Author: Shi Nai’an (c 13th – 14th century) and Luo Guanzhong (c 14th – 15th century)
Translator: Sidney Shapiro
Publisher: Foreign Language Press (1995 edition)
Bought from: Book Depository
Outlaws of the Marsh, together with Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West and Dreams of the Red Chamber, are considered the four great novels of classical Chinese literature.
Outlaws of the Marsh, also known as Water Margin or All Men are Brothers, is a collection of folk stories originally about a band of real outlaws from the Song Dynasty (960 – 1127) with new characters and new adventures added over the years. It is not clear when it was first compiled in book form and by whom. There are 16th century records which say that Outlaws was written by Shi Nai’an and arranged by Luo Guanzhong (the author of Three Kingdoms). Some scholars believe Shi wrote the first 70 chapters while Luo or another writer wrote the last 30 chapters.
Scholars believe the novel was written in the period which witnessed the transition between the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The oldest surviving and complete copies of the novel were printed during the Ming Dynasty. There are many versions of the novel, with different numbers of chapters.
What is the story about?
The title characters come from a wide range of backgrounds. Many are forced by circumstances (corrupt government officials, rapacious nobles, conniving relatives, etc) to abandon their families and way of life and become outlaws.
The novel starts with origin stories of the main characters as their paths crisscrossed each other. The nucleus of the outlaws begins to form when Chao Gai and the Righteous Seven arrive at and take over Liangshan Marsh in Jizhou Prefecture, Shangdong Province (Chapters 19 – 20). The next phase see the outlaws storm Jiangzhou and rescues Song Jiang from the execution ground following which Song Jiang joins the outlaws (Chapter 40). The outlaws then embark on a series of battles with their enemies.
They attack the Zhu Family Village to “restore their prestige”, “pay those pipsqueaks for their insults” and “get a lot of grain for the use of our fortress” (Chapters 47–50). Then they attack Gaotang to rescue Chai Jin (Chapters 53–55).
The imperial forces launch their first assault on Liangshan but are repelled (Chapter 55–57). The Liangshan outlaws then combine with the Two Dragon Mountain outlaws (led by Yang Zhi, Sagacious Lu and Wu Song) and the Peach Blossom Mountain outlaws to attack Qingzhou to “kill the prefect, capture Huyan Zhuo, and divide the money and grain in the storehouses for the use of the use of our various bands” (Chapters 57–59).
The outlaws are threatened and insulted by the powerful Zeng family. Chao Gai ignores an evil omen and leads an attack on the Zeng Family Village (Zengtou). The outlaws are defeated and Chao Gai is killed by an arrow to the face. Song Jian reluctantly takes over as leader of the outlaws (Chapter 60). The outlaws then attack Daming the Northern Capital to rescue Lu Junyi and Shi Xiu but is forced to retreat (Chapter 63). The imperial forces launch their second assault on Liangshan and are again repelled (Chapter 64). The outlaws assault Daming again and this time manage to free their comrades and crush their enemies (Chapter 66). The imperial forces launch their third assault on Liangshan but are again repelled (Chapter 67). Song Jiang turns his attention back to Zengtou and leads the outlaws to annihilate the Zeng family, thereby avenging Chao Gai (Chapter 68). The 108 outlaws of Liangshan Marsh are named and organised about three quarters of the way into the novel (Chapter 71).
The Emperor offers the outlaws an amnesty (Chapter 74) but the outlaws reject it, taking offence at the terms of the amnesty and the behaviour of the emissaries (Chapter 75). The imperial forces under Chancellor of Military Affairs Tong Guan launch another assault on Liangshan but are again repelled (Chapter 76 – 77). The imperial forces try again under Marshall Gao Qiu but he is defeated two times (Chapter 78 – 79). Having tasted defeat on the battle field, Gao tries trickery – he presents the Emperor’s second offer of amnesty after distorting the terms to exclude Song Jiang. The outlaws reject the offer and defeat Gao (Chapter 80).
Song Jiang sends Yan Qing to secure amnesty from the Emperor and he, with the help of a sympathetic Marshall Su Yuanjing, persuades the Emperor to issue another amnesty delivered by Marshall Su himself (Chapter 81). The outlaws accept the amnesty this time (Chapter 82).
They are then deployed by the Emperor to pacify the Tartar Liao clan in the north (Chapters 83–89) and the rebel Fang La in the south (Chapters 93–99). All 108 outlaws survive the first campaign but the Southern campaign take a heavy toll: only 36 out the original 108 are left at the end.
