Entering at the Margins of Classic Chinese Literature

The Water Margin (Shuihu Zhuan) is one of what are known as the ‘Four Great Novels of China’ and was originally written by Shi Naian during the Ming Dynasty and published in 1368 AD. Though there is scholarly dispute on dates and authorship, I will go with what is generally accepted as I do not know better and probably never will. It is set during the Song Dynasty in the 1120s and concerns the historical Song Jiang, the leader of the 108 bandits of Liangshan Marsh. It is one of the most famous of the Chinese Classics and is well-known in China, Japan and I assume Korea and other surrounding Asian nations. 

It was first translated into English in the 1930s and the edition above (which I read) was translated by J.H. Jackson in 1937. The first translator was Pearl S. Buck in 1933 who changed the title to All Men Are Brothers but the Jackson’s version is considered superior. Complicating this is that the work has been edited in Chinese since it was first written and both these translations are based on the shorter 70 chapter version by Jin Shintang in the 1640s. The original is 120 chapters and has since been translated to English though it doesn’t seem to be as widely available. While the edition is mostly the Jackson translation, the editor Edwin Lowe has made a number of changes which included restoring violence and vulgarity found in the original Chinese that Jackson opted not to include. These re-inclusions are infrequent and relatively mild in comparison to many modern novels today. After reading it through, I wouldn’t say their inclusion adds anything to the text other than making the translation more accurate. It is likely Jackson was a Christian missionary so it is unsurprising he decided to smooth these rough edges out.

As I mentioned in my post on the Analects last month, I received this and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms for Christmas and rapidly read through this in the first three weeks of January. What follows will be a mixture of thoughts on the book which I really enjoyed as can be inferred from the pace with which I read it.

Firstly as an aside, I now own a number of books published by Tuttle which generally comes up whenever I look up a famous Japanese or Chinese text. These are all paperbacks and while I appreciate these books being available at all, I have been annoyed with the quality of many of the prints. My copy of The Water Margin suffers from the same problem that my copy of The Tale of Genji did with the film on the cover quickly coming loose at the edges. It also has quite a number of textual errors though not nearly as egregious as found in a Japanese anthology I previously reviewed. So I love what Tuttle do but I think they could be doing it a little better.

I am not at all well-read in Chinese history or literature and I only studied the Chinese Revolution as a single history subject in University. I have however increasingly come to appreciate the legacy of China and I’m thankful that I live in a time when so much of its historical and literary legacy is now available in my native language. Consider that Europeans have now had direct contact with the Orient for five hundred years and it is only in the last hundred that much of the great works of Japan and China have been translated. I am well aware that translation is difficult and that contact with these nations wasn’t always cordial but it still seems to have taken a long time for this cultural crossover to happen. 

The best way to understand The Water Margin is as a Chinese version of the Tales of Robin Hood and his Merry Men which is so helpful it is what is written in the blurb. The bandits of Liangshan are outlaws resisting corrupt officials but (as is often misunderstood with Robin Hood) they do not seek to overthrow the system but restore good governmental order and receive an imperial pardon for these efforts. The exception would the be the impulsive Li Kui who does at one point suggest overthrowing the emperor though he is rebuked by his fellows for this as a clear violation of the ‘Will of Heaven’. As China now has socialism with Chinese characteristics with the emphasis very much on the latter, The Water Margin is Robin Hood with Chinese characteristics — with the same emphasis on the latter. The world within is definitely human but almost totally alien to European sensibilities and morality. There are the universal crossovers such as the importance of order, family and fidelity but it is otherwise as alien as Homeric epics and in some ways even more so as I shall shortly detail. It should go without saying that there is a heavy Confucian influence in the text as well.

