Life-size sculpture: 108 outlaws on Water Margin

Water Margin (水浒传), also known as Outlaws of the Marsh and All Men Are Brothers in English translation, is one of the greatest classic Chinese novels published during the Ming Dynasty.

A boat built according to Water Margin novel
A boat in an ancient Chinese fashion, which has the characters “Water Margin” marked on the sideway and a message specifying “Enforce Justice on Behalf of Heaven” on the flag, sails on a waterway in a town built according to the description of Water Wargin.

The story was set in the North Song dynasty in the 12th century, depicting 108 outlaws who gathered in a mountain area against some corrupted officials and unjust laws.

Rongyu Hall (容与堂) was one of the most reputable publishing houses and bookstores during the mid-Ming, and the Water Margin published by this house included 240 illustrations in the style of wood carved print, two for each chapter.

Below are some selected illustrations.

A Man with Nine Tattoos Wreaked Havoc at Shi Village

Man with Nine Tattoos Wreaked Havoc at Shi Village
Gao Qiu was a soccer star and a bully, unlearned and unethical. One day when he tried to enforce an unfair rule over others, he was taught a hard lesson by military officer Wang Jin.

After Gao Qiu was promoted by the soccer fan emperor to the high office in charge of the kingdom’s defense and sports affairs, he took revenge on Wang Jin.

Wang fled the capital with his mother to Yan’an in Shaanxi. On the way he passed Shi Village and, after an initial misunderstanding between the host and the guest, the two men became good friends.

During Wang and his mother’s stayed at Shi Village, the former officer taught all his martial arts to the host and his family guards.

Lu Zhishen Bashed a Thuggish Butcher

Lu Zhishen Bashed a Thuggish Butcher

During the North Song Dynasty about 900 years ago, an armed police officer named Lu Zhishen went to have a drink in a restaurant with two friends. When they sat on the upper floor window seats enjoying the street view and rice wine, they heard a woman sobbing in the next compartment.

Upon inquiry, he learned the young woman around twenty and his father were migrants from another part of China and rented a room at a small inn. Life was hard for a new migrant family without a proper job, and her mother soon died of illness. In order to bury her mother, she auctioned herself and was forced into accepting a deal initiated by the owner of a local butcher store through a marriage agent.

The girl became the butcher’s concubine yet the butcher failed to fulfill his part of the contract to pay the money to bury her mother.

Things turn nastier after the butcher’s jealous wife threw her out on the street. The butcher demanded they pay back the money that they never saw in the first place.

And they couldn’t even leave the town as the rich and powerful thug paid the inn taker to prevent them from escaping.

Upon hearing that, Lu Zhishen was very upset and decided to take the law into his own hands.

He arranged for the daughter and the father to return home, then walked into the butcher store and offered a hard lesson to the extortionist. Unfortunately, the lesson was a bit too hard and the businessman died under an armed police officer’s ironing fist.

Lu Zhishen was wanted by the local law enforcement body and had no choice but to flee onto Mt Wutai in Shanxi seeking refuge in a Buddhist temple.

Lu Zhishen Uprooted an Ageing Willow Tree

Lu Zhishen Uprooted an Ageing Willow Tree

After Lu Zhishen, a former police officer of the North Song Dynasty, took the law into his own hands and bashed an extortionist butcher to death, he fled to a Buddhist temple in Mt Wutai in Shanxi.

Although the abbot didn’t know he was a fugitive but found he was unruly and bully, so sent him to a big temple in the capital city Dongjing in Henan to try his luck.

Dongjing’s abbot immediately realised what kind of character he was so didn’t bother to teach him any Buddhist theories and practices but arranged for him to look after the temple’s vegetable garden.

Chinese-school Buddhists traditionally do not rely on donations to survive but grow their own food and in most cases build their own temples. Going out to collect donations was normally for a major monastery construction project or big temple fair in the public interest, such as praying for the peace of the nation or for the souls of the war dead.

