259. The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh) by Shi Naian (c.1368-1372)

One hundred and eight outlaws are gradually drawn together in a hideout in Liangshan Marsh where they are forced to live as bandits to escape the injustice and corruption of the country’s administrators. These men (and one woman) are the embodiment/reincarnation of heavenly stars and spirits released from their imprisonment by an unthinking Imperial envoy.

Source :  My copy was the 70-chapter version (see below) translated by J. H. Jackson and published by Tuttle Publishing, 2010.

Thoughts :  An epic undertaking, this 800 page novel with a cast of over 140 characters felt like an exercise in 108 degrees of separation, as we follow first one bandit and then another, and another, and another. It gets a little difficult to remember or distinguish all but the main characters, and all have nicknames as well, such as Song Jiang, the Welcome Rain; Li Kui, the Black Whirlwind; and my favourite, Shi Qian; Flea on the Drum.

By about three quarters of the way through, they have all come in groups of two or three to live in Liangshan Marsh, where they rob the wealthy and powerful to survive and occasionally share their plunder with the poor. But before I draw too many comparisons with another bunch of outlaws who are said to roam Sherwood Forest, it should be noted that one or two of the characters are drunken berserkers, and they are not above a spot of cannibalism, or even the murder of innocents to get their way.  And in case we start to lose confidence in their innate goodness, we have a scene where the leader Song Jiang is rescued from soldiers and taken to Heaven for a brief audience with the Heavenly Goddess where he is entrusted with the Three Books of Wisdom.

Magic does play a small part in the battles, the conjuring of winds and duststorms; and one character, Dai Zong the Divine Traveller, can cover great distances at superhuman speed by the use of  magic wrappings on his legs. But the greatest weapon the bandits possess is the respect and admiration everyone feels for the leader Song Jiang who has lived a life of helping others and whose reputation and leniency converts every defeated opponent into a colleague and fellow bandit.

There are alternate endings depending on the copy you read. The 70 chapter copy ends with Lu Junyi dreaming they are all to be captured and executed, while longer versions have the bandits offered amnesty by the Emperor.

Personal rating:  A long read which I would have enjoyed more without the completely self-imposed urgency that it is almost the end of the year and I still have many books I wanted to read. Nevertheless, 6/10. I am sure it has been filmed in China as a lengthy television drama several times which would be interesting and probably easier to distinguish characters and events.

In the years 1350-1369:

  • By 1351, the Black Death has killed one third of the population of Europe
  • The Hundred Years War between England and France is renewed, 1353
  • Swiss cantons and city states have combined to form a confederacy, 1353
  • English forces under The Black Prince have defeated the French near Poitiers and captured King Jean II, 1356. English territories in France are restored to Edward III, 1358.
  • Duchy of Burgundy reverts to France, 1361; while Aquitaine is handed over to Edward the Black Prince, 1362
  • Edward Balliol hand over Scottish crown to English, 1356; Edward III sets free Scottish king David II 1357, but Scottish parliament rejects David’s plan for union with England 1364
  • Hundred Years War resumes, 1369

Taken from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978


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