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Literature / Water Margin

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Water Margin (Traditional: 水滸傳; Simplified: 水浒传; Pinyin: Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn), 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 adaptation 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.) The third known adaptation of the story is the cartoon Hero: 108.


Water Margin contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • Many of the more shocking deeds performed by the heroes are sanitised quite a bit in the various adaptations. The darker heroes in particular go through this treatment. For instance, Li Kui's level of barbarity is usually toned down in the TV versions (the 2011 iteration is especially base-breaking due to the Adaptational Comic Relief presentation), Sun Erniang gains some more scruples and sympathy by getting tragic backstories and generally reserving her kills to jerks and criminals, while characters like Wang Ying and Dong Ping usually soften their more unsavoury tendencies and are made to be more in line with the Lovable Sex Maniac (for the former) or Chivalrous Pervert (for the latter) roles.
    • Song Jiang tends to be zig-zagged. For instance, the 1997 version plays up his scheming, Nominal Hero side, while the 2011 version is much more of an archetypal Jianghu hero. It usually depends on the adapter's interpretation of his character and the general consensus of that era.
  • 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).
  • Anyone Can Die: 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.
  • Army of Thieves and Whores: The 108 Spirits as a whole are of the oldest examples in literature. Add to this that a good bunch of them literally are thieves and whores.
  • 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.
  • Band of Brothers: At 108 members, the 108 Stars are probably the largest example in fiction.
  • Best Served Cold: Wu Song doesn't exactly bide his time when he hears rumors that his brother was poisoned by his adulterous sister-in-law, but considering his anger and his reputation it's impressive that he proceeded as politely as he did. He sought evidence and testimony, and he gathered neighbors as witnesses and stenographers before forcing a confession out of the poisoner and her accomplice. Then he stabbed, disemboweled, sacrificed, and beheaded his sister-in-law and her lover. He even tried to take the matter to court first, and it's implied that if the adulterer hadn't gotten the case dismissed through bribery Wu Song wouldn't have killed them.
  • Big Bad: Gao Qiu, the Song Emperor's corrupt and none-too-competent Evil Chancellor, although Emperor Huizong probably was a better candidate for the role. note 
  • Big Good: Chao Gai, the "Heavenly King" of Liangshan. After his death, the role goes to Song Jiang.
  • Big, Thin, Short Trio: The three top leaders of Liangshan, Song Jiang (short), Lu Junyi (big) and Wu Yong (thin).
    • Also the three chiefs of Mt Qingfeng, Yan Shun (big), Wang Ying (short) and Zheng Tianshou (thin).
  • 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.
  • Bowdlerise:
    • A widely read 71 chapter version of Water Margin was produced in the 17th century, about 500 years after the original was written. What's special about revision is that the editor added several passages to develop the characters further, removed large sections he found boring to read and did not advance the plot, including several poetry sections as well as the entirety of chapters 71 to 120. A new prologue was added, which renumbered the entire book and made the old chapter 70 into chapter 71, which itself was reedited into a Revised Ending featuring an outlaw having a dream vision of their future defeat. All of the changes were done to appease the imperial court in order to promote an Anvilicious message that while the outlaws may have sympathetic backgrounds, rebellions are nevertheless bad and need condemnation, as the Ming Dynasty then was under constant upheaval by rebels.
    • JH Jackson's 1937 translation sanitized a lot of the dirtier dialogue, which unfortunately meant that the contrast between the coarser commoners and more refined gentlemen was lost.
  • Bribe Backfire: When Ximen Qing is implicated in the murder of Wu Dalang, both his accepted and rejected bribes contribute to his death. His bribe to the coroner is seemingly accepted, but really the coroner set it aside to give to Dalang's brother Wu Song as evidence. Meanwhile, his bribes to the court to avoid prosecution are gladly accepted, but it's implied that if he had been prosecuted Wu Song wouldn't have felt the need to kill him. (Then again, if convicted he probably would have died anyway.)
  • Bringing Back Proof: Under orders from the Big Bad Gao Qiu, Liu Qian bribes the two constables escorting Lin Chong to prison to murder him, demanding that they bring back the skin where Lin Chong was branded as proof.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: Ximen Qing has this reaction when he hears Wu Song's voice for the first time.