Around the vegetable garden, there were dozens of hooligans who kept stealing the vegetable. But when Lu Zhishen became a garden keeper, not only the looting mission was unsuccessful, but two of the ringleaders were kicked by the monk into a manure pond.

The street hooligans were among the most passionate believers of jungle laws, and immediately became friends with the garden keeper after receiving a hard lesson.

The next day, they brought drink and food to the garden to share with their new friend under an aging willow tree by a stream. When the group happily enjoyed their time, a crow landed in its nest on the tree and kept cawing.

To the Chinese, the crow’s caw foretells misfortune even death, so some hooligans planned to get a tall ladder to demolish the nest on the top of the tree.

“Why bother? Watch me!” Lu Zhishen walked towards the tree. He held the middle section of the tree trunk with his left arm and the bottom part with his right arm, then strengthened his back. The entire tree was uprooted and fell to the ground.

All the hooligans were shocked by what they saw and came to their knees, begging him to take them as his disciples.

Lin Chong Took Refuge at A Rundown Temple Amid Snowstorm

Lin Chong Took Refuge at A Rundown Temple Amid Snowstorm

Lin Chong was a handsome and talented kung fu man with a respectable job as a senior coach to 800,000 royal guards in the capital Dongjing. He also had a perfect family life – despite having no children, he and his wife loved each other dearly.

One day when his wife went to a Buddhist temple to burn incense, she was approached by the son of Gao Qiu, a soccer star turned entertainment tycoon with a newly acquired military background, in charge of the capital’s sports and defense matters.

The son was a playboy. With his father’s money and power, he had already got a group of pretty women in his private collection. Yet this time he was met with a fierce rejection and public condemnation. Soon, Lin Chong hurried to the scene and saved his wife.

The playboy was very upset and, after returning home, he told his father he was about to die of lovesick.

“I don’t understand, dad … Today’s man … who’s got that pretty woman … but all pretty women … shall be ours! …. That peasant!”

“You mean Lin Chong?”

“Yes… You’ve got to help me get rid of him, dad …”

So Gao Qiu tricked Lin Chong to step into a room he was not entitled to enter and then persecuted him for breaking the military protocol. Consequently, Lin Chong was sent to Cangzhou in Hebei to guard a military warehouse.

In the meanwhile, Lin Chong’s wife was forced to remarry Gao Qiu’s son. However, on the wedding night, the bride tried to kill the groom with a pair of scissors.

“But why?” the injured groom demanded an answer from the bride. “What’s so good about Lin Chong? That native chick, the homeless dog, the peasant! Is he more powerful and richer than my family?”

“Your family’s power and wealth are worth nothing to me – don’t you realise how shameless for you to even mention that? Just stop pretending to be a noble, you know better what’s your family’s real origin!” Having said that, she turned the scissors to her own throat.

Gao Qiu and his son were outraged and decided to kill Lin Chong.

On a day with a strong snowstorm, Lin Chong was reassigned to look after military hay storage. The dilapidated lodge was crushed to the ground under the weight of the heavy snow and Lin Chong had to seek refuge in a rundown temple to the mountain god and kept himself warm and fed by drinking rice wine from a bottle gourd and eating cold beef wrapped in a paper.

At the midnight, he was woken up by the sound of fire in the hay storage – Gao Qiu’s men attempted to burn him alive.

After he learned the truth from the assassins and discovered his wife had killed herself, he decided to take the laws into his own hands, as Lu Zhishen did before him.

He killed the assassins and headed to the rebel’s camp in Mount Liang in Shandong.

Yang Zhi Selling His Treasured Knife on Street

Yang Zhi Selling His Treasured Knife on Street

Military Officer Yang Zhi was ordered to escort a cargo ship located with rocks from Tai Lake in Suzhou to the capital Bianliang in Henan for the decor in the royal garden. But the ship capsized in a storm and rocks sank into the Yellow River.

Yang Zhi lost his job and income. In order to survive in the capital where he knew nobody, he put his sword, which was left to him by his grandfather – a war hero, on sale.

A man named Niuer was a fearful bully in the neighbourhood and demanded to know why Yang asked for such a high price for the knife.