There are 108 outlaws in all so it’s going to be difficult to keep track of all of them. They appear, then disappear for long stretches before reappearing. The main characters are:
Song Jiang – He is based on a historical outlaw leader. In the novel, he kills his wife when she threatens to expose his links to the outlaws. He eventually becomes the leader of the Liangshan outlaws. He survives the Southern campaign but is poisoned by his implacable enemies in the imperial court led by Gao Qiu.
His main characteristic is his generosity (hence his nickname of Timely Rain). Like Liu Bei from The Three Kingdoms, he may not be a gallant warrior himself but his reputation draws friends and foes alike to his band. But he is not above resorting to appalling cruelty to recruit reluctant allies. He orders his men to kill many people in Qingzhou and implicate general Qin Ming so that he has no choice but to join the outlaws (Chapter 34). He orders the killing of the 4 year old boy in Zhu Tong’s care to force Zhu Tong to join the outlaws (Chapter 51).
Song Jiang is also characterised by an unwavering loyalty to the Song Emperor, who he sees as being misguided by corrupt and slanderous ministers. All the time he is an outlaw, he never gives up hope that the Emperor will pardon him and his men.
Lu Da – He kills a bully and becomes a monk, with the name Lu Zhishen or Sagacious Lu, to escape the authorities. But he does not behave at all like a monk. He drinks wine, eats meat (even dog meat) and does not shy from altercations. He wields a weapon known as a monk’s spade. In a famous episode, he pulls a willow tree from the ground, roots and all, with his bare hands, demonstrating his strength (Chapter 7). He is blood brother with Lin Chong. For most of the story, he and his gang are based in Mount Twin Dragons and they become part of the Liangshan outlaws after the battle of Qingzhou (Chapter 59). He survives the Southern campaign and dies peacefully:
He went into the interior of the temple and wrote an ode on a slip of paper. In the meditation hall, he pulled a cassock to the center, lit some fragrant in a burner, and placed the slip of paper on a meditation couch. Then he seated himself cross-legged on the hassock, with his left foot resting on his right and, quite naturally, transcended into space.
Lin Zhong – The foster son of Grand Marshall Gao Qiu lusts after Lin Zhong’s wife and frames him. He escapes his captivity and joins the Liangshan outlaws, then led by the insecure Wang Lun. Lin Zhong, nicknamed Panther Head, plays a pivotal role in killing Wang Lun (Chapter 19) and paving the way for Chao Gai to become leader of the outlaws (Chapter 20). Lin Zhong survives the Southern campaign but is stricken by paralysis just as the outlaws are returning to the capital so he is left in Hangzhou where he is to die half a year later (Chap 99). During Lin Zhong’s last days, he was under the care of Wu Song.
Wu Song – This is perhaps the most famous of all the outlaws, featuring in many folk tales. He is acclaimed for killing a tiger with his bare hands (Chapter 23). When the corrupt magistrate refuses to investigate his brother’s murder by his adulterous sister in law, Pan Jinlian (Golden Lotus), Wu Song takes matter into his own hands and slaughters Golden Lotus, her lover Ximen Qing and the procurer (Chapters 24 – 26).
Wu Song loses his left arm during the Southern campaign but survives. He lives a quiet life, practising Buddhism, after the campaign ends.
Trivia: Ximen Qing is the lead character and Golden Lotus one of his wives in The Plum in the Golden Vase or Jin Ping Mei, considered by some as the fifth great novel of Chinese classical literature.
Li Kui – He leaves his home town after a pretty crime to join the Liangshan outlaws. He is extremely loyal to Song Jiang and even kills a 4 year old boy at Song Jiang’s order. Li Kui survives the Southern campaign. When Song Jiang learns that he is dying, he is afraid Li Kui will avenge his death and blacken the names of the now-rehabilitated outlaws. So he poisons Li Kui, who happily accepts his fate and asks to be buried with Song Jiang (Chapter 100).
Li Kui has brute strength and a hot temper to go with it. He is a fearless and ruthless warrior, rushing headlong against the enemies stark naked and wielding twin battle axes. He tears to shreds the scroll containing the Emperor’s first pardon (Chapter 75). Yet he is also the center of much of the novel’s comedic moments (eg. Chapter 74).
What about the book?
The four volumes come in a simple and not especially sturdy box. The publishers could have done with better proof-readers or even a spell check utility. The presence of spelling errors is annoying but does not detract too much from the overall reading pleasure. The paper quality is extremely poor, so thin you could see the words from the other side of a page. There are a number of illustrations (not very good quality, no description).
This is a truly good read, with something for everyone – from stories of personal tragedies to narration of epic battles, from depictions of loving family ties to accounts of court intrigue.