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'The Water Margin', a classic work of Chinese Literature.

Updated on March 18, 2015
An early illustration from the text.
An early illustration from the text. | Source

'The Water Margin'

'The Water Margin', alternately published in English as 'Outlaws of the Marsh' and 'All Men are Brothers', is considered to be one of the four great examples of classical Chinese literature - along with 'Journey to the West', 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' and 'Dreams of the Red Chamber'. Written during the 14th Century, it is typically attributed as the work of two authors - Shi Nai'an, of whom little is known, and Luo Guanzhong, who was also the author of 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms'. It presented a fictionalized account of the historical figure Song Jiang, who led a band of thirty six outlaws during the 12th Century before, finding himself ambushed and trapped, being forced to surrender to the government in 1121. The fictionalized account focuses on the gradual coming together of 108 outlaws at Mount Liang in the Liangshan marsh, under the leadership of Song Jiang. For different reasons, each of them finds themselves drawn to Song Jiang's cause - standing against the corruption of government and the cruel tyrrany of the government official Gao Qiu.

It is also quite possibly one of the earliest surviving examples of the Wuxia genre known for featuring heroes and villians with almost supernatural levels of martial arts skill - a genre that began as folklore before entering popular literature, and still exists in film today.


The opening chapter depicts Marshal Hong Xin being sent by the current Emperor to acquire the aid of the Taoist priest, Zhang the Divine Teacher, in curing a plague that is currently ravaging the capital. While there, Marshal Hong accidentally releases 108 spirits, described as 36 stars of Heavenly spirits and 72 stars of Earthly fiends, who were held trapped beneath a stone tablet - demons that were believed by the Taoist priests to spread chaos into the world if they were ever set free. These demons, upon being released into the world, go on to incarnate in the form of human mortals who will one day become the 108 outlaws.

From there, the gradual rise to power of the government official Gao Qiu is shown - beginning as little more than a street urchin, Gao Qiu happens to be talented at the game of cuju, which can be thought of as a Chinese version of football (soccer). A chance encounter with Prince Duan, brother to the current emperor shows that the young prince is fascinated by the game, and a friendship is formed, ultimately leading to the young Gao Qiu being invited to the imperial palace to serve him, and teach him to play. Once Prince Duan ascends to the throne, as Emperor Huizong, he grants Gao Qiu a high ranking government position - which the newly appointed government official immediately sets about using to his own ends, spreading corruption through the imperial court, and using his authority to appoint his own supporters into key roles.

The focus shifts, then, to those that will eventually become the 108 outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh, outlining how each found themselves drawn together. Some joined to escape ill treatment by corrupt governmet officials, or to escape punishments for crimes, or even simply for the glory of associating themselves with the Liangshan outlaws and the desire to strike back against the rampant corruption. Still others were framed for petty crimes by the outlaws themselves, and found themselves left with no choice but to join, knowing that they would receive no mercy. Song Jiang himself, who eventually became the leader of the band of outlaws, found himself forced to flee for his life after an argument with his wife, in which she threatened to report him to the authorities for helping other criminals escape, lead to a fight which resulted in him killing her. 'Hero' is a relative concept in 'The Water Margin' - as corrupt as the local government under Gao Qiu is, many of Song Jiang's band of outlaws are just that - outlaws.

Throughout all of the following conflict with the local government, though, Song Jiang remains loyal to the Emperor - at all times, arguing for a peaceful resolution and hoping for amnesty for his followers, in spite of the increasingly violent attacks launched against him and his men by Gao Qiu.

English Translations.

'The Water Margin' has been translated into English multiple times under different titles. First by Pearl S. Buck in 1933, under the title 'All Men are Brothers', which was well received though also drew some criticism for various inaccuracies. It was translated again by Sidney Shapiro in 1980, under the title 'Outlaws of the Marsh' and again in 1998 by J. H. Jackson, under the title 'The Water Margin'.

© 2011 Dallas Matier


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    • Dallas Matier profile image

      Dallas Matier 6 years ago from Australia

      Sweet... hopefully it'll find its way out to the rest of the world, at some point.

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      studychinese 6 years ago from Beijing

      there is a new Water Margin tv show is playing here in China.