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Water Margin ( ) (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, All Men Are Brothers or The Marshes of Mount Liang) is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Attributed to Shi Naian, whom some believe to be Luo Guanzhong, the novel details the trials and tribulations of 108 outlaws during the mid Song Dynasty.

Historical context and development

Water Margin is vaguely based on the historical outlaw Song Jiang and his 36 companions. The group was active in the Huai River region and surrendered to the government in 1121. They were recorded in the The History of the Song Dynasty. The name of "Song Jiang" appeared in the chapter of Emperor Huizong of Song while the activities of the outlaw group were mentioned in the chapter for Zhang Shuye.

Folk stories of Song Jiang circulated during the Southern Song Dynasty. The first text to name Song Jiang's thirty-six companions was the 13th century Miscellaneous Observations from the Year Guixin (癸辛雜識) by Zhou Mi (周密). Among the thirty-six were Lu Junyi, Guan Sheng, Ruan Xiaoer, Ruan Xiaowu, Ruan Xiaoqi, Liu Tang, Hua Rong and Wu Yong. Some of the characters who later became associated with Song Jiang also appeared around this time. They include Sun Li, Yang Zhi, Lin Chong, Lu Zhishen and Wu Song.

A direct precursor of Water Margin was the Old incidents in Xuanhe period of the great Song Dynasty (大宋宣和遺事), which appeared around the mid-13th century. The text was basically a written version of storytellers' tales, based loosely on historical events. It is divided into ten chapters, roughly covering the history of the Song Dynasty from the early 11th century to the establishment of the Southern Song regime in 1127. The fourth chapter covers the adventures of Song Jiang and his 36 companions, and their eventual defeat by Zhang Shuye. Some of the more well-known stories and characters of the Water Margin are clearly visible, including "Yang Zhi sells the precious saber", "Robbing the convoy of birthday gifts", "Song Jiang kills Yan Poxi", "Fighting Fang La" etc. Song Jiang and his outlaws were said to operate in the Taihang Mountainsmarker. The band ran the gamut from fishermen to ex imperial drill instructors to inn-keepers and so on.

Stories about the outlaws of Mount Liangmarker became a popular subject for Yuan Dynastymarker drama. During this time the material on which the Water Margin was based evolved into what it is today. The number of outlaws increased to 108. Even though they came from different backgrounds, all of them eventually came to occupy Mount Liang. There is a theory that Water Margin became popular during the Yuan Dynasty as the common people (predominantly Han Chinese) resented the Mongolianmarker rulers. The outlaws' rebellion was deemed "safe" to promote as it was supposedly a negative reflection of the fallen Song Dynasty. Concurrently, the rebellion was also a call for the common people to rise up against corruption in the government. Chongzhen Emperor banned the book to suppress rebels as per his official's advice but his rule was too short.

Authorship and early editions

There is some considerable debate on who the author of Water Margin was. Most believe that the first 70 chapters were written by Shi Nai'an, while the last 30 chapters were written by Luo Guanzhong (the author of Romance of the Three Kingdoms). Luo may have been a student of Shi Nai'an. It has also been suggested that Shi Nai'an did not exist but was merely a pseudonym for Luo Guanzhong himself.

Evidence from the text itself strongly suggest that the author was a native of Zhejiangmarker province (as both Luo and Shi were) who had little knowledge of northern China. At a 2006 conference, some leading Water Margin scholars agreed that Shi and Luo were the same person. When the name "Shi Nai'an" is written reversely, it reads "An Nai Shi", which is colloquially translated as "It is I again."

It is not clear how close Luo's edition was to those that are known today. The earliest extant edition of Water Margin is a 100-chapter printed text dating from the mid-16th century. Another edition, with 120 chapters by Yang Dingjian (楊定見), has been preserved from the Wanli era (1573–1620). Yet other editions were published since this era to the early Qing Dynastymarker, including a 70-chapter edition by Jin Shengtan.

Outline of chapters

The opening episode is the release of the 108 spirits. The next chapter describes the rise of Gao Qiu, the main antagonist of the 108 heroes. Stories of the 108 outlaws are told in separate sections in the following chapters. Connections between characters are vague, but the individual stories are eventually pieced together by chapter 40 after Song Jiang becomes the leader of the outlaw band at Liangshan Marshmarker.

The plot further develops by illustrating the conflicts between the outlaws and the Song government after the Grand Assembly. Song Jiang strongly advocates making peace with the government and seeking redress for the outlaws. After defeating the imperial armies, the outlaws are eventually granted amnesty by the emperor. The emperor recruits the outlaws to form an imperial military contingent and allows them to go on campaigns. The heroes eliminate foreign invaders of the Liao Dynasty and quell the uprisings by rebel forces around the nation.

