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The Story of Water Margin (水滸傳)

(The following is a post by Jeffrey Wang, Reference Specialist for the Chinese Collection, Asian Division.)

In the course of the last six hundred years, many masterpieces of Chinese fiction have become classics and wielded tremendous influence over the thoughts and imagination of the Chinese people. Among them is the “Story of Water Margin” (水滸傳), also known as “Outlaws of the Marsh.” It is one of the Four Unique Classical Novels (四大奇書) of Chinese literature, along with “Journey to the West” (西遊記), “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (三國演義) and “The Plum in the Golden Vase” (金瓶梅). Written in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the novel is traditionally ascribed to Shi Naian (施耐庵, 1290-1365) and Luo Guanzhong (羅貫中, 1330-1400). Under the rule of the Mongols’ Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the authors pined for life under Chinese rule although they resented the previous Chinese government of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) for its corruption and incompetence. Drawing on a variety of plot lines from professional storytellers and Yuan Dynasty dramas, Shi Naian and Luo Guanzhong called their work “the story of the just and patriotic.” In essence, the “Story of Water Margin” is a novel written out of indignation over the unjust rulers.

Figure 1: Song Jiang, the leader of the Liangshan Marsh outlaws. “Zhong yi shui hu zhuan” (李卓吾評忠義水滸傳) [The Story of Water Margin, Loyalty and Righteousness], Shi Naian (元 施耐庵 撰), an edition from the period of Emperor Wanli (萬曆1573-1620) of the Ming dynasty (1368-1643), Chinese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress, Asian Division.

 This work is based on a cycle of stories about how 108 outlaws established a stronghold in the fictional Liangshan Marsh (梁山泊) area in the beginning of the 12th century. Led by Song Jiang (宋江) (see Figure 1), a sophisticated and capable man, they carried a banner with a message that read: “To Render Justice for Heaven and Save the People” (替天行道, 除暴安良). In the 1120s, the period of the Song government’s notorious misrule, the outlaws roamed through today’s provinces of Shandong, Hebei, Anhui, and Henan, robbing the rich and helping the oppressed (see Figure 2). The novel is noted and loved for its characterization of the 108 outlaws. They came from all walks of life in society, ranging from low-ranking government officials and scholarly gentry to business men and army officers. The authors described most of them as victims of corrupt officials and unfortunate circumstances that forced them, much against their will, to take refuge in Liangshan. For example, Song Jiang, the leader, a low-ranking official in a local county magistrate’s office, was by nature an honest and respectable gentleman. When he found out that his treacherous mistress Yan Xijiao (閻惜嬌) was about to betray him, he was driven by desperation to kill her, and then had to flee to Liangshan Marsh (see Figure 3).

Figure 2: A military formation of the Liangshan Marsh outlaws. “Zhong yi shui hu zhuan” (李卓吾評忠義水滸傳) [The Story of Water Margin, Loyalty and Righteousness], Shi Naian (元 施耐庵 撰), an edition from the period of Emperor Wanli (萬曆1573-1620) of the Ming dynasty (1368-1643), Chinese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress, Asian Division.


The novel is set in 1126 when the Song Empire had lost half of its territory to the invading Jurchens from Manchuria and had to move its capital to the south. The Song government was further weakened by incompetent political leaders and corrupt government officials. Later historical accounts typically characterize the period as one in which the able and honest lived in seclusion and the unqualified came to power. Written with this popular historical characterization, Shi Naian and Luo Guanzhong’s novel glorifies banditry and bandits who deliver justice in an unjust world. In the struggle between an unjust government and just outlaws, the reader’s sympathy is always with the outlaws. These outlaw heroes win public admiration for their unusually high code of honor, solidarity, and loyalty.

Figure 3: Song Jiang kills Yan Xijao. “Zhong yi shui hu zhuan” (李卓吾評忠義水滸傳) [The Story of Water Margin, Loyalty and Righteousness], Shi Naian (元 施耐庵 撰), an edition from the period of Emperor Wanli (萬曆1573-1620) of the Ming dynasty (1368-1643), Chinese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress, Asian Division.

The novel has fascinated Chinese readers for more than six hundred years and has been translated widely, first across East Asia, and then globally beginning in the 20th century. The first Japanese translation of the “Story of Water Margin” by scholar Kanzan Okajima, appeared in the 18th century. The first English translation was done by American writer Pearl Buck (賽珍珠) in 1933 who titled her work “All Men Are Brothers.” The novel has also been adapted for stage and screen and for comic books. It has received acclaim from many eminent scholars throughout history, such as Yuan Hongdao (袁宏道1568-1610) and Li Zhi (李贄, 1527-1602), two distinguished literati of the Ming Dynasty, and Jin Shengtan (金聖嘆, 1608-1661), a well-known literary critic of the Qing Dynasty. Jin classified the novel as one of the “six works of genius” (六才子書), placing it alongside such masterpieces as “Zhuangzi” (莊子), “Encountering Sorrow” (離騷), “ Records of the Grand Historian” (史記), “ Poems of Du Fu” (杜詩), and “Romance of the Western Chamber” (西廂記).

Figure 4: Front cover of “Zhong yi shui hu zhuan” (李卓吾評忠義水滸傳) [The Story of Water Margin, Loyalty and Righteousness], Shi Naian (元 施耐庵 撰), an edition from the period of Emperor Wanli (萬曆1573-1620) of the Ming dynasty (1368-1643), Chinese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress, Asian Division.

The Library of Congress has many printed editions of “Story of Water Margin.” The earliest is “Zhong yi shui hu zhuan” (忠義水滸傳), an edition from the period of Emperor Wanli (萬曆1573-1620) of the Ming dynasty (1368-1643) (see Figure 4). This work is highly regarded by scholars for the annotations by Li Zhi, which  emphasize the value of “Loyalty” (忠) and “Righteousness” (義) expressed in the story. A digital copy of this valuable edition is available onsite in the Asian Division Reading Room for registered readers to study.

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