The Water Margin (Outlaws of the North) by Shi Naian: A 2017 Readalong

In 2016 Tessa Gratton and I read the Shahnameh (The Persian Book of Kings) by Abdolqasem Ferdowsi. It’s a long epic poem, often called the national epic of the Persian civilization, and by dividing it into weekly sections we were able to complete it in 41 sessions (with some missed weeks due to other commitments). It was definitely epic and well worth reading, as you can discover in our posts about each section.

Completing a massive project in this way emboldened me to tackle another classic of world literature in 2017 by plotting a reading schedule that will allow for an entire year to finish an otherwise daunting 798 page novel. [Stop laughing: Black Wolves is only 780 pages.]

So: Join me and a motley crew of volunteers from Twitter in reading The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh) by Shi Naian (c. 1296 – 1372 C.E.).

water-margin-coverOriginating in the transitional phase between the end of the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty and the early Ming Dynasty it is based on the story of an historical bandit named Song Jiang who lived during the reign of the Huizong Emperor during the Song Dynasty (1100 – 1126 C.E.), the one the Mongols conquered. I haven’t read it yet but it appealed to me because it is the story of virtuous people from every level of society who, forced into banditry, are fighting against a corrupt and unjust government.

The novel is ascribed to Shi Naian but scholarship doesn’t seem agreed that we can know definitively that he wrote the entire thing alone. What is known is that over the period of the Ming Dynasty the novel was edited until, in circa 1592 a man named Li Zhi produced a “definitive” 120 chapter version. Then, in 1641, Jin Shengtan published a version that lops off the last 50 chapters to produce a more unified thematic whole. I don’t know; I’m just repeating what I read. Regardless, this 70 chapter version is the one I’m using. I may well seek out the last 50 chapters because the Jin Shengtan version is itself a product of the times HE was living in and he evidently subverts the original ending. How interesting is THAT!

Here’s how the project will go:

I’m reading the Tuttle Publishing 2010 edition, with a translation by J H Jackson and an introduction and editing by Edwin Lowe. Lowe gives the credit for the translation entirely to Jackson but in his introduction discusses how he addressed what he calls the shortcomings of Jackson’s translation (mostly to do with Jackson’s sanitizing of some of the more vulgar and barbaric passages). This version is available both in a trade paperback edition and in Kindle form.

Each week I’ll try to read 15 – 20 pages or so, and I will announce at the end of each week’s portion whether we will be reading one longer chapter or two shorter ones for the next week. I may miss weeks occasionally. I’ll post a brief synopsis and some thoughts every Friday, and the comments will be open for discussion.

The entire project will be linked here. Here’s the opening plan of action:

Week 1: January 6: Foreward and Prologue

Week 2: January 13: Chapter 1

Week 3: January 20: Chapter 2 (short because I’ll be traveling)

Week 4: January 27: Chapter 3 (still short, because I’ll be traveling)

Week 5: February 3: Chapters 4 & 5

Week 6: February 10: Chapters 6 & 7

6 thoughts on “The Water Margin (Outlaws of the North) by Shi Naian: A 2017 Readalong

  1. I was in Beijing in September and picked up Romance of the Three Kingdoms as a souvenir and because I’ve always wanted to read the 4 novels I always see listed as THE classic Chinese novels. I thought I’d make a start with my shiny new souvenir but it’s so much more fun to read with a group (and I really loved participating in the Shahnameh project) so Romance will go on the shelf for now and I’ll be looking out for the The Water Margin. Hope I can jump right in but if not I’ll at least follow along until I catch up.

  2. I have fallen behind my own reading schedule! I need to get on it, and start posting again. I think I’m up to chapter 9. It’s a rip roaring page turning adventure, basically. Full of action, sword fights, and meals.

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