“Because it can do three things most knives can’t,” explained Yang Zhi. “Firstly, it can cut metals as if they were made of clay; then it can cut hair in two, and finally it can kill a man without blood smeared on the blade because it is so sharp.”

“Say no more, just show me!”

So Yang Zhi demonstrated on coins and hair, and the results were just like what he claimed.

“Kill a man now!” Niuer urged.

“Why should I kill a man?”

“Then how do you prove your knife can kill a man without seeing blood?”

Realising Niuer was just wanting to provoke a fight, Yang Zhi tried to walk away.

“You’re chicken, you dare not to do it, dare you? Liar!” the thug pressed aggressively against the knife.

In a fit of fury, Yang Zhi’s knife cut through Niuer’s body.

The reckless thug died as he asked for, and all the onlookers in the neighbourhood applauded and cheered, calling Yang Zhi a hero and pleading with the magistrate not to sentence their hero to death.

The capital administration was also relieved that a street bully was gone therefore just handed down a symbolic punishment and then arranged for Yang Zhi to return to military service in another city.

Lin Chong Brought a Regime Change in Water Margin

Lin Chong Brought a Regime Change in Water Margin

Former royal guards coach Lin Chong killed the assassins and fled to Water Margin to join a rebel force that was financially supported by his friend.

One day, a group of men arrived on Water Margin seeking refuge. The men attacked a local government caravan loaded with valuable birthday gifts to Chai Jing, a corrupted Primer.

The mission was a success but the men were wanted by the authority.

Wang Lun (王氏), the head of the Water Margin, was a mean man and afraid that his leadership might be challenged, so refused to accept the refugees.

Thus Lin Chong chopped off Wang’s head, neutralized his sworn brothers and declared Water Margin was the home for all rebels.

Wu Song Overpowered a Tiger on Jingyang Hill

Wu Song Overpowered a Tiger on Jingyang Hill

Kung Fu man Wu Song hadn’t seen his old brother for years. Their parents died young and he was raised by his brother so he missed him heaps.

On his way home, he came to a tavern situated by a hill fort on the border of Sunny Valley County; beyond Jingyang Hill was his hometown Clean Water County. He decided to take a dinner break.

After having consumed 18 bowls of rice wine and a few kilos of roasted beef, he was rather drunk. Paid his bill and picked up his cudgel, he lurched his way out of the tavern towards the hill.

“You can’t go there on your own at such a late time of the day, sir,” the owner called him from behind and directed his sight to a notice stuck on the wall. “Read the message there. It says there is a beast preying on the lone travellers at night and people are only allowed to go to Jingyang Hill in groups during the noon.”

“Nice try, mate,” Wu Song smirked. “So I stay here and pay for my bed for the night? You do know how to promote your business.”

The owner got very upset. “No problem then, you go ahead!”

However, shortly after Wu Song entered the mountain area, he saw another notice on a rundown temple wall containing exactly the same message and signed by the county authority.

He became a bit concerned. Yet the kung fu man was too proud to return to the tavern, so he kept proceeding with his journey.

The sky quickly grew dark and on the hill, he fell into sleep on a giant stone.

Soon he woke up with a start as a strange wind blew through, accompanied by a fearful sound of a beast growling.

When he opened his eyes, he saw a monstrous being dashing out of a woods right towards him.

It was a full-grown adult tiger with a sign looked like the Chinese character Wang (王) on its forehead.

The beast was not a native to the region. Since it invaded the area, it had eaten dozens of night travellers.

Despite being unprepared, Wu Song hurriedly entered the resistance war.

The initial encounter didn’t look promising for Wu Song – he broke his only weapon, the cudgel.

The man-eating alien being had developed some martial skills apparently. It could jump high and then pounce down on the target. While failed, as in the case of Wu Song who dodged behind it, it could hunch its body and then suddenly stand up on its hind legs to crush the man on the back.

Once again, Wu Song leaped sideways safely.

The beast was in a rage and its tail erected high then swept around in an attempt to knock Wu Song off his feet.

