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Classical Chinese Novels 101: Heroism in Water Margin


For centuries, the literati of China wrote in Literary Chinese, crafted rigidly-structured essays, delighted in allusive poetry—and looked down on fiction as a lesser form of writing. Despite this, the stories and characters of China’s traditional novels have long influenced popular culture, and they are still readily apparent in both modern Chinese and East Asian culture.

This 101 series will serve as a basic introduction to China’s Four Great Classical Novels, as well as the entertainingly divergent (and often banned) Ming classic, Plum in the Golden Vase. In addition to discussing the development of Chinese long-form vernacular fiction, these articles will seek to present different critical interpretations of each novel, as well as highlight the insights that they offer into Chinese culture. As this series is designed for those without knowledge of Chinese or just beginning their studies of the language, Chinese names will be given in English, Chinese pinyin, and characters for the first appearance, and all subsequent references will use the English.

Classical Chinese Novels 101 is divided into six chapters:

3. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Water Margin

4. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Journey to the West

5. Classical Chinese Novels 101: The Plum in the Golden Vase

6. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Dream of the Red Chamber

Heroism in Water Margin

Shuihu zhuan (水浒传) – translated as Water Margin, Outlaws of the Marsh, and sometimes as All Men Are Brothers – is an epic tale of noble banditry involving a group of outlaw heroes gathering at the marshes of Liangshan to fight ministerial injustice while also attempting to prove themselves loyal to the empire. Action-packed and surprisingly bloodthirsty, with Taoist and Buddhist supernatural elements, the chronicles of the 108 heroes of the marsh have been beloved by the Chinese for centuries.

Figure 1: Wu Song fighting the tiger (Japanese artist)

Like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin is the product of a long cycle of oral and dramatic traditions collected and edited by an author. While the novel version of Water Margin seems to appear in the 15th or 16th century, some of its plot and characters can be found in a 13th-century historical chronicle, History of Xuanhe, while Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) dramatic anthologies demonstrate the evolution and continued popularity of these tales (Hsia, 1968). The author of the full-length novel is usually identified by Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scholars as 14th-century writers Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong (also attributed with Romance of the Three Kingdoms) (Hsia, 1968). The earliest extant version known today is an early 16th-century fragment, but evidence shows that a variety of both critical and simplified commercial versions of the novel, containing between 100 to 120 chapters, circulated during the mid-16th century (Ge, 2001; Plaks, 2015). In 1644, Jin Shengtan edited an abbreviated 71-chapter version of Water Margin which became the best-studied version for the following three centuries (Plaks, 2015; Hsia, 1968). Among modern scholars, there is a lack of consensus on the authorship of Water Margin, though C.T. Hsia (1968) considers the novel to be a work of multiple authorship. One of the most widely read English translations is the work of Sidney Shapiro (1980), who combines the heavily edited and abbreviated 71 chapters of Jin Shengtan with other 100-chapter versions.

Water Margin is similar to Romance of the Three Kingdoms in its specific historical setting, a period full of civil unrest: the end of the Northern Song Dynasty, shortly before the Northern Song was overrun by foreign tribes, forcing the dynasty to flee south where it later became the Southern Song Dynasty. The chaos of the Three Kingdoms period, and the end of the Northern Song Dynasty are both fertile ground for captivating stories bounded by historical facts but Water Margin quickly departs from Romance of the Three Kingdoms in tone and content. While the latter novel stays relatively true to the historical records and includes relatively minimal supernatural elements, the characters and events of the Water Margin have much less historicity. Even so, in the tradition of Chinese novels, the eventual fate of Water Margin’s characters is defined by the true historical rebellions that marked the end of the Northern Song Dynasty.

Figure 2: Zhang Shun, the White Stripe in the Waves, Wrestling with Li Kui, the Black Whirlwind, in the Jing Yang River (Japanese artist)

The thematic and narrative differences between Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms become apparent in the first chapter, or prologue, of Water Margin. The novel opens with a scene describing the celestial origins of the 108 heroes of the Liangshan Marsh, all of whom were originally spirits, or stars. They escape into the world to be reborn as adventurers thanks to the hubris of an inattentive imperial minister. In an episodic narration, the plot then follows the stories of different heroes, some of whose tales connect directly or indirectly. The most well-known of these heroes are Song Jiang, Wu Song, Li Kui, Lin Chong, and Lu Zhisheng. In the series of introductory stories, the different heroes find themselves set against ministerial injustice or other types of petty inequality. Bound by their ideals of honor, the bandit-heroes react by taking the law into their own hands, an act that often calls for the murder of a corrupt local official or two. As each of the 108 heroes is forced to run, they eventually gather at Liangshan Marsh, where they band together.

