Outlaws of the Marsh
One of China’s four literary classics, Outlaws of the Marsh (also known as Water Margin and All Men Are Brothers), was written by Shi Naian in the 14th century. It is a compilation of folk stories filled with adventure, affliction, heroism, and outlaw subculture, loosely based on a real group of bandits from the Song dynasty.
As the story goes, in the 11th century a terrible plague befell the land, and Emperor Ren Zong ordered his marshal to request a cure from a famous Taoist priest. The marshal followed the order, but when he found the Taoist monastery, things began going awry. He accidentally set free 108 Stars of Destiny.
These stars were once demonic overlords. They consisted of 36 Heavenly Spirits and 72 Earthly Fiends. Long ago, they were banished from Heaven as punishment but their repentance made their release possible. Escaping to the human world, they reincarnated as the so-called “108 Heroes of Mount Liang,” forming the group of predestined outlaws in the book.
Due to their dubious origins, these heroes all met with unlucky fates on earth. Some were framed by corrupt officials; others befriended unwholesome characters. Many became fugitives after killing scoundrels in righteous fury or while trying to protect innocent people. Eventually, fate gathered them on Mount Liang, where they united as brothers under the motto “Reclaiming justice under Heaven’s decree.”
The group’s leader, Song Jiang, had one wish—for the emperor to grant amnesty to him and his brothers. The emperor, however, saw the outlaws as a threat and tried to overwhelm them with military force. He only relented in the face of the group’s amazing martial prowess, for these were skilled martial artists—some with incredible powers.
After the emperor removed the order for the gang’s arrest, the heroes journeyed back to the capital. On the way, they managed to quash the rebellion of Fang La, yet suffered many casualties. Only 27 of the original 108 heroes survived. While Lu Zhishen and Wu Song decided to stay behind, the rest of the group reached the capital and were offered government posts by their former enemies. Unfortunately, it was a trick, and they all met their doom.
Outlaws of the Marsh left behind a motley of colorful characters, whose moments of heroics and misfortune are part of the bedrock of Chinese folklore. Characters like the drunk monk Lu Zhishen, Wu Song who killed a tiger with his bare hands, Lin Chong, “Iron Bull” Li Kui, and many others. Some have even been the subject of often-lighthearted Shen Yun dances.