THE PARTLY HISTORIC events narrated in Outlaws of the March occurred in China during the early 12th century, making the colorful heroes of the title roughly contemporary with Robin Hood and his merry men -- whom they also resemble in other ways. This massive novel (to use a convenient if only partly accurate term) is the first work chosen for a joint translation and publication program by the Indiana University Press and the Foreign Languages Press of the People's Republic of China. Reading through the early pages, one might be inclined to wonder why it was selected, but as the cumulative weight of the story makes impression, some of the reasons become clear. Outlaws of the March is a work of social protest, just as the Robin Hood legend is under its quaint Olde Englysshe trappings. It is also a classic and, by the time the end is reached, many readers may be willing to argue that it is a masterpiece.

Whatever else it may be, Outlaws is action-suspense fiction in its purest form. A generation suckled on Freud will find in it no psychological depth at all, and a readership unable to consult the original must take its stylistic excellence largely on faith. But the characters are vivid and numerous, literally a cast of thousands; the action is wide-screen, fast-paced, varied cleverly within certain recurring patterns, and unrelenting in its pressure. On the "what happens next" level, it functions superbly and explicitly, like the movie serials of old that brought kids back week after week for the next chapter, because they had left the Lone Ranger and Silver falling off a cliff or Buck Rogers caught in an explosion.

The authors -- at least the two named on the title page, who apparently took a mass of ancient folk material in the 14th century and organized it into a novel -- were well aware of what they were doing and made the process a part of their style. Chapter after chapter leaves one of the many heroes in a tight situation and ends with a preview of coming attractions. For example:

Back and forth, to and fro, the two battled in the moonlight, encased in swirls of icy vapor. More than ten rounds they fought, and the clash of their arms rang upon the heights.

"One of the two men was doomed to die. In the chill glow and dim shadows a head would roll. In the murderous encounter, blood would run.

"Which of the two fell in this battle to the death? Read our next chapter if you would know."

To weave this kind of suspense through 1600 pages -- 100 chapters -- of fast-moving episodes without letting the story fall apart is no small accomplishment. In addition, the book contains a certain amount of residual historic material. Its styles vary from the comic to the epic, from harsh realism to supernatural fantasy. If offers a vivid portrayal of an ancient society, primitive and bureaucratic at the same time. It embodies a sort of chivalric ideal, and a vigorous, if largely implicit, protest against corruption in high places, greed, pride and social disorder. Above all, it is readable, for those attuned to fast action, if they do not mind heroes with exotic names struggling in unfamiliar landscapes, it is hard to stop reading.

The basic story is that of a group of outlaws who have set up a stronghold in the Liangshan Marsh in what is now Shandong Province. "It's about eight hundred li in circumference," one of the characters tells another. "There, Chano Gai the Heavenly King has amassed a force of nearly five thousand men. They control the entire region. When government troops go out hunting robbers, they don't even dare look in their direction." Most of the book is taken up with the interlocking adventures of the most notable warriors who make their way to the marsh -- generally good men of independent spirit, most of whom are driven into outlawry because of the greed or high-handedness of venal officials. Their characters are as colorful as their nicknames: Unrestrained Mu Hong and his younger brother the Slightly Restrained Mu Chun; Sick Tiger Xue Yong; The Dragon of the Cave; Hell's Summoner, and Wang the Flying Centipede. There are also a few women warriors who earn honorific nicknames, such as Ten Feet of Steel, wife of Stumpy Tiger Wang, who fights with two swords.

The adventures into which these people are driven en route to Liangshan Marsh often read like the script of a martial-arts movie, with an episode of hand-to-hand combat every few pages, but there is also (incidental to the action which was clearly the narrators' focal point of interest) a portrait of a harsh society, where policemen were threatened with beating if they failed to catch a criminal, where women were treated as chattels and the helpless could expect no mercy, where the unwary traveler stopping at an isolated inn might worry about finding himself on the next morning's menu, where ultimately you could only rely for help on your own strength, your family, your friends, and occasional men of honor, obsessed with justice and faithful to their sworn word.

There are repetitious patterns throughout the stories -- the situation, for example, in which a legendary hero temporarily helpless for one reason or another, is about to be done in by a robber when he happens to mention his name. Then comes the stereotyped scene. The would-be killer registers amazement: "You are the great so-and-so? I did not recognize you. Long have I reverenced your name and desired to set eyes upon you," and he begins to kowtow, to apologize profusely and to offer his almost-victim all kinds of help. These scenes are not quite as frequent as those of hand-to-hand combat, but still very numerous. After a while, one begins to welcome them as old friends and to admire the artful way the authors vary the traditional situation from one episode to the next.

There are various versions of Outlaws of the Marsh , which was reworked, abridged, extended and even given new themes as it rode down through the centuries. A number of translations into English have appeared before, notably Pearl Buck's vastly condensed edition of 1933 titled All Men Are Brothers . The present edition offers the first 70 chapters, the nucleus of the work, intact, and compromises a bit on the last 30, which have a less clearly established form. To one unfamiliar with Chinese scholarship, the compromise seems a good one. The stories of individual troubles and heroism are the kind of material we would expect in traditional narrative ballads, but toward the end, when the bandits form an army to help the emperor in feudal warfare, the book takes on an epic tone -- particularly in such stories as the titanic struggle for Black Dragon Ridge.

I suspect, reading through Outlaws of the Marsh , that without barriers of culture and language it would be even more spontaneously enjoyable.The long, complex story of Song Jiang, for example, whose filial piety keeps him away from the bandit stronghold and in constant danger, woiuld have another kind of impact in a society where filial piety was more actively practiced. Then there is the story of Sagacious Lu, an impetuous, hard-drinking, rough-hewn bear of a man who goes into a Buddist monastery to elude the authorities before finally making his way to Liangshan Marsh. Reading through his mistakes and misadventures as he tries to play the part of a monk, one senses that it would be hilarious to those for whom Buddhism is a living realty -- but to most Americans at this point it is hilarious chiefly in the abstract.

There is also the question of the translation. Might there be a more colloquial nickname for Lu in English than "Sagacious"? Perhaps not; it has a certain pomposity that accents the comic effect? But how about those heroes who have honorific nicknames like Turbulent River Dragon and River Churning Clam? And what, one wonders, could be the sound, the ideographic form, the psychological and cultural overtones of the word that is repeatedly translated as "friggin'"?

In a preliminary note, Sidney Shapiro observes that "the translator walks the tightrope," informs readers that the original uses colloquialisms, and notes that many elements of the text, including puns, jokes and literary allusions, "have no direct equivalent in the English language. Only approximations were possible, at best." He finally decided to use "a fairly straightforward English. . .not too sharp or slangy," and that was probably the best choice. A more vivid style might not wear quite so well through 1600 pages, and the sober clarity of the text serves well the plot complications and universal human traits and feelings which give this book its enduring interest.