But Wu Song was a proper-trained kung fu master and escaped the assault without a scratch.

The beast, however, was unlearned and uncultured, and the three powerful martial techniques were all it acquired through its own man-eating practice. After failed triple actions, it didn’t know what to do next but prostrated on the ground painting.

Wu Song wasted no time and, tossing the broken cudgel away, grabbed the tiger’s skin on the top with both hands and pressed its head towards the ground while kicking hard at the beast’s face.

The beast howled in pain and in despair and tried to bury its head in a pit it dug. Holding its head with his left hand, Wu Song pounded the beast with his right fist until blood spilled out from its eyes, ears, nose and mouth.

The tiger was done away with.

For his courageous feast of eradicating a monstrous beast and reopening a safe passageway across the hill, Wu Song was paraded as a hero around the CBD of Sunny Valley County and offered a job as a senior local police officer.

Wu Song Avenged His Brother by Killing Ximen Qing

Wu Song Killed Ximen Qing

After Kung Fu man Wu Song killed a mountain beast on his way to visit his older brother, he was hired as a senior police officer by the local authority and lived in the office.

One day when he walked down a commercial street, he was greeted by a familiar voice. He turned and found it was no other but his beloved old brother who recently moved to this town from the neighbouring county after getting married.

Wu Song was immediately introduced to his sister-in-law named Pan Jinlian (Pan Golden Lily) by his brother at their rented one-bedroom two-storey terrace house and further urged by the couple to share their home.

The house had a spacious living/bedroom upstairs with a window facing a commercial street and a large kitchen/sitting space on the ground floor with both front and back doors. The brother called in a carpenter and within just a few hours, an extra bedroom was created downstairs and Wu Song happily moved in.

For a while, life seemed to be full of sunshine for Wu Song in Sunny Valley county town. But before long the dark side of his brother’s life was revealed.

Unlike Wu Song who was handsome and tall, his older brother was ugly and short. Yet his wife was very charming and pretty.

She was initially a servant girl and secret lover to a Richman in the town, and the man was forced to offer her hand to Wu Song’s brother for free after the affair was discovered by his wife.

The restless woman tried to seduce Wu Song but failed. She then was attracted to another married rich man named Ximen Qing. The couple met when she accidentally dropped a stick from the upper floor window and hit the head of the man passing by.

Golden Lily’s fatal attraction to a handsome rich Ximen Qing

They started dating every day at the living quarters of a neighbouring teahouse while the husband tried to make money to support her life by selling his homemade sesame pies on street.

By then Wu Song was away from the town for an official assignment. The woman poisoned her husband with arsenic after he uncovered her affairs.

Ximeng Qing bribed the coroner to keep silent while Golden Lily arranged for the man’s body to be cremated instead of buried.

After Wu Song returned, he conducted a thorough investigation into his brother’s sudden death and collected evidence from the coroner – two bones from his brother. The bones were in black which is a sign of death from arsenic poisoning.

He then invited four neighbours from the households to the left, the right, the front and the back to bear witness to a confession made at his knifepoint by his sister-in-law and the teahouse owner before a wooden memorial tablet of the deceased then avenged his brother by chopping off Golden Lily’s head.

Next, he located Ximeng Qing in a restaurant’s upper-floor VIP room where the rich man and his friend were being entertained by a pair of female singers. The rich man was also a kung fu master; seeing Wu Song entering the compartment with a knife, he quickly leaped onto the table and kicked the knife out of Wu Song’s hand. Yet Wu Song’s retaliation was super swift and vigorous before Ximeng Qing landed his kicking leg back to the table, he shoved him out of the window then jumped down to the street himself and cut off the head of the dying man.

Wu Song presented two heads in front of his brother’s memorial tablet before turning himself in.

Some decades later, another Ming scholar claimed Wu Song actually killed the wrong people while Golden Lily and Ximing Qing had escaped their fate in his novel The Golden Lily.

