Outlaws of the Marsh

Outlaws of the Marsh (traditional Chinese: 水滸傳; simplified Chinese: 水浒传; pinyin: Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn), sometimes also translated as Water Margin or All Men Are Brothers, is one of the four most famous works of classical Chinese literature. Attributed to Shi Nai'an and Luo Guanzhong, the novel details the trials and tribulations of 108 outlaws during the early twelfth century. A four-volume set of the novel in English translation was released in 2001.

This rousing tale is about the struggles of common people standing up for themselves against overpowering oppression. It is eerily similar to the oral traditions of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, a fact highly consistent with Eric Hobsbawm's foundational observation in his social bandit research that "exactly the same stories and myths were told about certain types of bandits as bringers of justice and social redistributors all over Europe; indeed, as became increasingly clear, all over the globe" (Hobsbawm, 2000, ix).

In Outlaws of the Marsh, an evil ruler has imposed a tyrannical reign of terror over his impoverished subjects. An intrepid band of resourceful men and women, driven into hiding, have formed themselves into an outlaw army dedicated to restoring the rule of law and justice.

Chinese history tells us that the outlaws of the Shantung Province marshes really existed; the story that comes down to us is based on their legendary exploits during the reign of the Sung emperor from 1101 to 1125. The novel is written in vernacular Chinese and retains its quality as a work originating from the popular oral tradition. It preserves such typically popular and folkloric Chinese features as double-sentence chapter headings and chapter endings telling the reader to "Read the next chapter if you would know" what is about to happen next.

The book is an old-fashioned action/adventure story with lots of blood, gore, and battle scenes. Sagacious Lu, Stumpy Tiger Wang, and the other marsh outlaws are no angels, any more than Robin Hood, Little John, and the other Sherwood Forest gang were, but they represent the good guys as brothers-in-arms against a corrupt government.

Outlaws of the Marsh is loosely based on the historical bandit Song Jiang and his thirty-six companions. The group was active in the Huai River region and eventually surrendered to government troops in 1119. Folk stories about Song Jiang circulated during the Southern Song dynasty. The first text to name Song Jiang's thirty-six companions was the twelfth-century Guixin Zashi. Among the thirty-six are Lu Junyi, Guan Sheng, Ruan Xiaoqi, Liu Tang, Hua Rong, and Wu Yong. Some of the characters who later become associated with Song Jiang also appeared around this time. They include Sun Li, Yang Zhi, Lin Chong, Lu Zhishen, and Wu Song.

A direct precursor of Outlaws of the Marsh was the Da Song Xuanhe Yishi (大宋宣和遺事), which appeared around the mid-thirteenth century. The text was basically a written version of oral storytellers' tales and was based loosely on historical events. It is divided into ten chapters, roughly covering the history of the Song Dynasty from the early eleventh century to the establishment of the Southern Song regime in 1127. The fourth chapter covers the adventures of Song Jiang and his thirty-six companions, as well as their eventual defeat by Zhang Shuye (張叔夜). Some of the more well-known stories and characters of Outlaws of the Marsh are clearly visible in the earlier text, including "Yang Zhi selling his sword," "Stealing the birthday present," "Song Jiang kills his slave girl," "Fighting Fang La," and others. It places Song Jiang and his bandits in the Taihang Mountains.

Stories about the bandits of Mount Liang became popular as a subject for drama during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). During this time the material on which Outlaws of the Marsh was based evolved into what it is today. Song Jiang's bandits were expanded to number 108, and though they were of different backgrounds, all eventually came to occupy Mount Liang.

There is considerable disagreement as to the author of Outlaws of the Marsh. Most consider the first seventy chapters to have been written by Shi Nai'an and the last thirty chapters to have been written by Luo Guanzhong, author of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Luo may have been the disciple of Shi Nai'an. It has also been suggested that Shi Nai'an did not exist but was merely a pseudonym for Luo Guanzhong himself. Clues from the text itself strongly suggest that the author was a native of Zhejiang province (as both Luo and Shi were) who had little knowledge of northern China.

The earliest extant edition of Outlaws of the Marsh is a 100-chapter printed text dating from the mid-sixteenth century. This is generally regarded as Shi Nai'an's original. Another edition, with 120 chapters, has been preserved from the Wanli era (1573-1620).

