Haiwang YUAN

The stories in Water Margin, documenting the adventures of 108 bandits, became wildly popular in Japan in the 1800s. This illustration, by Kuniyoshi, helped introduce the work beyond the borders of China.

One of the four Chinese classic novels of the Ming and Qing dynasties, Shui hu zhuan (Biographies of Water Margin) is based on historical events, but its authorship is in dispute. The complex story involves a group of 108 rebels who plot against the royal government. Some of the rebels are so vividly presented that they have since become heroes of the Chinese.

Shui hu zhuan (Biographies of Water Margin), also called Zhongyi Shui hu zhuan (Faithful and Just Men of Water Margin), is one of the four classic novelsof the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1644)—the others being Dream of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Originally named Jianghu haoke zhuan (Robbers of Rivers and Lakes) and Shui hu (Water Margin) for short, this novel was translated into English as All Men Are Brothers by Pearl S. Buck (later a Nobel laureate) in the late 1920s and as Outlaws of the Marsh by Sidney Shapiro in the 1970s. Shui hu literally means “waterside,” a reference to Mount Liang at today’s Dongping Lake, the alleged base of operations for the rebel heroes depicted in the novel.

Water Margin’s authorship is disputed. Some ascribe it to Shi Nai’an, some to Luo Guanzhong, and others to both. The most accepted theory is that Shi Nai’an wrote it and Luo Guanzhong rearranged it later. The biographies of the coauthors are largely speculative; the only known fact about them is that they lived some time during the Yuan (1279–1368) or Ming (1368–1644) dynasties.

The novel tells a tragic story about 108 people of different backgrounds who were forced to become rebel leaders on the lakeside Mount Liang. The book begins with treacherous officials of the Song court (960–1279) bullying their subordinates and their families, driving them into the camp of the Mount Liang rebels led by Song Jiang. Meanwhile others join the rebels for various reasons. After many a successful battle against the government army, Song Jiang and his men surrender after the emperor made them believe that they were being offered amnesty. The emperor then dispatches them to repulse the invasion of Liao, a kingdom established by the Nuchens north of Song, and to put down a series of peasant uprisings; many of the 108 rebels die. The rest are then killed with poisoned wine “gifted” them by the emperor.

Water Margin is based on a true event that took place from 1119 to 1121, when Song Jiang led his thirty-five fellow rebels in fighting the government. Stories about the event later found their way into compilations such as Zuiweng tanlu (Tales of a Drunken Man) and Dasong Xuanhe yishi (Incidents of the Xuanhe Era of the Great Song). By the Yuan dynasty, all the 108 rebels of Water Margin had appeared in popular dramas of the time known as zaju (miscellaneous plays). Apparently the novel Water Margin was a re-creation based upon all the above creative efforts predating it.

The original text of Water Margin is long lost, but different block-printed editions, both simplified and detailed, remain. The detailed editions are more popular, and better known among them are the 120-chapter edition compiled and supplemented by Yang Dingjian around 1614, the 70-chapter edition edited by Jin Shengtan (1608–1661), and the 100-chapter edition published by Guo Xun during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor (1522–1566).

Water Margin is of great literary value, being the first Chinese chapter novel written in vernacular Chinese. It seamlessly weaves multiple individual lives into an organic whole and yet manages to create distinct personalities with characters such as Lin Chong, Lu Zhishen, Li Kun, and Wu Song. Its intriguing plots are full of twists and turns and packed with action.

Water Margin has been interpreted differently by different people in different times. It has been either dismissed as advocating banditry or welcomed as singing the praises of heroism. In the 1950s the book was regarded as an ode to peasant uprisings. In the 1970s, however, Mao Zedong condemned it for setting a negative example, even though it had been one of his favorite childhood books.

The stories from Water Margin are so popular that many efforts have been made to adapt them into dramas, movies and TV series. The 43-episode TV series Shui hu zhuan, directed by Zhang Shaolin in 2003, is the most popular, and inspired by its success a new, 120-episode TV series is in production.

Further Reading

Lu Naiyan. (1982). Shui hu zhuan [Water Margin]. In Zhongguo da bai ke quan shu [The Encycolopedia of China]. Beijing: Zhongguo da bai ke quan shu chu ban she [The Encyclopedia of China Publishing House].

Chu, Mike S. Y. (1979). The Water Margin and its reception in the English speaking world. M.A. Thesis, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Hsia, Chih-tsing. (1980). The classic Chinese novel: A critical introduction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Shi, Nai’an, Guanzhong Luo, & Jackson, J. H. (1976). Water Margin. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press.

Youd, D. M. (1993). True or false: Seventeenth-century conceptions of self and society in Water Margin. Thesis (A.B., Honors in East Asian Languages and Civilizations). Harvard University., Cambridge, MA.

Source: Yuan, Haiwang. (2009). Water Margin. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2426–2427. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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