Some centuries later, a woman and a Chinese movie directed by a man further declared I Am Not Golden Lily (I Am Not Madame Bovary). ~_^

Wu Song Bashed Doorgod Jiang with Drunken Fist

Wu Song Bashed Doorgod Jiang with Drunken Fist

After avenging his old brother by killing his sister-in-law Golden Lily and her secret lover Ximen Qing, Wu Song was sent to serve his sentence in another city where he became a good friend of the prison governor and his son.

When he learned a strongman nicknamed Doorgod Jiang with a connection to the town’s military force bashed the son and took his bar, he decided to enforce justice on the behalf of heaven.

On his way to the bar in the town centre, he drank dozens of bowls of rice wine. Once stepped into the premises, he pretended to be very drunk and provoked fighting with the excuse of unsatisfactory customer service by throwing Doorgod Jiang’s wife and bartenders into large water jars filled with wine.

When Doorgod Jiang rushed to the scene, Wu Song used his legendary Jade Ring Steps (玉环步) and Yin Yang Feet (鸳鸯脚) combined with his Drunken Fist to fix the Doorgod Jiang on the ground.

The strongman had no choice but agreed to hand back the business to the original owner.

Song Jiang and A Treacherous Woman

Kunqu Opera: Capture Alive 

Yan Poxi (阎婆惜) was part of Song Jiang’s (宋江) family but she betrayed her man by conducting extramarital affairs with a playboy.

She thought she would have a happier life with the new man and thus intended to send Song Jiang to prison so she could declare independence from the Song family.

Yet the man just fled when Song Jiang appeared, leaving the woman to die in a clash with her husband.

After death, Yan Poxi decided to take the playboy down to hell with her.

However, it was because of this woman, Song Jiang was forced to join the rebels in Water Margin and eventually became their leader.

Song Jiang’s Three Military Campaigns at Zhu Village

Song Jiang's Three Military Campaigns at Zhu Village

Zhu family is a ruling household in Zhu village and the leader of a military alliance known as Alliance & Network of Zhu+ Army Corps, formed by three dominant households in the area. Their common enemies were the rebels on Water Margin not so nearby geographically but deemed by the authority as a growing threat to the established government and values.

One day, Zhu family captured a kung fu man with a connection to Water Margin and prepared to send him to the capital for capital punishment, thus Song Jiang led his rebel force to attack Zhu village in order to rescue the man.

In the first battle, his force was nearly trapped outside the village in the fields that were full of metal throngs planted on the ground. The situation was only saved when his undercover agent returned from the village. It happened that the village’s site plan was designed such that the only way to get out of the premises was to take a turn at each poplar tree.

Yet Song Jiang’s second military campaign was also defeated as a minor partner in the Alliance joined the battle. The family troops led by a fierce female warrior launched a vehement onset from the rear that effectively broke up the rebels’ formation.

But a timely help finally came from a former government army officer driven to rebellion by the dark network of a rich and powerful yet greedy and murderous village noble (乡绅) and his associated corrupted local officials.

Unaware of the guy’s rebellious intention, Zhu Family let the former officer and his men enter the village, which allowed Song Jiang’s force outside to work in collaboration with the rebels inside the village and eventually destroyed the Alliance & Network of Zhu+ Army Corps.

Wu Yong’s Trick to Take Over Authority

Wu Yong's Trick to Take Over Authority

A powerful governor was a nasty womaniser and sexually harassed a pretty young girl who looked so charming like a fashion model while sentencing her artist father to a remote military base.

The artist had a kung fu friend and the kung fu man rescued the artist. But his attempt to kill the governor and rescue the girl failed. Consequently, the guy was arrested and sentenced to death.

The kung fu guy had a friend who was a rebel from Water Margin so the rebel returned to the base asking for help.

At the time the chief eunuch was personally bringing the emperor’s tribute, a golden bell ring, to a grand Buddhist temple in the region. So the rebels captured the eunuch and his entourage and then arranged a group of feminine-looking young rebels pretending to be eunuchs to trick the governor into the temple.

The governor did not raise suspicion of their identity as the young men looked and walked so much like genderless Little Fresh Meats (小鲜肉) from the royal palace and the Meats had the emperor’s golden bell ring with them.