The following outline of chapters is based on a 100-chapter edition. Yang's 120-chapter edition includes other campaigns of the outlaws on behalf of Song dynasty, while Jin's 70-chapter edition omits the chapters on the outlaws' acceptance of amnesty and subsequent campaigns.

Chapter Event
1 Marshal Hong Releases the 108 Spirits.
2 The rise of Gao Qiu.
2–3 The story of Shi Jin.
3–7 The story of Lu Zhishen.
7–12 The story of Lin Chong.
12–13 The story of Yang Zhi.
13–20 The robbing of the birthday gifts led by Chao Gai and the "original 7".
20–22 The story of Song Jiang.
23–32 The story of Wu Song.
32–35 The story of Hua Rong.
36–43 The exile and rescue of Song Jiang.
44–47 The story of Shi Xiu and Yang Xiong.
47–50 The three assaults on the Zhu Family Village.
51–52 The story of Lei Heng and Zhu Tong.
53–55 The outlaws attack Gaotangzhou; the search for Gongsun Sheng.
55–57 The first imperial assault on Liangshan Marsh (led by Huyan Zhuo).
57–59 The outlaws attack Qingzhoumarker.
59–60 The outlaws attack Mount Mangdang.
60 The first assault on the Zeng Family Village; the death of Chao Gai.
60–67 The story of Lu Junyi; the outlaws attack Damingfu; the second imperial assault on Liangshan Marsh (led by Guan Sheng).
67 The third imperial assault on Liangshan Marsh (led by Shan Ting-gui and Wei Ding-guo).
68 The second assault on the Zeng Family Village.
69–70 The outlaws attack Dongpingfu and Dongchangfu.
71–74 The 108 heroes are fully assembled; the funny and lethal antics of Li Kui.
75–78 The Emperor offers amnesty the first time; the fourth imperial assault on Liangshan Marsh.
78–80 The fifth imperial assault on Liangshan Marsh (led by Gao Qiu).
81–82 The outlaws are granted complete amnesty.
83–89 The outlaws attack the Liao invaders.
90–99 The outlaws attack the southern rebels (Fang La).
100 The tragic dissolution of the outlaws of the marsh.

The extended version includes the Liangshan heroes' expeditions against other notable rebel leaders, Tian Hu in Hebeimarker and Wang Qing in Szechuanmarker, prior to the campaign against Fang La.

Japanese version

Japanese translations of the Water Margin date to at least 1757, when the first volume of an early Suikoden (Water Margin rendered in Japanese) was printed. Other early adaptations include Takebe Ayakari's 1773 Japanese Water Margin (Honcho suikoden), the 1783 Women's Water Margin (Onna suikoden), and Santō Kyōden's 1801 Chushingura Water Margin (Chushingura suikoden).

In 1805, Takizawa Bakin released a Japanese translation of the Water Margin illustrated by Hokusai Katsushika. The book, called the New Illustrated Edition of the Suikoden (Shinpen Suikogaden), was a huge success in urban Edo and spurred a Japanese "Suikoden" craze.

In 1827, publisher Kagaya Kichibei commissioned Utagawa Kuniyoshi to produce a series of woodblock prints illustrating the 108 heroes of the Water Margin. The 1827-1830 series, called 108 Heroes of the Water Margin or Tsuzoku Suikoden goketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori, catapulted Kuniyoshi to fame. It also brought about a craze for multicolored pictoral tattoos that covered the entire body from neck to mid-thigh.

Following the great commercial success of the Kuniyoshi series, other ukiyo-e artists were commissioned to produce prints of the Water Margin heroes, which began to be shown as Japanese heroes rather than the original Chinese personages.

Among these later series was Yoshitoshi's 1866-1867 series of 50 designs in Chuban size, which are darker than Kuniyoshi's and feature strange ghosts and monsters.


The Water Margin has been translated into many languages. Pearl S. Buck did one of the earliest English translations of the 70-chapter version. Entitled All Men are Brothers and published in 1933, the book was well-received by the Americamarker public. However, it was also heavily criticized for its many errors and inaccuracies, including many mispronunciations. An often cited example in this edition is Buck's mistranslation of Lu Zhishen's nickname "Flowery Monk" as "Priest Hua".

Of the later editions, Chinese-naturalized Jewish-American scholar Sidney Shapiro's Outlaws of the Marsh (1980) is considered to be one of the best. However, as it was published during the Cultural Revolution, this edition received little attention then. Shapiro's translation is published by the Beijing Foreign Languages Pressmarker as a four-volume set later. It is a translation of a combination of both the 70-chapter and 100-chapter versions. The most recent translation, entitled The Marshes Of Mount Liang, by Alex Dent-Young and John Dent-Young, is a five-volume translation of the 120-chapter version.