Regarding this novel and another classic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, there is a popular saying passed down in China that goes, "少不讀水滸, 老不讀三國," translated as "The young shouldn't read Outlaws of the Marsh, while the old shouldn't read The Three Kingdoms." The former depicts the lives of outlaws and their defiance of the established social system. With its frequent violence, brawls, passionate brotherhood, and emphasis on machismo, it was believed to have a negative influence on young boys. The latter presents all kinds of sophisticated strategies, deceptions, frauds, and trickery employed by the three kingdoms and the individual characters to compete with each other, which might tempt the experienced old readers (the old are traditionally well respected, trusted, and considered wise and kindhearted in Chinese society) to use them to harm other people. Besides, old people are supposed to already "know the will of the heavens" (according to Confucius). They should not exhaust or strain themselves with always having to consider how to deceive others.

In Asia this novel is most often known as Water Margin.  For Asians the image suggested by the title immediately draws forth memories that are lost on Western readers. The novel had a successful Japanese television adaptation that was sold to many other countries. It also inspired the popular RPG video game series Gensou Suikoden, as well as an earlier military strategy game by Koei called Bandit Kings of Ancient China. In addition, a comic series was drawn by the popular Hong Kong mangaka Li Zhiqing. In 1972 a movie of the same name was produced by the Shaw Brothers in Singapore, and a 1980s TV serial was produced in Hong Kong by the studio TVB. Finally, a forty-episode TV serial (水滸全傳) produced in mainland China was released in 2004.

In her Nobel Prize lecture of 1938, Pearl S. Buck had a number of very interesting things to say about this novel as well as Romance of the Three Kingdoms. About the embeddedness of the novel in the popular tradition, Buck observes:

I cannot here tell you fully of the long growth of this novel, nor of its changes at many hands. Shih Nai An, it is said, found it in rude form in an old book shop and took it home and rewrote it. After him the story was still told and re-told. . . . The original version attributed to Shih Nai An, had a hundred and twenty chapters, but the one most used today has only seventy. This is the version arranged in the Ming dynasty by the famous Ching Shen T'an, who said that it was idle to forbid his son to read the book and therefore presented the lad with a copy revised by himself, knowing that no boy could ever refrain from reading it. There is also a version written under official command, when officialsfound that nothing could keep the people from reading Shui Hu. This official version is entitled Tung K'ou Chi, or, Laying Waste the Robbers, and it tells of the final defeat of the robbers by the state army and their destruction. But the common people of China are nothing if not independent. They have never adopted the official version, and their own form of the novel still stands. It is a struggle they know all too well, the struggle of everyday people against a corrupt officialdom.

Buck explains the title that she gave her English translation as follows:

 . . . Shui Hu Chuan is in partial translation in French under the title Les Chevaliers Chinois, and the seventy-chapter version is in complete English translation by myself under the title All Men Are Brothers. The original title, Shui Hu Chuan, in English is meaningless, denoting merely the watery margins of the famous marshy lake which was the robbers' lair. To Chinese the words invoke instant century-old memory, but not to us.

About the novel's political importance in 1938, Buck has this to say:

This novel has survived everything and in this new day in China has taken on an added significance. The Chinese Communists have printed their own edition of it with a preface by a famous Communist and have issued it anew as the first Communist literature of China. The proof of the novel's greatness is in this timelessness. It is as true today as it was dynasties ago. The people of China still march across its pages, priests and courtesans, merchants and scholars, women good and bad, old and young, and even naughty little boys. The only figure lacking is that of the modern scholar trained in the West, holding his Ph.D. diploma in his hand. But be sure that if he had been alive in China when the final hand laid down the brush upon the pages of that book, he, too, would have been there in all the pathos and humor of his new learning, so often useless and inadequate and laid like a patch toosmall upon an old robe.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms also has some relevance for this Web site. Buck observes the following about this novel:

. . . San Kuo has importance because it gives in such detail the science and art of war as the Chinese conceive it, so differently, too, from our own. The guerillas, who are today China's most effective fighting units against Japan, are peasants who know San Kuo by heart, if not from their own reading, at least from hours spent in the idleness of winter days or long summer evenings when they sat listening to the storytellers describe how the warriors of the Three Kingdoms fought their battles. It is these ancient tactics of war which the guerillas trust today. What a warrior must be and how he must attack and retreat, how retreat when the enemy advances, how advance when the enemy retreats—all this had its source in this novel, so well known to every common man and boy of China.