An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Shuihuzhuan 水滸傳

Dec 22, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Shuihuzhuan 水滸傳, lit. "The water-shore story", is a long novel which, in its longest version, tells how a band of robbers in Liangshan Marsh 梁山泊 (western Shandong) grows and finally submits to the emperor, goes to war against the Liao empire 遼 (907-1125) of the Kitans in northern China and then perishes. The leader of the "robbers" was Song Jiang 宋江, who is historically verifiable, but the story as a whole can only be vaguely located historically. The novel belongs to the "four great novels" in traditional Chinese literature, the others being Sanguo yanyi 三國演義, Xiyouji 西遊記, and Hongloumeng 紅樓夢.

The genesis of the novel is quite complex. Some of the individual episodes may have a historical background, while others were simply "stories" that were already popular in the theatre during the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) or can be found in the historical work Xuanhe yishi 宣和遺事 "Remaining stories from the Xuanhe reign-period (1119-1225)". The compilation of episodes with very different origins therefore also led to contradictions in the novel. The complete work is by no means the oeuvre of a single author, even if Shi Nai'an 施耐庵 (1296?-1370) or Luo Guanzhong 羅貫中 (c. 1330-1400, or c. 1280-1360) are usually named as the authors. Origins of individual stories of the novel can be found in oral narratives of the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279), as well as in the theatre of the Yuan period.

Shi Nai'an 施耐庵, actual name Zi'an 子安, courtesy name Yanduan 彥端 or Zhaoduan 肇端, style Nai'an 耐庵, perhaps hailed from Xinghua 興化, Jiangsu. He fled to Zhejiang when China was occupied by the Mongols, but later returned to his hometown. Alternative interpretations say he hailed from Suzhou 蘇州 and obtained the jinshi degree in 1331, whereafter he was a government official in Qiantang 錢塘 (Hangzhou 杭州), and late rin Jiangyin 江陰, Jiangsu. He died in Huai'an 淮安, Jiangsu.

In addition to the confusing genesis of the novel as a whole, there is a complex publication history, which manifests itself in the fact that the oldest surviving fragments from the 16th century look completely different from the usual "full versions" of the 17th century. There are still abridged versions (70, 110, 115 chapters, title Zhongyi Shuihuzhuan 忠義水滸傳) and full versions (with up to 124 chapters) which differ not only in the detail with which individual episodes are dealt with, but also in the general scope of the narrative.

The full version of the novel consists of six parts: The erroneous release of 108 demons ("stars") from a temple dungeon; the gathering of their heroic incarnations (Shi Jin 史進, Lu Da 魯達, Lin Chong 林冲, Song Jiang, Wu Song 武松, etc.) on Liangshan Mountain 梁山. All the heroes got into trouble with the authorities - this is the part that usually deserves the most attention. Follows the submission of the robber gang to the Song government, their campaign against the Kitans, several wars against various rebels and insurgents, and the end of the bandit army in the fight against the rebel Fang La 方臘 (d. 1121).

The individual episodes are independent of each other, especially in the second half of the novel, but the fates of the heroes who join their forces to form the band of robbers are marginally linked to each other. Episodes always begin with an initial situation without the heroes dying in battle. This may indicate that the longer version was the original version and that the "survival of all" had to be ensured in shortened versions.

The standard text is the commented version of 71 chapters compiled by Jin Shengtan 金聖歎 (1608-1661), while the numerous other editions are hardly available to the public and little studied. The novel was also long avoided in Taiwan because the rebellious robbers were identified with the Communist Party, but Mao Zedong also condemned Song Jiang as a traitor to his own brothers and as a "servant of feudalism" which is seen in the 120-chapter version popular in mainland China (entitled Shuihu quanzhuan 水滸全傳). The novel itself was also interpreted as a book written out of patriotic sentiment ("propaganda literature", Li 2001) against foreign rule in China's north, which is why it was quite popular in the early Qing period, when a foreign dynasty, the Manchus, established their rule over China.

One thing the many heroes have in common is their fight against corruption, despotism and oppression. The robbers have therefore often been compared to Robin Hood - a comparison that sounds absurd in view of the frequently described violence "out of revenge", the thirst for blood, the senseless massacre of common folks and the general misogyny of the novel (the heroine Hu Sanniang 扈三娘 only plays a minor role): "morality" hardly plays a role, despite all the rhetoric. The novel is basically not about restoring an orderly world after the robbers have been expelled through corruption and injustice, but about revenge. Even if the word zhong 忠 in the title can be understood as "loyalty" towards the Song dynasty, the term yi 義 has less the positive meaning of "righteousness", but refers to the ethos of cohesion in the gang.

Image from the richly illustrated version Shuihu zhizhuan pinglin 水滸志傳評林 (1594), showing how Lu Da 魯達 unintentionally kills butcher Zheng 鄭屠 and is charged with manslaughter. The left image shows the capital magistrate (fuyin 府尹) conferring with the capital commander (jinglüe 經略), the boss of Lu Da. This shortened and annotated version was edited by Yu Xiangdou 余象斗 and printed by the Shuangfeng Hall 雙峰堂 in Jianyang 建陽, Fujian.

There are some sequels to the novel, like Shuihu quanzhuan 水滸全傳 of 120 chapters which is based on a revised Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) version of Yang Dingjian 楊定見, printed by Yuan Wuya 袁無涯.

