Zhongyi shuihu zhuan, usually shortened to Shuihu zhuan or translated as Water Margin, is the first chaptered novel of China to have been written in pre-modern vernacular rather than classical Chinese. “Zhongyi” or “loyal and dutiful” refers to the bandit heroes of the novel and “Shuihu zhuan” or “Chronicle of the Water Margin” alludes to their marshy stronghold near Mount Liang in Shandong province. Stories associated with Song Jiang, a late Northern Song dynasty (twelve century) outlaw leader and his thirty-six followers, are the foundation for what would become Water Margin. Indeed this historical figure is a prominent character in the novel which includes many memorable incidents which reveal the corruption and tyranny of the ruling class of the late Northern Song as well as the courageous struggle against societal suppression waged by the denizens of the marshlands. Water Margin exposes the social contradiction of those in power acting criminally, and those regarded as criminal acting morally. It shows how “misgovernment leaves people no choice but to rebel.”

As with other early Chinese novels, Water Margin has a complex history in which oral and written sources were combined and developed. Shi Nai’an (ca. 1296–1372) of the transitional period between the Yuan and the Ming dynasties is credited, as an editor and author, with doing this in Water Margin. Shi synthesized folkloric traditions associated with Song Jiang and his marshland companions as well as lore involving other outlaws and also earlier written works focusing on these subjects. In so doing, he elevated the ideological and artistic quality of the story to a new level. As Water Margin circulated in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911) there emerged different versions with variant endings, reflecting its appeal. The 120-chapter version supplemented by Yang Dingjian (n.d.) which appeared in print during the reign of the Wanli emperor (1573–1620) is considered the most complete. In this version Song Jiang and the members of his outlaw army are granted amnesty by the Song court and are sent on a series of campaigns to fight against invaders from the Liao state (907-1125) and the rebel forces of Tian Hu and Wang Qing and also the historical Fang La (d. 1121). Ultimately all of the 108 (increased from Song Jiang’s original 36) outlaw heroes of the novel die under varying circumstances and their fellowship dissolves as he story ends in a tragic atmosphere. In the version of 70 chapters edited by the early Qing dynasty Jin Shengtan (1610?–1661) the later part describing Song Jiang making peace with the Song court is deleted, presumably to emphasize the unyielding rebel spirit of the heroes. There are differing opinions as to whether this editing is good or bad. Apart from Yang’s and Jin’s versions, another popular version is one with 100 chapters supplemented and edited by the Ming dynasty Guo Xun (1475–1542).

Water Margin is a typical hero tale, albeit one with several heroes who are venerated and even eulogized. Because of mistreatment by various evil forces, these men gather in mountains and forests, including the marshlands signified by the title Water Margin and follow the path of revolt. The author depicts these outlaw heroes as the embodiment of justice, and gives them noble qualities such as helping the weak, upholding justice, and seeking to root out and overthrow despots who oppressed people. At the same time, destructive societal forces affect these men, driving them to rebel and imparting a tragic aspect to their lives. At the transition point of submission and resistance, and humiliation and rebellion, the author shows the ambivalence in those heroes’ hearts as they wrestle with their fates. Conflict is an indispensable ingredient in heroic tales. The majority of Water Margin is devoted to describing various kinds of battle scenes. There is hand-to-hand combat between two people and there are grand wars and also carefully planned revenge by one person, and well-organized collective action. No matter how thrilling and fierce the fighting is, the author manages to highlight both the intelligence and the courage of the heroes. Indeed the intense opposition between intelligent and brave people is one of the book’s distinctive features.

One of the earliest chaptered novels, Water Margin yet attains the highest level of artistic achievement. It not only shows the contradictions—treason and loyalty, and ups and downs within society, but also depicts the extraordinary qualities of heroes, linking the life stories of many characters by a logical thread, and connecting individual, seemingly tortuous plotlines into an integrated whole. It portrays a group of people with distinct personalities in detailed and vivid language. Water Margin is recognized as the first chaptered novel in vernacular Chinese, utilizing nearly 10,000 characters to create a wide-ranging picture of traditional society. It is a novel about political chaos and one written from the people’s point of view as it expresses their desire for social justice and their resentment towards evil and oppressive powers. This is quite a distinctive standpoint.

Water Margin has a great number of versions and has been widely circulated. It has had a profound influence on narratives of various sorts in China and indeed throughout East Asia.