The heroes of the marsh fight injustice in their surroundings until imperial governmental forces are sent to pacify them. They then fight imperial armies until they are granted the chance to earn amnesty by joining the imperial campaigns against the foreign Liao invaders. Finally, they continue to aid the government by battling other bandit-rebels. Many of the heroes meet their deaths at the hands of one of these rebels, Fang La, whom they eventually overcome. The novel ends with the subsequent dispersion of the Liangshan heroes to local offices, their deaths, and the posthumous honors conferred on them by the emperor.

While Water Margin is an adventurous and sometimes humorous tale of bandit-rebels, it also presents a seemingly contradictory representation of heroism. Of the highly celebrated scenes, Wu Yong’s clever stratagem for stealing gifts intended for a corrupt minister earns a comparison to the legendary Zhuge Liang (or Kongming, from Romance of the Three Kingdoms). Wu Song’s drunken adventure, in which he fights and slays a tiger with his bare hands, is relatively amusing and introduces that character’s fierce, exuberant personality. On the other hand, as many modern critics highlight, the stories of Water Margin are filled with a problematic excess – excessive appetites for drinking and eating, excessive ideas of loyalty, and especially excessive violence and misogyny. In one scene, Song Jiang murders his concubine Poxi when she threatens to reveal his connection to the Liangshan criminals; in another, Wu Song, having already murdered his brother’s adulterous wife and her lover, takes his vengeance on corrupt local officials who tried to kill him by massacring their entire households, women, and children included. This “orgy of murder,” as C. T. Hsia (1968:93) dubs it, is one of the narrative heights of the novel that also underscores one of its chief problems in the eyes of modern critics. While Song Jiang’s murder of Poxi and Wu Song’s vengeance is defensible according to their codes of honor – Song Jiang protecting his valued relationship with the Liangshan bandits, according to the code of loyalty in their brotherhood, and Wu Song deserving revenge after having been attacked first – the clear enjoyment in these excessively bloody scenes contradicts modern ideals of heroism.

Figure 3: The Tattooed Priest Lu Zhishen (Japanese artist)

C.T. Hsia (1968) theorizes that this dichotomy originates in the orality of Water Margin and is a result of the long cycle of professional storytellers adding ever-more vivid and violent details to please their public audiences. He views the novel’s lack of maturity and sense of tragedy, as well as Ming Dynasty commentators’ general approval of these scenes, as a lack of literary sophistication in the writers’ and editors’ tastes (Hsia, 1968). On the other hand, Andrew Plaks (2015) suggests that the contrast between the characters’ heroism and their violent tendencies is a purposefully ironic representation. The bloody extremes of vengeance are meant to lead the reader to reanalyze the accepted characterizations of popular heroes. However, as Hsia points out in his 1983 essay on “Chinese Literature in Perspective,” Plaks bases his analysis on the Jin Shengtan edition of Water Margin, which includes changes that exaggerate sadism and violence compared to other versions, particularly in Song Jiang’s storylines.

Despite the different modern and classical interpretations, the Water Margin has always been beloved by broader audiences. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, numerous commercialized versions of Water Margin were published in addition to reimagined narrations and dramatic interpretations, various sequels, and even the famous Ming Dynasty “spin-off" erotic novel Jin Ping Mei. In modern times, Water Margin and its characters are referenced in Japanese manga, videogames, and animated and live-action films and TV shows. Whether loved for their brave and drunken tiger-slaying, cunning heists, or representations of outlaw justice in corrupt and chaotic times, the enduring popularity of Water Margin’s large cast of bandit-heroes has made it one of the great classics of the traditional Chinese novel.

Bibliographical References

Ge, L. (2001). Out of the Margins: The Rise of Chinese Vernacular Fiction. University of Hawai’i Press.

Hsia, C. T. (1968). The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction = Zhongguo gudian xiaoshuo. New York Columbia University Press.

Hsia, C. T. (1983). C.T. Hsia on Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press.

Li, W. (2010). Full-Length Vernacular Fiction. In V. H. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press.

Plaks, A. H. (2015). The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel: Ssu ta ch’i-shu. Princeton University Press.

Shi, N., & Luo, G. (2011). The Outlaws of the Marsh (S. Shapiro, Trad.). Silk Pagoda.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Utagawa, K. (c. 1797-1861). Seiga-ken no Sanbushō (Wu Song). [Woodblock Print]. Ashmolean Museum. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from

Figure 2: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. (c. 1887). Zhang Shun, the White Stripe in the Waves, Wrestling with Li Kui, the Black Whirlwind, in the Jing Yang River. [Woodblock Print]. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from

Figure 3: Utagawa, K. (1797-1861). The Tattooed Priest Lu Zhishen (Kaoshô Rochishin). [Woodblock Print]. Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from


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Mary Behan

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