As with The Tale of Genji, you could call this a novel but also quibble whether it fits the definition. The structure isn’t that of a conventional novel with the closest comparable that I’ve read being War and Peace with multiple characters and storylines to keep track of that come together in the end — though I would say less so here. It is still a much less coherent text than the Tolstoy’s epic but I can’t say if that is also true of the much lengthier original. The novel tends to focus a series of chapters on one character before moving on to another as they come into the story. It is not until well into the second half that the heroes are all together at the marsh. Though there are indeed 108 heroes and a number of other characters, only relatively few have significant appearances. These include Song Jiang — a real historical figure who eventually becomes the leader — though not himself a warrior. The novel begins with Shi Jin and moves on to Lu Da who then don’t come back into the story until much later. Other prominent characters are Wu Song, Lin Chong and the aforementioned Li Kui. As you can imagine, it can often be quite difficult to remember these names which is made more difficult as they also all have nicknames. There is a helpful list complete with nicknames and the first chapter they appear in. Some of these names are amusing including a minor antagonist nicknamed (presumably without affection), “Stinking D***head”. There are even a few female heroes including a warrior named Hu San Niang. 

Most of these characters have similar experiences in that they are otherwise good people put in bad circumstances which usually involves calumny or treachery by a corrupt official, family member or both. This situation also usually has them branded as criminals and disgraced leaving them little choice but fall in with the bandits of Liangshan Marsh. One of the immediately notable cultural differences is how the judicial process works. There is no such thing as assumed innocence and to be fair, there really wasn’t anywhere until relatively recently in history. Bribery is also not only widespread but essentially a custom. Characters or their family have to make gifts of cash or presents to help their case to city officials and others to support them. When sent to prison they must pay guards and the warden for protection and to avoid corporal punishment. Anyone who is unable to afford this or that has nobody to pay for them, has little legal protection. Once again though, it is hard (despite official rhetoric) to think of the Western legal system today as any better than “pay to win” though it is still for the moment far more preferable than the medieval Chinese practice of justice. One must of course also remember that this is a fictional and the outrages of the story are supposed to excite the audiences emotions. I am assuming that these sort of injustices weren’t so common as it would seem within these pages and that the average man got on as well as he could.

Though the heroes appeal much more than the corrupt officials they resist, they aren’t always morally righteous — even when measured by the standards of their time. Innocents are often robbed or killed by the bandits. Lu Da and Li Kui in particular are the most notable for their impulsive behaviour. Lu Da seeks refuge as a monk early in the story but is soon getting drunk and fighting and causing no end of trouble for the incredibly patient abbot who takes him in. Li Kui’s actions though are much worse and worth quoting at length. He seems to cause more trouble than good from the moment he is introduced until the very end:

Li Kui finished the fish in his own bowl, and then remarked, “As you two elder brothers do not like it I will eat it for you.” So he reached across the table and with his hand took the fish from Song Jiang’s bowl and ate it. He then did the same with Dai Zong’s bowl of fish. When he had finished the table was covered with the soup which had dripped from the fish.

Song Jian summoned the waiter and told him, “Our brother here is very hungry so please bring plenty of meat for him, and I will pay for it.”

The waiter said they had only mutton—no beef. Upon hearing this Li Kui took the bowl of soup and threw it in the waiter’s face and clothes.

“Why do you do that?” asked Dai Zong.

“Because that fellow is so unreasonable,” replied Li Kui. “He insults me by saying that I can eat beef only.”

“I just asked you what meat you would like,” said the waiter. 

“Go and bring what you have got,” said Song Jiang.

The waiter smothered his anger, and soon returned with a tray of mutton which he placed on the table. Li Kui without saying a word reached out his hands, and took the mutton. He had very soon eaten the whole lot. (Chapter 37)

Describing a man as “unreasonable” is a quite frequent accusation for some of the heroes and more often than not it is the accuser being unreasonable. This is only the beginning of what I found a rather amusing chapter which sees him sending an entire group of fisherman into an uproar and then the chapter ends with him causing even more trouble:

They all sat down in order of seniority. The waiter was told to boil the fish, and to steam another one in wine. While this was being done they drank wine and chatted together about their respective affairs. Then they saw a girl about sixteen years of age, wearing crepe clothes who came to their table, gave them the usual woman’s salutations and commenced to sing.  Now it happened that Li Kui was just then in the midst of relating a story of his own exploits, and found it interrupted by the song, and that the other three were only listening to the music. He was annoyed and jumping up he flipped the girl’s forehead with two fingers. The girl made an exclamation and fell down. She lay there without moving. [I assume “flipped” is supposed to be “flicked but have left it as written.]