  • Byronic Hero: Song Jiang is a quintessential example. He is an intelligent, charismatic, passionate and deeply troubled man, and also cynical and jaded haunted by all that has happened in his past, with a dark history writ in blood. His rebelliousness against the Song establishment leads him into trouble more than once, such as being arrested for writing an anti-government poem.
  • The Casanova: Ximen Qing. Given the context of the book, he's not played heroically.
  • 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...
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Li Kui swears way more than the other heroes do.
  • The Consigliere: Wu Yong's role, though his sway over the outlaws is so significant that he in many aspects is effectively in charge, down to being its kingmaker.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death:
    • The infamous execution method known as ''ling-chi'', or "Death by a Thousand Cuts" was used on multiple characters throughout the book, most notably Fang La, Madam Wang and Hao Siwen. Though hardly anyone mourned for Madam Wang, and Fang La's death was somewhat deserved seeing how many of the "heroes" his army took down, Hao's death was particularly tragic, as he was a member of the 108 and the brutal method of execution used on him had hit both his sworn brother Guan Sheng and Song Jiang hard.
      • And this method was not just limited to the government either. Lu Junyi used it to kill his steward and adulterous wife for having an affair and later blackmailing him. Due to Values Dissonance, the killing was treated as a heroic act.
    • The novel does not shy away from other horrific methods of death either. Early examples include when Wu Song disembowled and beheaded Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing, all the people butchered and cooked as meat buns, and Li Kui cutting and cannibalising Huang Wenbing while he was still alive. Some of the outlaws also died pretty darn brutally during the Fang La campaign. Special mentions go to Dong Ping, who got sliced in half by one of Fang La's men, and the brothers Xie, who were crushed to death by boulders.
  • Cultural Translation: 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.
  • Dismissing a Compliment: Not all the heroes are well-bred, but even many who aren't employ this trope instinctively. Their Confucian self-deprecation in the face of praise can be so extreme that obviously no one involved is taking it literally. Also, they can take half a page to decide who sits at the head of a table: Everyone wants someone else to.
  • 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.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: While Emperor Huizong is the de jure leader of the central antagonists, Gao Qiu is the one that's actually pulling the strings and making life miserable for the "heroes".
  • Drunken Master: Wu Song kills a man-eating tiger with his bare hands largely because he was drunk off his ass. He later uses the same tactic later in the story to beat up Jiang the Door God.
  • Dwindling Party: Not all of them make it to the end.
  • Eunuchs Are Evil: Tong Guan.
  • 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.
  • Everyone Meets Everyone: The grand assembly chapter functions as this trope, but because all 108 heroes need to be assembled at Liangshan Marsh first, the chapter doesn't take place until about seven-tenths into the novel.
  • 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.
  • False Flag Operation: This was Song Jiang's ploy to force General Qin Ming to join their band. While they wined and dined him in captivity, a bandit dressed in his armor led a force to pillage his hometown. Qin Ming initially declines their invitation to stay, but when he gets home he finds he's thoroughly unwelcome, and his family has already been executed. This plan actually succeeds, even though Song Jiang fesses up to the whole thing immediately. Qin Ming doesn't even hold a grudge.
  • Femme Fatale: Pan Jinlian.
  • Find Out Next Time: Every chapter ends with a teasing On the Next and "Read our next chapter if you would know."
  • 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.
  • Hate Sink:
    • The book itself consists of amoral and immoral criminals making up most of the main cast, and no matter how many Kick the Dog deeds they do they are impossible to truly hate. You can't hate the Emperor either, since he's portrayed far more sympathetically to get past the censorship. The Big Bad Gao Qiu, on the other hand, is a corrupt, manipulative and oppressive politician who sends the "heroes" to their deaths and is all that is needed to make sure that the readers' blood will boil at one point or another. His cadre of officials, including Cai Jing and Tong Guan, also get this treatment.
    • Gao Qiu's foster son, Gao Yanei, is just as despicable as the elder Gao, if not worse. At least Gao Qiu never tried to molest anyone.
