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Literature: Water Margin

Water Margin (Traditional: 水滸傳 Simplified: 水浒传), also known as Outlaws Of The Marsh, is one of the "Four Great Classical Novels" of Chinese literature along with Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dream of the Red Chamber.

The novel was written during the 14th century, although it is clearly based on older folk stories. Authorship is traditionally attributed to two authors, Shi Nai'an and Luo Guanzhong, but modern scholarly opinion is that Shi Nai'an is simply a pen-name for Luo Guanzhong, who also wrote the definitive version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

The story is based on the Real Life adventures of a famous bandit, Song Jiang, who along with his companions surrendered to the Imperial authorities in 1121. The plot follows the various backstories of every one of the 108 outlaw protagonists, then their gathering together under the leadership of Song Jiang, and finally their deaths while fighting a desperate battle on behalf of Imperial authorities.

The earliest surviving example of the Wuxia genre, Water Margin has been translated many times, and adapted to other media such as film, television and comics. Probably the best known adaption is the successful 1973 Nippon Television series which was broadcast in many countries, effectively introducing this epic work to Western popular culture. Perhaps the second best known, and much much looser, adaptation is the Suikoden video game series. Mostly just the first game, with the rest drawing basically nothing from the original story other than the concept of 108 protagonists. (Other video game adaptations include Koei's Turn-Based Strategy game Bandit Kings of Ancient China and Data East's Fighting Game Outlaws of the Lost Dynasty.)

Water Margin contains examples of:

