Tag Archives: 水浒传

Outlaws of the marsh (水浒传)

Outlaws of the marsh (水浒传)

Outlaws of the marsh is one of (many) different titles of the Shui hu zhuan, one of the four classics of Chinese literature (the others are Journey to the West, The romance of the three kingdoms, and The dream of the red chamber). It’s also known as The water margin, All men are brothers, and occasionally by its Japanese title, Suikoden.

Note that three of the four classics are perpetual video game/anime fodder.

Plot summary

Told as a series of vignettes, The water margin follows 108 bandits/heroes as they eventually take refuge in a marsh fortress where they band together and seek revenge against the corrupt officials who have wronged them.

There’s also a third volume in which the bandits fight on behalf of the government but its authenticity is questioned and I haven’t actually read that one.

So how is it?

There’s a saying in Chinese that I think I’ve mentioned here before. It translates as “the young shouldn’t read The water margin, the old shouldn’t read The three kingdoms.” To over explain, The water margin’s heroes are not good role models. They spend most of their time as bandits and their only real redeeming feature is their commitment to each other. Even when one of them attempts to “lie low” they end up getting drunk, getting a giant tattoo, and ransacking the temple where they were supposed to be hiding out. Another chapter includes a discussion of the secrets to a successful seduction, one of which is “having a tool as large as a donkey’s.”

Really it’s not significantly different than the unexpurgated Book of one thousand nights and a night, or the Canterbury tales. Modern English editions of the latter tend to tone down the language considerably and for most modern English speakers reading Middle English is exhausting at best. The distinction between modern written Chinese and the language of The water margin is significantly less pronounced than with Chaucer, and since the target audience for most translations is academics the “low humor” is more evident for most readers. It’s closer to Rabelais than Chaucer in that respect, though Rabelais is more current.

Enough lit crit. The water margin actually reads pretty well for a moden audience. I’d go as far as saying it’s the most accessible of the four classics. That the protagonists are outlaws help to reduce the degree of baker puns knowledge required. 

It reads like a serial adventure. Each chapter is mostly self contained which makes it easier to pick up and put down without committing to a lengthy session. That’s mostly a benefit but after a dozen or so chapters the fact that almost every chapter follows the same basic formula can start to wear.

Translation notes

I’ve read parts of several versions, both in Chinese and English. Assuming that most people coming here who read Chinese won’t care about what I have to say about that, the best translation I’ve read is probably the one titles Outlaws of the marsh, but…

It’s out of print and incredibly expensive if you can’t find it at a library. 

Unfortunately, good translations are surprisingly difficult to find. Wuxia novels have this issue too, to the point where huge swathes of a fantastic genre are just completely unavailable in English. The translations that are available are frequently by graduate students rather than professional translators and frequently err on the side of the overly literal or overly poetic (see Fox volant of the snowy mountain for a translation that manages to be both).


The translation issues above, alongside poor availability, make it difficult to recommend. I do anyway, but carefully.

I generally recommend Outlaws of the marsh (that’s the edition available in my local consortium) to people who only read “literary” fiction or to Literature teachers looking to expand their horizons. 

If it was more widely available I’d recommend it to all those parents of teenagers who complain that their child only reads fantasy novels (or whatever genre is the current bête noir of excessively serious parents) but even then it’s still “literature” enough that teens or younger readers who aren’t reading above their grade level probably won’t stick it out long enough to get to the really fun parts.

In general I’d recommend the abridgment of Journey to the west released under the title Monkey, which is more accessible and more widely available before I’d recommend this but since Monkey is essentially a superhero story I’d recommend Outlaws of the marsh to the truly stuffy types as the “it’s one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature” will only go so far in getting the obnoxious literary snobs (who I didn’t believe really existed until I got a job at a public library in an absurdly wealthy modern-day Mayberry) to read it. Expecting them to read a book about an immortal flying monkey is probably expecting too much.