    • Probably the biggest example was Madam Wang, Wu Dalang's greedy nextdoor neighbour, who ran a teahouse as a front for snooping on the townsfolk. She masterminded Wu Dalang's murder in order to leech off Ximen Qing's money, and when Wu Song began investigating his brother's death, pinned the entirety of the blame on the two lovers (who are still far from innocent, mind you), whose affair she arranged. Hell, the author himself pretty obviously despised her, otherwise he wouldn't have given her such a dreadful death even if it breaks with historical Chinese criminal law.
    • Many of the Arc Villains in the heroes' backstories count as this, if only to make their own crimes a bit more palatable. There's Zheng Tu for Lu Zhishen, a tyrannical butcher who used his wealth to bully and oppress Jin Cuilian. There's Huang Wenbing, the corrupt petty official who attempts to have Song Jiang executed in hope of gaining a reputation. There's also Jiang the Door God, a thug who beat up Shi En to take over his business and later tried to have Wu Song killed for helping Shi En. Lin Chong had his backstabbing, cowardly friend Lu Qian who betrayed him to the government, Yang Zhi had the local hooligan Niu Er who tried to take his family heirloom sword for a dirty-cheap price, and in Lu Junyi's story was his treacherous, ungrateful steward Li Gu who seized the opportunity to have him arrested to steal his wife and property before trying to get him killed. All of them died horrifically, but the author already ensured that no tears will be shed for any of them.
  • 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.
  • Hero Killer: Two of Fang La's men stand out. Shi Bao is personally responsible for killing five of the Liangshan heroes, while the archer Pang Wanchun and his men kill seven, including Ou Peng, whose skill was Arrow Catch.
  • Honor-Related Abuse: 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 travelers for their pot. It's treated in an oddly blasé 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.
  • Imposter Forgot One Detail: When the heroes have to save Song Jiang from Jiangzhou prison, they recruit calligrapher Xiao Rang and craftsman Jin Daijian to forge a letter from Cai Jing, the Prefect's father. Xiao Rang imitates Cai Jing's legendary handwriting flawlessly... but Jin Daijian uses the wrong seal, which nearly gets Song Jiang, and the messenger, Dai Zong, executed. Fortunately, Wu Yong realized the error rather quickly and mounted the inevitable rescue mission.
  • Inn of No Return: Zhang Qing and Sun Erniang used to run one where they drug, rob and kill their customers before serving their flesh as meat for the baozi.
  • It's Probably Nothing: Invoked and subverted. When Zhang Shun is scouting under the walls of Hangzhou, he tests the guards' alertness by tossing a lump of clay over the wall. The guards respond by talking aloud that it is probably nothing, but are in fact fully alerted, waiting for something out of ordinary to emerge. When Zhang Shun emerges from his hiding place thinking he is safe, he is struck by a hail of arrows.
  • 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'. Since the historical Song Jiang was active in 1121, and he became a legendary folk hero long before the novel was written, this likely makes the trope older than Robin Hood himself; Water Margin or the stories it was based on may be the Ur-Example.
  • Karma Houdini: Gao Qiu and his cadre of corrupt officials, who are never punished for any of their misdeeds during Emperor Huizong's reign, up to and including poisoning Song Jiang. Truth in Television, as Emperor Huizong did not take any action against them. note 
  • Knight of Cerebus: Downplayed, since this book was never light-hearted to begin with. However, Fang La and his men prove to be a far greater threat when compared to the numerous Arc Villains of the backstories, the two previous bandit kings and the Liao Empire (excluding Gao Qiu). His army nearly crushed the outlaws, killing over half of them, and basically marks the point in which Plot Armor has been taken off the heroes.
  • Magic Knight: Several of the characters are skilled in Taoist magic as well as with weapons. Gongsun Sheng and Fan Rui are amongst the magicians in residence at Mount Liang.
    • Fang La's astrologer Bao Daoyi summons a literal one to help his apprentice, Zheng Biao, in his duel with Guan Sheng. Fan Rui defeats it with one of his own.
  • Market-Based Title:
    • The first English translation, by Pearl S Buck, renamed it All Men Are Brothers after a phrase repeated throughout the book that sums up the Central Theme.
    • Sidney Shapiro published a 1981 translation as Outlaws of the Marsh.
    • John and Alex Dent-Young translated it under the title The Marshes of Mount Liang.