  • Action Girl: Surprisingly, given the story's highly dismissive attitude towards women, there are a few here and there, like Sun the Witch and Gu the Tigress. Perhaps the most prominent and impressive, though, is 'Ten Feet of Steel' Hu, a dainty young girl who fights with a pair of swords almost as big as she is (hence the nickname). She routinely hands even the most experienced warriors their asses, and her first meeting with her future husband, the bandit warlord 'Stumpy Tiger' Wang, ends with her defeating him in pitched battle and taking him prisoner.
  • Anti-Hero: Every one of the 108 outlaws is somewhere on a scale between 'fundamentally decent, but aids and abets murderous lunatics' (Lin Chong) and 'is a murderous lunatic' (Li Kui).
  • Arranged Marriage: Song Jiang's marriage to Yan Poxi. Also, Wang Ying's marriage to Hu Sanniang. The latter ends up being a Perfectly Arranged Marriage. The former... doesn't.
  • Badass: Just about every hero in this novel.
  • Banned in Korea: The novel was theoretically banned in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty because it glorified banditry and immorality.
  • Big Bad: Gao Qiu, the Song Emperor's corrupt and none-too-competent Evil Chancellor.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The ending definitely has its ups and downs. The rebel king Fang La is captured, saving the kingdom, but at a tremendous cost in lives. The remaining bandits go their separate ways afterwards, some to happy fates, some to unhappy ones. The two leaders of Liangshan Marsh are poisoned by corrupt officials who go unpunished for their crimes, but Song Jiang ascends to godhood, is reunited Together in Death with his companions, and goes on to serve the people from beyond the veil.
  • Black and Grey Morality: The battle between Liangshan Marsh and the corrupt government is this on a good day, and Evil Versus Evil on a bad one. There are few crimes that the various villains commit that are not also on the rapsheet of one of our heroes, with the possible exceptions of adultery (they're quite good about making sure any unwelcome husbands are dead first) and misappropriating public funds.
  • Celibate Hero: The preferred version of Confucian philosophy in this story advises that spending too much time around women and having too much interest in sex is a sign of weakness - a true warrior lives only for battle and the company of other brave men. Naturally, this tends to play merry hell with our heroes' marriages.
  • Chew Toy: Poor, poor Lin Chong...
  • Cultural Translation / X Meets Y: Adaptations for western audiences are often pitched as "the Chinese Robin Hood".
  • Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangster: One of the primary messages of this book? Being a bandit in ancient China is awesome.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: For the majority of characters that were recruited. Somewhat justified given that it's often either implied or outright stated that they have a choice between becoming best buddies with their captors or dying gruesomely.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: If a prostitute shows up on-page, don't expect them to last long. The only exception is Li Shishi, the Emperor's favourite courtesan, who miraculously comes out unscathed despite spending more than thirty seconds within the same building as a crotchety Li Kui.
  • Doorstopper: Over 2000 pages in paperback. A four-volume edition weighs more than a kilogram.
  • Drunken Master: Wu Song kills a man-eating tiger with his bare hands largely because he was drunk off his ass.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Depending on your views of whether or not some of these bandits are "bad", there's one thing that's undebatable: they love their mamas.
    • You have Li Kui, who tries to get his elderly mother to come with him to Liang Shan so that she can live a cozy life. He then goes absolutely berserk when a tiger kills his mother, and charges into the cave and massacres the entire tiger nest.
    • There's Lei Heng, who was willing to put up with Bai Xiuying's machinations to get him to be put in stocks and deprived of food and water as well as the beatings. But the last straw was when she hits his mother. All hell breaks loose, and he beats her to death with his chains.
  • Evil Chancellor: Gao Qiu, the corrupt Prime Minister and Arch-Enemy of Song Jiang, who sends the heroes to their death.
  • Fake Defector: The Liao Empire offer Song Jiang and several of his officers cushy, high-ranking positions on their side, and our heroes accept. The Liao ministers end up losing most of a province before they realise that things might not be going according to plan.
    • Also, several of the heroes fake defection to Fang La's rebel government to bring it down from within near the end of the novel.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: Several characters at different points in the story end up fighting completely naked, but the one most famous for this is probably The Black Whirlwind Li Kui, who makes a habit of stripping naked and running into battle while Dual Wielding axes.
  • Gorn: Shows up a lot, particularly when the Liangshan Marsh bandits get their hands on an evildoer. Cutting tongues out is sometimes only the starter course.
  • The Government: Oppressive and corrupt.
  • Heel-Face Turn: The bandits after their pardon. Getting one was the goal all along, but it still results in them becoming a lot less murderous and a lot more consistently heroic.
  • Honour Killing: Yang Xiong gruesomely murders his wife for infidelity, requiring him to flee the law and join the Liangshan Marsh bandits. Given that this is a medieval Chinese novel, this is treated as a heroic act. Song Jiang's and Wu Song's killings of their wife and sister-in-law respectively also have shades of this, though with additional mitigating factors that make them slightly more reasonable to modern eyes (Song Jiang's wife was blackmailing him at the time, and Wu Song was avenging the killing of his brother-in-law by his unfaithful wife).
  • I Am A Humanitarian: Several bandits are cannibals, kidnapping innocent travellers for their pot. It's treated in an oddly blasť manner by the story and characters, even by the standards of the time, and Wu Song and Song Jiang both become sworn brothers with people who almost ate them before finding out who they were.
  • Karma Houdini: Gao Qiu and a his cadre of corrupt officials, who are never punished for any of their misdeeds, up to and including poisoning Song Jiang..
  • Just Like Robin Hood: The Liangshan Marsh bandits do occasionally steal from the rich and give to the poor, especially under Song Jiang's leadership. More often, though, their game-plan is either 'steal from the rich, ignore the poor' or 'steal from the rich, slaughter the poor'.
  • Kill Them All: A huge number of the "heroes" die in the campaign against Fang La's rebellion, several others die of disease, and Song Jiang and a couple of his most senior officers are poisoned by jealous officials for their efforts, leading his strategist, Wu Yong, and his best friend, Hua Rong, to join them Together in Death. Some of the bandits do make it out alive, and even live Happily Ever After, but they're in the minority.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Well there are well over a hundred main characters alone, each of whom have friends, family, and enemies some of whom play significant roles.
  • Might Makes Right: Any crime whatsoever is justified so long as you're sufficiently talented with weapons. This is made repeatedly explicit.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: What Gao Qiu wanted to do to Lin Chong so Lin's wife could be up for grabs. Wu Song's brother was murdered by his wife when she gained a lover on the side.
  • Never Hurt an Innocent: One of the guiding principles of the Liangshan Marsh bandits. They're not very good at sticking to it, though.
  • Nominal Hero:
    • Li Kui, an Ax-Crazy berserker with a Hair-Trigger Temper who's a danger to everyone around him. His long and inglorious career includes child-killing, cannibalism, repeatedly massacring unarmed civilians, and bullying. Even his fellow bandits eventually become sick of his shit, only letting him go out on missions after he agrees to a list of prohibitions (one of which he usually breaks). Eventually, Song Jiang kills him in the epilogue by having him drink the same poisoned wine that was slowly killing him, ensuring that he won't avenge his death with a bloody rebellion and ruin all their efforts.
    • Even Song Jiang has his moments. He initially gets outlawed for killing his neglected wife after she tries to blackmail him for participating in one of the biggest robberies in history, and once he becomes a bandit warlord, he has a nasty habit of ensuring prospective recruits have nowhere else to turn by framing them for crimes ranging from infanticide to mass murder. Not only that, but his sense of virtue and high moral standards tend to be either self-serving, extremely inconsistent, or both.
  • 108
  • Outlaw: The Chinese version.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: A favourite activity for the Liangshan Marsh bandits. They usually skip the rape, though - not so much because of respect for their prisoners, mind you, as because the specific interpretation of Confucian philosophy they follow holds that Girls Have Cooties.
  • Religion is Magic: Taoist mysticism is very powerful in this book, to the point where going into battle without a trained combat-mage is extremely unwise. The Liangshan Marsh bandits' top Taoist priest, Gongsun Sheng, is basically The Archmage, and an invaluable tactical asset.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Leaning very strongly cynical.
  • The Strategist: Zhu Wu.
    • Wu Yong.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Several of the characters are expies of characters from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, some by ancestry (i.e. Guan Sheng to Guan Yu), some by the choice of fighting style and weapons (Suo Chao to Xu Huang and Lin Chong to Zhang Fei), others by deliberate and active imitation (Lu Fang to Lu Bu).
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Wu Song's brother and his wife, Wu Dalang and Pan Jinlian. Neither is enormously happy with the situation.
  • War Is Glorious: The campaign against the invading Liao Tartars, the Liangshan Marsh bandits' Finest Hour. After finally being given the chance to actively work for the betterment (and expansion) of the realm, they succeed on a grand scale, performing acts of chivalry and heroism all the way.
  • War Is Hell: The campaign against Fang La's rebellion. It's a brutal meat-grinder with both sides behaving much more ruthlessly than in the battle against the Tartars. Not only that, but our heroes' Plot Armour has finally worn off. Every battle costs Song Jiang at least one of his trusted companions, often in extremely gruesome and pointless ways.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The two final chapters. Our heroes' fates range from death by falling off a horse (Guan Sheng) to leaving for a life as a fisherman and becoming king of Siam instead (Li Jun). For the most part, though, their endings are somewhat happy.
  • Would Not Shoot a Civilian: After joining the army, the bandits make a point of minimising damage to the civilian population. They're much better and more consistent about it than they were as outlaws (see Never Hurt an Innocent above).
  • You All Meet in an Inn: The inn of Zhu Gui, the 'Daylight Crocodile', is where most of our heroes get recruited.

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alternative title(s): Water Margin; The Water Margin; Outlaws Of The Marsh; Heroes Of The Water Margin; Legend Of The Water Margin
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