his brother Song Jing stares out at him, astonished. “Why did you come here?” Jing whispers. “The county sends two constables every day to hang around and watch us. We’re not allowed to leave. As soon as the documents arrive, they’re going to arrest father and me and put us in jail until you’re captured. There are nearly 200 soldiers patrolling the neighborhood day and night. Get out of here! You have no time to waste.”
The fugitive slips back into the shadows. The Moon is hazy and there is little light. He retreats along a seldom-used path until, suddenly, there are shouts, “Stand where you are, Song Jiang.” Immediately, the wanted man turns and runs. Yells and whistles fill the night behind him. He crests a hill and spies another village. “Oh no! It is Circular Road Village,” he groans. This remote town, surrounded by mountains and water, has only one road in and out. Song Jiang is cornered!
A grove of trees in the town beckons. Within it, Song finds an ancient temple closed behind iron gates. Too panicked to care about noise, he pushes them open and runs inside. He can hear the posse outside. A policeman’s voice that he recognizes declares, “He must be in the temple. Look there.”
Dozens of men jam through the temple entrance. “Search everywhere. I know he is here!” With no time to spare the desperado pushes aside a heavy fabric covering and slips into the temple shrine. Inside, Song wedges himself behind an idol and curls up.
“I’m a dead duck. Please, oh please, spirits protect me,” Song silently prays. At first all the men pass the shrine by, but one of the policemen walks up to it. He raises the curtain with his spear tip and thrusts a torch forward.
Instantly, the firebrand flares and an ember flies into the constable’s eye. He drops the torch, which promptly goes black. The policeman hobbles outside and announces, “He’s not in there. Where could he be?”
“We will find him in the morning. He can’t get out of this village even if he grows wings,” replies the second officer.
At that moment a soldier appears to announce, “The rat must be in here. We found his handprints on the dusty gate!”
“O.K. Let’s search again and don’t miss anything.”
Once more the group carefully combs the building’s interior. Finally, one constable says, “He’s in the shrine. He has to be.” Half a dozen soldiers follow him over to it, but just as he lifts the fabric to peer inside a gust of wind puffs out and extinguishes all the torches.
“This place is haunted, let’s go,” the soldiers nod in the now pitch-black room.
One constable, though, has not had quite enough. “Let’s just poke around a little with our spears before we leave?” he says.
At this point in the story, I picture Song Jiang waving his hand and telling the stubborn policeman, “This is not the shrine you are looking for.”
What actually happens is that no sooner do the lawmen step toward the shrine then a howling, biting black cloud of sand and gravel grit blows in from the rear of the hall. The entire building shakes under its fury. All the men’s hairs stand on end. Panicked, one yells, “Run — the temple god is angry!”
Inside his shelter Song Jiang chuckles.
The frantic soldiers flee and some fall. “Save us,” they cry. One of the policemen turns back. Several of the men’s uniforms are tangled up in tree roots and they cannot break loose. The constable cuts them loose and all gather together in the street.
“We woke up a powerful spirit in there. Let’s get back to the village. We will get that rascal when it’s light!”
After the men leave Song Jiang comes out from the shrine. Grateful to be free, he still has no idea how to escape the village. At that moment two boys dressed in green walk up to him. “Star Lord, our queen wishes to meet with you,” they announce.
Song is puzzled. Star Lord? Who is this Star Lord?
The boys urge him to hurry; the queen is waiting.
Speechless, he is more surprised when two girls, also dressed in green, step out from the shrine he was just hiding in. He recognizes them as Earth Fairies. “Star Lord Song, you must come along,” they announce as bird songs float like music through the air.
Song tries to explain he is just an ordinary person, but the fairies address him again as Star Lord. “The Queen invites you to her palace.”
They all leave through a door at the rear of the temple. Outside there is a broad garden. The night is no longer gloomy. Stars twinkle in the sky.
“I should have hidden back here,” thinks Song Jiang.
The group follows a smooth road that winds ever higher. A bridge of blue stones arches over a babbling brook that sparkles in the moonlight like silver. Trees and flowers unknown to Song surround them.
At the palace door there are dragon and phoenix designs carved into the flagstones. Song falls to his knees, and kowtows as he softly declares, “Please forgive this commoner, your Celestial Highness. I beg your Heavenly mercy and forgiveness.”
Led inside, his audience with the Mystic Queen is not lengthy. The fairy maidens bring him sweet dates and wine. Awkward, he eats three and then hides the date pits in his hand. After three cups of wine, Song Jiang tells the Lady that he cannot drink more. Understanding, she orders that “The Three Heavenly Books” be presented to Star Lord. At last, Song Jiang realizes who he is and that he has existed before.
A young man brings the books out on a jade tray. They are quite small, miniatures really, so Song Jiang tucks them inside his sleeve. Then the queen explains his mission and that he is to never show the books to anyone except another divinity. She concludes with, “Complete your mission and you can return to Heaven’s Purple Palace. Fail and you will be condemned to where I cannot save you. For now, you are still a mortal, and we cannot remain together, so farewell.”
The fairies walk Song out as far as the blue stone bridge. Then one remarks, “Tomorrow you will escape your pursuers. Do not be afraid. Oh, look Star Lord, two dragons play together.” Song leans over to see this when the girls suddenly push him over the side.
He wakes up in the shrine. “Ah! It was but a dream,” he sighs as he stares up at the Moon through a window. Just then he notices that something is in his clenched hand; three date pits. Song reaches into his sleeve and, sure enough, pulls out three small books wrapped in silk.
Since at least the early 1500s Outlaws of the Marsh has been one of the most-read books in China. Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, and, besides Song Jiang, the book presents readers with a cast of dozens of memorable heroes and villains. In 2009, when China Gold Coin issued a coin with Song Jiang on it, it also released four more coins that feature other characters, all colorized.
For 2009, besides the round third-ounce Song Jiang gold coin, there is a five-ounce rectangular gold coin (mintage 800), a five-ounce rectangular silver coin (mintage 10,000), and two one-ounce 40-millimeter round silver coins (mintage 60,000 each).
For 2010 the same format: a five-ounce rectangular gold coin (mintage 900), a five-ounce rectangular silver coin (mintage 12,000), a third-ounce round gold coin (mintage 35,000), and two one-ounce round silver coins (mintage 70,000 each).
2011 is the final year of this short series. It finishes with a pair of spectacular coins: a 1-kilogram gold coin that is 90 millimeters in diameter (mintage 200) and a 1-kilogram silver coin that is 100 millimeters in diameter (mintage 10,000). Both are titled, “Great Gathering at the Hall of Loyalty and Righteousness.” As in prior years there are also a five-ounce rectangular gold coin (mintage 900), a five-ounce rectangular silver coin (mintage 12,000), a third-ounce round gold coin (mintage 35,000), and two one-ounce round silver coins (mintage 70,000 each).
Amazing it is, but there is something that separates Song Jiang from Yoda, or Luke Skywalker, or even Robin Hood: Song Jiang really lived! Outlaws of the Marsh is based on an actual revolution. The official History of the Song states, “Song Jiang, a bandit from Huainan, led a military attack on government forces in Huaiyang. The Emperor sent troops to put down the uprising as well as apprehend the bandit leader. Song Jiang then attacked the region just east of the capital and Hebei before moving to the borders of Chu and Haizhou. The Emperor ordered Zhang Shuye, the Prefect of Haizhou, to offer Song amnesty.”
And that is how the book concludes, with Song Jiang and his followers laying down their weapons. Today, we can relive their adventures through books, films, and 17 outstanding modern Chinese coins.