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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 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.) The third known adaptation of the story is the cartoon Hero: 108.


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).
  • 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.
  • 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: JH Jackson's 1937 translation sanitised 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.)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Dwindling Party: Not all of them make it to the end.
  • 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.
    • Zheng Tu, nicknamed the "Guardian of the West", the Arc Villain for the first part of Lu Zhishen (then known as Lu Da)'s story, is a tyrannical butcher from Weizhou who uses his wealth to oppress the poor and ruin the lives of innocents civilians such as Jin Cuilian and her family.
    • Wang Lun, the original Liangshan leader, is a selfish, narcissistic Paranoiac who is unable to accept those who are better than him out of fear of them usurping his position, and attempts to send away Lin Chong, Yang Zhi and Chao Gai just because.
    • Niu Er, the drunken bully who confronts Yang Zhi so the latter can give him his family heirloom sword for a dirt-cheap price. Fortunately, he was killed within minutes by Yang.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 
  • 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.
  • 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 the Overarching Villain 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • Outlaw: The Chinese version.
  • Overarching Villain: Gao Qiu is first introduced in the first chapter of the novel, and sticks around until the very end, outlasting every single Arc Villain in the story, including the final antagonist Fang La. In fact, almost every single protagonist in the story has some form of connection to Gao. Astonishingly, this counts as a Historical Villain Upgrade. note 
  • 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.
  • 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 vs. Cynicism: Leaning very strongly towards the cynical side. The emperor being the most corrupt person in the story certainly did not help matters.
  • 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 demnds 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: Zhu Wu.
    • Wu Yong as well.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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 '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


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