Modern transformations

TV series and film adaptations

  • The Water Margin (水滸伝) (1973) - a Japanesemarker TV series adaptation of the novel produced by Nippon Televisionmarker. It was filmed in mainland China in 1973. It starred Atsuo Nakamura and Kei Sato in the lead roles. It was broadcast on TV in other countries.

  • All Men Are Brothers - Blood Of The Leopard) (1990s) - a Hong Kong film starring Tony Leung. It centered on the stories of Lin Chong, Lu Zhishen and Gao Qiu.

  • The Water Margin ( ) (1997) - a production by CCTV. The popular theme song "Hao Han Ge" (好汉歌) of the series was performed by Liu Huan.


  • Qing Dynastymarker author Qian Cai intertwined the life stories of Yue Fei and the outlaws Lin Chong and Lu Junyi in The Story of Yue Fei (1684). He stated that the latter were former students of the general's martial arts tutor, Zhou Tong. However, literary critic C.T. Hsia commented that the connection was a fictional one created by the author. The republican eramarker folktale Swordplay Under the Moon, by Wang Shaotang, further intertwines Yue Fei's history with the outlaws by adding Wu Song to the list of Zhou's former students. The tale is set in the background of Wu Song's mission to Kaifeng, prior to the murder of his brother. Zhou tutors Wu in the "rolling dragon" style of swordplay during his one month stay in the capital city. It also said that Zhou is a sworn brother of Lu Zhishen and shares the same nickname with the executioner-turned-outlaw Cai Fu.

  • Two characters in the popular Japanese novel series Saiunkoku Monogatari, Shi Seiran and Rou Ensei, have histories vaguely resembling those of Chai Jin and Yan Qing. They are nicknamed "Small Whirlwind" and "King of the Staff".

  • Eiji Yoshikawa wrote (Shin Suikoden (新水滸伝), which roughly translates to "New Tales from the Water Margin".


The Water Margin is referred to in numerous japanese Manga, such as Tetsuo Hara and Buronson's Hokuto no Ken, and Masami Kurumada's Saint Seiya. In both works of fiction, characters bearing the same stars of the Water Margin characters as personal emblems of destiny are featured prominently.

Video games

  • A character named "The Black Whirlwhind" in the RPG Jade Empire is inspired by Li Kui.

  • The popular MMORPG 9Dragons has characters based on those in Water Margin


  • The nonprofit organization Watermargin was founded in 1947.

  • In 1948, Watermargin house (now Watermargin Cooperative) at Cornell Universitymarker was the first Ivy League college-supported interracial, interreligious housing on campus. The house has an Education Program in which notable speakers are invited to discuss important issues to the Cornell and local community. This program has a strong history and continues to be an important part of the organization's mission today. Early visitors include Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, and Malcolm X.


  1. 明代文学教案:第二章《水浒传》(之一)
  2. Shirane and Brandon, Early Modern Japanese Literature, p564.
  3. Shirane and Brandon. Early Modern Japanese Literature, p555 and 886.
  4. Shirane and Brandon. Early Modern Japanese Literature, p13.
  5. Shirane and Brandon. Early Modern Japanese Literature, p656 and 886
  6. Guth, Christine. Longfellow's Tattoos: Tourism, Collecting, and Japan. University of Washington Press (2004), p147. ISBN 0295984015.
  7., citing Inge Klompmakers, "Of brigands and bravery - Kuniyoshi's heroes of the Suikoden", Hotei Publishing, Leiden, Breestraat 113, 2311 CL Leiden, The Netherlands, 1998, ISBN 90-74822-08-8.
  8. Kung Fu Cinema
  9. Dragon's Den UK
  10. Qian, Cai. General Yue Fei. Trans. Honorable Sir T.L. Yang. Joint Publishing (H.K.) Co., Ltd.,1995 (ISBN 978-962-04-1279-0), page 39
  11. Hsia, C.T. C. T. Hsia on Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press, 2004 (ISBN 0231129904), pg. 149
  12. Børdahl, Vibeke. Four Masters Of Chinese Storytelling: Full-length Repertoires Of Yangzhou Storytelling On Video. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies; Bilingual edition, 2004 (ISBN 8-7911-1464-0), pg. 166
  13. Hsia: pp. 448-449, footnote #31

Works cited

  • Haruo Shirane and James Brandon. Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900. Columbia University Press (2002). ISBN 0231109903.

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