The girl was alright though the family had to be financially mollified by Song Jiang. These aren’t even his worst offenses as he is often times drunk or outright murderous — as when he killed a young boy so that a man who had charge of him will join with the bandits. Nobody was really happy with this but Song Jiang still lets it slide as with further misbehaviour. It was Li Kui in particular that had me wondering if I was supposed to be amused by his outrages because I must confess he was one of my favourite characters. But how would the contemporary audience have found him? The introduction and background material included in the volume doesn’t go much into these aspects of Chinese culture so I already know I’ll have to do further reading to gain better appreciation of the work. 

Having mentioned the coarseness of men like Lu Da and especially Li Kui, it is worth quoting probably the worst of the brutality that is found in the work. It is unfortunately quite tame by the standards of the kind of media we have to actively avoid today. Still I caution readers before reading the quote below. For context, this is describes the fate of Pan Jinlian at the hands of her brother-in-law Wu Song. She had not only been unfaithful to his elder brother but murdered him by poisoning.

“Elder brother! Your spirit cannot be far away! Today, I take revenge for you.” He then told the soldiers to burn some paper money. Jinlain saw the danger of what was being done, and attempted to speak, but Wu Song seized her by the hair, and pushing her on the floor stood upon her two arms with his feet. Then he stooped down, and ripped open her blouse exposing her breasts. Taking his dagger he cut open her breast, placed the bloody tool in his mouth; and ripping open her breast with both hands, took out her heart, spleen, liver, lungs, and kidneys and offered them to his brother’s tablet. He then cut off Jinlian’s head, and the floor was covered with blood. The witnessing neighbors were so horrified that they dared not even offer advice, but covered their faces with their hands. (Chapter 25)

Wu Song’s wrath was not limited to the woman but also to the adulterer as well as the old woman (Grandma Wang) who had facilitated the seduction. I don’t need to be read up on anthropology to guess that contemporary audiences would have thought this a well-deserved punishment. The more primal part of my nature can hardly blame them and she is not the only adulterous woman to die so brutally. Interestingly, this episode also shows the author had a clear understanding of just how easy it is for women to turn on and off tears when necessary:

Now generally when a woman weeps for her husband there are three kinds of crying. (1) When there are both tears and voice that is called “sob”; (2) when there are tears but no voice that is called weeping; (3) when there is voice but no tears that is called crying. This woman was crying but not weeping and she did it well up till about 4 A.M. It was not quite dawn when Ximen Qing arrived to hear what had been done. When Grandma Wang told him that all had been satisfactorily finished he gave her money to buy a coffin. He asked her to call Jinlian to discuss matters, and when she arrived she said to Ximen Qing, “My husband is now dead, so that I am dependent upon you.” (Chapter 24)

There is also cannibalism but this didn’t shock me so much as the relatively restrained reaction a character had on discovering someone practiced it. The same Wu Song after revenging his brother, has an encounter with a woman known appropriately as the ‘Night Witch’ at an inn who attempts to eat him and the men in his company.  He sees through the plan and soon overpowers her before her husband arrives and says:

“So you are the man who killed a tiger on Jingyan Ridge?”


The man knelt down, and kowtowed saying, “I have heard of your fame for a long time, and today I fortunately meet you.”

“Are you the husband of this woman?”

“Yes, I am sorry that I did not recognize you. I do not know how my wife offended you, but I hope that you will forgive her.” (Chapter 26)

After this, there is no further controversy. Wu Song is fine once the freedom of his companions is assured and these people are allied with the outlaws of the marsh and presumably allowed to keep eating their non-affiliated guests. This is also not the only incidence of cannibalism in the book. A further reason why I’ll need to read more into Chinese anthropology because I’m genuinely curious about how the practice was viewed.

I had originally planned to quote extensively from the work but in the end I found I had more to say than show but I still could have happily typed out a great many further passages than I have here towards the end. This was never meant to be an in-depth post but I did really want to write something after reading it. It certainly gets my recommendation though some of the passages above should be a caution more sensitive readers. Finally, I usually detest re-writes and abridgements but I think someone could do well to re-write this story in a more condensed and literary form. For all I know, somebody already has and I can certainly see why its popularity has endured both inside and outside of its country of origin.

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