So the womaniser went to the temple where he met his fate.

A Celestial Mandate for Rebels to Enforce Justice on Behalf of Heaven

Song Jiang, head of the rebels on Water Margin, decided to hold a direct meeting with Heaven.

A three-tier altar was built and 48 Daoists were hired as interpreters. The 108 rebels led by Song Jiang verbally handed over their application for an interview.

By the end of the 7-day process, following an ear-splitting sound in the northwest, the location of pure yang gate, the sky opened – a flaming panel fell down and poked into the earth. The sky closed again in no time.

The rebels dug deep and unearthed a stele-like meteorite on which there were scripts carved on both sides. However, the characters looked like tadpoles and certainly were not in Chinese.

Fortunately, there was a multilingual Daoist among the 48 who happened to be able to read this alien language.

According to his interpretation, it was a job appointment letter to rebels, briefing them on the past positions they held and the new job titles they were to take.

Of 108, 36 were reincarnated from the stars in heaven and 72 were terrestrial immortals in their previous lives.

The rebels were enlightened to their glorious past and excited about their new missions ahead and vowed they would keep enforcing justice on behalf of heaven to the last breath in order to help create a fairer new world on earth.


Eric Horrobin:
Sounds like Chairman Mao knew this story. 😄

All Things Chinese:
Chairman Mao did know this story and repeatedly warned his mates not to learn from Song Jiang who eventually surrendered to the oppressive elite group that ruled the world under heaven.

Eric Horrobin:
Kinda scary – self-appointed judge and jury. But, sometimes you have to. 👍

All Things Chinese:
This is the central theme of Water Margin: how the law-abiding guys were forced to become rebels (逼上梁山).

It happened in China numerous times before which led to the change of dynasties, and it happened at the global level numerous times before which led to the death of old empires and the birth of new nations.

It is still happening.

Nicola Amerio
Water Margin was partially translated into comics by Italian artist Magnus (“I briganti”, an example can be found here, in a style that mixed (in few words) Chinese art, Flash Gordon, and his own!
Thank you, very interesting!

Do you know a good translation in English? (in Italian I don’t think there’s one, sadly)

All Things Chinese
Speaking from my personal experience when reading Dream of the Red Chamber, I think there are two kinds of the English translation of classic Chinese literature: one is more faithful but hard to digest and another is more enjoyable to read but a large chunk of cultural essence has been lost in translation.  

I read Water Margin in Chinese. But I believe Edwin Lowe’s version is a good choice for someone who is not yet familiar with Chinese history and culture.

In this vast world
Enduring is my ancient spirit.

Fellowship and justice
Value more than life and death.

Right time, right place and right people,
Forever we answer destiny’s call.

— a theme song from Chinese TV series Water Margin and sung by Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan

6 thought on “Water Margin Illustration by Ming Artist”
  1. Actually, the historical Song Jiang did surrender and was granted amnesty. But in the novelized version, there were several endings. For me, the book always comes to a stop when the heroes are assembled in the great hall as a group of 108. The disintegration that follows is because Song Jiang is still seeking the approval of his father (metaphorically) and cant bring himself to disconnect from the standards of civil (structured) society.

    As to the Song Dynasty—while destroyed in the north, it continued in the south which happens to be where a certain group of ill-tempered heroes are agitating today 🖖.

    1. “Ill-tempered heroes are agitating today”, haha, what is the day today?

      With regard to the ending, for human beings, happy endings never exist. All triumphant is shortlived as everyone will sooner or later face decay and death. Deep down, people know this fact as we have experienced the cycle of life countless times before, so tragic endings always impress the readers or audience more than happy endings.

    1. You’re right. It was a gang of 36 men (instead of 108) with no base in Water Margin. Water Margin is a novel not history, just like Robin Hood legends.

      There is one more note I would like to add. The Song Dynasties (North and South) probably had the most enlightened and benevolent governments in the classical period of human history.

      By the way, I believe you were there. 😅👌

      May I say I also believe I was in China on many occasions, during Song and Ming 😉

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