  • Might Makes Right: Any crime whatsoever is justified so long as you're sufficiently talented with weapons. This is made repeatedly explicit.
  • Mystical 108: The total amount of heroes in the novel. Which starts when an equal amount of demons escape and reincarnate into these same heroes. They are divided into 36 Heavenly Spirits and 72 Earthly Fiends.
  • 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.
    • In fact, most of the outlaws can count as this, especially in a modern context. Wu Yong's contributions to Liangshan for instance are laced with more than a couple questionable schemes, from ruining Lu Junyi's life and family to ordering Li Kui to butcher a 4-year-old boy, who Zhou Tong was meant to protect, to death just to get them both on Liangshan. In fact, it was he who was behind Song Jiang's darkest actions, something he had realised by the time he hanged himself. Dong Ping is a more classic example, as he only joined the outlaws so he could get at the prefect and take over his position. Why? Because he wouldn't allow him to marry his daughter.
      • Speaking of definitive villains labelled under a completely alien definition of "hero", "Stumpy Tiger" Wang Ying comes to mind. He's a prolific sexual predator who by any other metric is nothing but a horrible excuse of a human being, and is only really seen as a "hero" because he's somewhat loyal to the rest of them (and even then, he had thoughts about killing Yan Shun when the latter stopped him from raping a nobleman's wife). After all, he became a bandit after robbing rich customers out of greed, and it's saying something when his first appearance had him threatening to dig out Song Jiang's heart to cook as hot soup. Seeing everything, it's almost miraculous how well his marriage to Hu Sanniang went especially compared to the every other marriage in the story.
  • Older Than Print: However it's technically probably not since the Chinese had a form of movable type earlier than Gutenberg.
  • On the Next: Every chapter ends with an enigmatic preview of the next or later chapters, capped with "Read our next chapter if you would know."
  • One-Steve Limit: Played with. There are two notable Zhang Qings, who are both part of the bandits, that appear in the story. The first to appear was "Gardener" Zhang Qing, the owner of an Inn of No Return, and the second, "Feathered Arrow" Zhang Qing, was an imperial officer who turned to the outlaws. Clarity is only provided to a certain degree in that the "Qing" is altered by three strokes to seperate the officer (“张清”) from the inkeep (“张青”), and the fact that both characters are pronounced the same means that their monikers are almost always going to be mentioned to mitigate the confusion.
    • Also played with in the three characters named "Madam Wang", each more fleshed out than the last. The first Madam Wang, Lin Chong's, was little more than a name in the crowd. The second, Song Jiang's, was a matchmaker who played a minor role in his story. The third Madam Wang, the teahouse owner, is the most prominent of the three, as she was instrumental in facilitating the murder of Wu Dalang. There are hints that these three Madam Wangs are one and the same, though it's left up to reader interpretation. note 
  • 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.
  • Royal Favorite: Gao Qiu started his life as a ne'er-do-well second son who wasted his time in hedonistic pursuits. He becomes a favorite of Prince Duan by impressing him with his football skills and, despite a lack of qualifications, is promoted to Grand Marshal when Duan becomes Emperor Huizong. From then on, Gao Qiu becomes a corrupt official who takes advantage of his power to take revenge on anyone who slighted him and incriminates innocent civilians.
  • Sacrificial Lion:
    • Chao Gai is the big one, as his death had set the stage for the idea that none of the heroes are immune to being killed off, and also indirectly allowed Song Jiang to take over and provide them with the ability to gain amnesty.
    • Zhang Shun was the first major "hero" to die against Fang La, and by that point it's pretty obvious that the two sides are on equal footing and that Anyone Can Die.
  • Schmuck Bait: The Stele-Bearing Tortoise is inscribed with the words "Open when Hong arrives," thus tempting Marshal Hong to open it once he sees it.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Bribery is not just for the rich, but for everyone, so it's more like The Rules Screw You If You Don't Have Money. Venality is portrayed as a way of life in the Song Dynasty note , to the point that officials often expect a "tip" just for doing their jobs correctly. Even relatively honorable characters will sometimes accept a bribe just to avoid giving offense. Note that the "rules" that are screwed by money aren't limited to those of the government, but sometimes include the chivalrous tenets of the "gallant fraternity". For example, Wang Lun tries to buy off men who want to join the Liangshan outlaws if he's afraid they'll show him up.