Shuihu houzhuan 水滸後傳 was published in 1877 by the Shenbao Press 申報館. This sequel has a length of 40 chapters and was compiled by Gu Song Yimin 古宋遺民 and commented on by Yandan Shanqiao 雁宕山樵. These are pen names for Chen Chen 陳忱 (b. c. 1613), courtesy name Xiaxin 遐心 or Jingfu 敬夫, from Wucheng 烏程, Zhejiang. The novel expresses the spirit of the struggle of people that were oppressed by government officials, and the fight of loyal heroes against treacherous functionaries.

Hou shuihuzhuan 後水滸傳 with 45 chapters was written by a person styled Caihongqiao Shang Ke 彩虹橋上客 or Qinglianshi Zhuren 清蓮室主人. The novel is about the reincarnation of the Liangshan heroes Song Jiang, Lu Junyi 盧俊義, etc., in the persons of the sworn brothers Yang Xiao 楊幺 (1108-1135) and Wang Mo 王摩. They continue to instigate a civil revolt in the area of Dongting Lake 洞庭湖 which is eventually calmed down by Yue Fei 岳飛 (1103-1142), who eventually integrates the rebels into his army. The novel thus links the Song Jiang uprising with that of Yang Yao. The book was not widely circulated, and was once transmitted to Korea.

Xu shuihuzhuan 續水滸傳, also called Zhengsikou 征四寇 "Campaign against the four bandits", with 49 chapters, is attributed to Luo Guanzhong and seems to be a selection of chapters out of an original version of the Shuihuzhuan of 70 chapters, and some episodes of the Sanguo yanyi called Yingxiongpu 英雄譜 "Stories of heroes". The stories in this sequel reflect more the spirit of loyalty towards the sovereign (zhongjun 忠君) than the 120-chapter version of the Shuihuzhuan does. It consists of four parts narrating the gathering of the bandits, the campaign against the Kitans, and the wars against the insurgents Tian Hu 田虎, Wang Qing 王慶, and Fang La.

A further sequel of 140 chapters is called Dangkouzhi 蕩寇志 "The suppression of the bandits", also called Jie shuihuzhuan 結水滸傳, written by Yu Wanchun 俞萬春 (1794-1849).

Finally, some stories, particularly that about Wu Song's revenge for the murder of his brother by Pan Jinlian 潘金蓮 and Ximen Qing 西門慶, appear in the social-erotic novel Jinpingmei 金瓶梅.

The most famous English translation is that of Sydney Shapiro (1980), Outlaws of the Marsh (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press), while the earliest one was created by Pearl S. Buck (1933), All Men Are Brothers (New York: Day). Less widespread is J.H. Jackson; Edwin Lowe (2010), Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle).

Table 1. The series Shuihu xilie xiaoshuo ji 水滸系列小說集
(PRC) 梅慶吉 Mei Qingji (comp.)
1997 edition by Heilongjiang Renmin Chubanshe.
書名, length in chapters Title (date of publication) Author(s)
水滸全傳 一百二十回 Shuihu quanzhuan (Ming) 施耐庵 Shi Nai'an
貫華堂第五才子水滸傳 七十回 Guanhuatang di wu caizi shuihuzhuan (Ming) 金聖歎 Jin Shenghan (comm.)
水滸後傳 四十回 Shuihu houzhuan (1664) (Qing) 陳忱 Chen Chen
後水滸傳 四十五回 Hou shuihuzhuan (Qing) 青蓮室主人 Qinglianshi Zhuren
結水滸傳 (蕩寇志) 七十回 Jie shuihuzhuan (Dangkouzhi) (Qing) 俞萬春 Yu Wanchun
新水滸 二十四回 Xin shuihu (1909) (Qing) 陸士諤 Lu Shi'e
新水滸 四十八回 Xin shuihu (1907) (Qing) 西泠冬青 Xiling Dongqing
水滸別傳 二十回 Shuihu biezhuan (1933-1934) (Rep) 張恨水 Zheng Henshui (張心遠 Zhang Xinyuan)
續水滸傳 二十回 Xu shuihuzhuan (1924-1926) (Rep) 冷佛 Lengfo (王作鎬 Wang Zuogao)
古本水滸傳 五十回 Guben shuihuzhuan (1933) (Rep) 梅寄鶴 Mei Jihe
水滸新傳 六十八回 Shuihu xinzhuan (1943) (Rep) 張恨水 Zheng Henshui (張心遠 Zhang Xinyuan)
戲續水滸新傳 十五回 Xi xu shuihu xinzhuan (1942-1943) (Rep) 嘉魚 Jiayu (鍾吉宇 Zhong Jiyu)
水滸外傳 二十一節 Shuihu waizhuan (1947) (Rep) 劉盛業 Liu Shengye
水滸中傳 三十回 Shuihu zhongzhuan (1938) (Rep) 姜鴻飛 Jiang Hongfei
殘水滸 十六回 Can shuihu (1933) (Rep) 程善之 Cheng Shanzhi
Li, Wai-Yee. 2001. "Full-Length Vernacular Fiction", in Victor H. Mair, ed. The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, 620-658. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ma, Y.W.; Tai-loi Ma. 1986. "Shui-hu chuan", in William H. Nienhauser, Jr., ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, 712-716. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press