The Water Margin by Shi Naian: Introduction and Prologue (WM 1)

Most Fridays in 2017 I hope to post a brief mention of the latest chapter(s) I’ve read in my 2017 classics read: The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh) by Shi Naian, translation by J.H. Jackson and with an introduction by Edwin Lowe (Tuttle Publishing, 2010). I will use each chapter’s own synopsis as the synopsis.

Today: Foreword and Prologue

The brief Foreword, ostensibly by Shi Naian (but perhaps by the redactor, Jin Shengtan), introduces the author’s quiet life, briefly mentions some details of his household, and explains why he wrote the novel.

Why would anyone living such a quiet, isolated life need TEN messenger boys? I imagine them as local village boys who come and go, not all there at once, but always several convenient for running messages on command. And that’s besides the brooms and mats they make.

Prologue:  Heavenly Teacher Zhang Prays for Cessation of a Pestilence; Marshal Hon Makes a Blunder in Releasing Demons.

Probably the main reason it’s taken me so long to dive into these Chinese classics (I only read Dream of the Red Chamber about 6 years ago) is the bizarre and unfounded belief I had that, being classics, they were inevitably turgid affairs as long-winded as your average Victorian novel, something one read to be well read rather than because they were enjoyable. Where did my preconceptions come from, I wonder?

In fact, The Water Margin is paced like a modern novel (I can’t judge how much that may be a factor of the translation, which was itself done in 1937 (and “rejuvenated” in 2009)). Your average 1990s fantasy novel is less fast-paced than this with its brief introduction to the later emperors of the Song dynasty and then the adventures of Marshal Hong, which are completely delightful. Marshal Hong does not strike me as sincere or adequate to the task. Besides being responsible for the release of the demons he conceals the foolish, arrogant deed from the Emperor.

As with Dream of the Red Chamber I can see I will learn a lot from this work about the effective use of cliff-hanging chapter endings. In fact, I have already almost finished Chapter One, and I’ll briefly discuss it in the January 13 post.

Next Friday (Jan 13, 2017): Chapter One.

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.).


Originating 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 novels 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