  • Sealed Good in a Can: The 108 demons who later become the Liangshan Heroes are introduced sealed inside a Stele-Bearing Tortoise.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Leaning very strongly towards the cynical side. The entire premise of the story revolves around the idea that, no matter how much you try to change the system, the most you can take down are petty officials and common loons. The real powers responsible for the entrenched corruption, being the emperor and his close circle, are virtually untouchable by those not of their standing.
  • Sorting Algorithm of Evil: Though Gao Qiu and his group are the main villains for the setting as a whole, the book makes use of this trope nonetheless in detailing the rise of Liangshan. The first lot of villains tend to be fairly personal, with an occasional higher-up figure, like Gao Qiu's foster son, thrown in the mix to establish a connection between the original "heroes" and the imperial court. Afterwards, as the threat of Liangshan increased, the heroes started facing rival bandits whom they would often absorb as well as petty officials who they would generally just get rid of, before crushing and assimilating enough noblemen for the Imperial forces to take them seriously. Some of the generals, like Huyan Zhuo, would be incorporated into the outlaws. Between the grand assembly and the amnesty, imperial forces led by none other than the Big Bad himself attempt (and fail) to subjugate the outlaws. After the amnesty, they're sent off to fight external enemies like the Liao Dynasty before finally being pushed into a meat grinder against Fang La. Nevertheless, the surviving outlaws had found themselves unable to defeat the real authority behind their troubles: the Song Dynasty itself, and Liangshan was promptly dissolved.
  • Split Hair: Yang Zhi, one of the novel's heroes, is forced to sell his family heirloom of a sword in the street. When confronted by a drunken local bully who demands a dirt cheap price, he tells the latter that the sword is capable of "cut metals like mud, slice through hair by the merest touch, and kill people with no blood on the blade". It's all true, and Yang Zhi proved the third feature on the bully himself.
  • Standard Evil Empire Hierarchy:
  • The Strategist: Wu Yong is the most prominent one, though his area of expertise mostly revolved around getting people to join Liangshan through the most crooked possible methods. The actual organisation of the army relied heavily on Gongsun Sheng and Zhu Wu.
  • Summon Bigger Fish: Part of the reason the outlaws roped in Lu Junyi, a nobleman who was originally set to fight against the outlaws, was because he was the only one in the area with enough fighting ability to defeat Shi Wengong, the military instructor who (presumably) killed Chao Gai.
  • 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 (Lyu Fang to Lyu Bu).
  • Standardized Leader: Deliberately evoked and subverted with Song Jiang. Compared to a colourful cast of warrior monks, Taoist priests, and barbarian bandits, Song Jiang seems almost ridiculously average. He's not terrifically smart, nor is he an especially skilled warrior. He's not as noble as Lin Chong or as cruel as Li Kui, but has enough of both to gain the respect of the outlaws. In fact, it's this sense of normality that provides him an extra level of complexity and depth and allows his greyness to shine, ensuring that he is not overshadowed by the more outwardly flamboyant supporting cast.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Wu Song's brother and his wife, Wu Dalang (also known as "Three Inches of Mulberry Bark") and Pan Jinlian (also known as "Golden Lotus"). Neither is enormously happy with the situation. Apparently their neighbors know this trope as "a luscious piece of meat landing in a dog's mouth".
  • Unfit for Greatness: The original Liangshan leader, Wang Lun, knows he is, and that's why he felt threatened when Yang Zhi joined up and tried to turn Lin Chong away. When he tried the same with the famous Chao Gai, Lin Chong decided he'd had enough.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: This is used numerous times, being a particular trademark of characters who qualify as The Strategist. It's customary for the characters to lampshade it by following the non-explanation with remarks about what a marvelous plan it is.
  • 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.
  • World of Action Girls: 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.
  • 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.
  • You All Meet in an Inn: The inn of Zhu Gui, the 'Dry-Land Crocodile', is where most of our heroes get recruited.

Alternative Title(s): The Water Margin, Outlaws Of The Marsh, Heroes Of The Water Margin, Legend Of The Water Margin