Water Margin, whose authorship is traditionally attributed to Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong, is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Among these Four Greats, Water Margin was the only one I was studiously dissuaded from reading as a Confucian schoolchild during the 1980s, for the same reasons it became so popular in the Sinosphere: its shockingly violent action, anti-authoritarian themes, and colourfully vulgar depictions of everyday life in the Song Dynasty. Despite my elders’ disapproval, I managed to read The Water Margin through means more foul than fair, and it has since become one of my favourite stories (even as I become more aware about its casual misogyny and centring of masculine perspectives).

Today, adaptations of, and works inspired by, Water Margin remain popular in the East Asian imagination (and beyond). S.L. Huang’s The Water Outlaws is one such recent undertaking, which deftly negotiates the above-mentioned problematic story elements with intentionality and poise; the author terms it a “genderspun retelling” of Water Margin, with its central emphases on the struggles of improper and powerful women against a patriarchal tyranny, and emplaces the narrative within an epic fantasy setting with swordplay and magic.

In general, I enjoyed Outlaws as (in Huang’s own words), a “joyous, toothy escapist adventure”; the narrative quickly picks up in intensity and pace, and the events and action in each chapter are very engaging. The backdrop of Huang’s story, the Song Dynasty, is a period when women, in general, enjoyed more privileges than in other dynasties, yet the fundamentals of power were still firmly ensconced in the patriarchal seats of Emperors and Ministers; by no stretch of the imagination were there many places for women to comfortably aspire to within the echelons of the Song Dynasty’s administrative and political order. This setting allows Huang to showcase the terrifying gamut of oppressions experienced by minorities, along axes of class, ethnicity, and (most of all) gender, that curdle and crack in the imperial hierarchy; while some of these tensions are explored in less depth and detail, Huang’s professed focus is on gender, a theme that is explored consistently throughout the novel.

Outlaws invites us to join the journey of Lin Chong, one of Water Margin’s most popular characters, from respected arms instructor of 80,000 imperial guards to framed fugitive exile, highway robber, and eventual bandit chieftain. Huang imagines Lin Chong (as is the case with many other members of Mount Liang’s 108 Outlaws) as a woman; Lin Chong is employed as a martial arts instructor in the Song Dynasty’s bureaucracy, a position earned by merit, hard work, playing the game, catching the eye of a powerful patron, and not sticking out:

“She did not know how to respond. It was a shocking thing for Gao Qiu to have been told by any in the Guard, and even more shocking for him to relay it to her. The men respected her, she knew—she had no doubt of that. She ensured it. But no praise had ever been rained upon her for correctly doing her job, nor should it have been. Her reward for excellent conduct was that she was granted the chance to continue doing her job.

Gao Qiu’s praise made every small hair on her neck and back prickle.

He was singling her out. Lin Chong strove with every moment of every day to avoid being singled out.”

(Chapter 2)

Despite all this caution, effort, and disciplining of the self to shape the needs of imperial snobs and military industries … Lin Chong’s world comes crashing down and is undone with sickening ease by the petty excesses of Gao Qiu, a useless layabout of a Marshal raised from sycophancy by the indulgent Emperor Huizong. (Disclaimer: a catalyst for this novel’s plot hinges on scenes of violation and assault. Readers of Water Margin might recall how Gao Qiu’s lustful son precipitates Lin Chong’s fall from grace; Huang’s novel changes and condenses events to tease readers with the possibility of averting some of the source material’s tragedies.)

Some of my favourite chapters are about Lin Chong’s rationalisations, agonies, and attempts to deal with her traumas, and her inability to be perfect for herself or others; in some way, I see the challenges faced by my spouse, my mother, my friends as Chinese women in an apparently meritocratic society where odds are structurally stacked and obscured, of having to play along in games constructed by and for masculine subjectivities … only to be caught up and destroyed in my superiors’ political games. However, the consequences are so different for us with differently-situated identities, on aspects of class, ethnicity, and as Huang masterfully reminds us, gender:

“So serious, this one,” Gao Qiu said to Lu Junyi, conspiratorially. “She puts my other officers to shame. Never any fun. Never a bit naughty.”

Lin Chong knew too well what would happen if she ever zigzagged off an arrow-straight path. She had no margin for raucous missteps, not the way her male colleagues did.

Lin Chong did not resent the fact. But it was still a fact. ”

(Chapter 2)

What I also enjoyed about Outlaws is the centrality of two of Lin Chong’s friendships, with women both bearing names of Lu (but these two Lus are not the same name; they are written in different characters).

The first is Lady Lu Junyi, who has also been genderspun from a dashing and talented gentleman of the aristocratic class into a luminary and polymath with excellent skills in everything she puts herself to; in Huang’s retelling, Lady Lu is Lin Chong’s childhood friend, who studied with her under legendary general Yue Fei’s archery teacher Zhou Tong (a direction perhaps inspired by the 17th-century biography, The Story of Yue Fei, which states Zhou Tong as having taught these two heroes in his old age); this duo bring to mind the saying of (wén wǔ shuāng quán), of being strong in both literary and military arts. Their friendship is genuine, and their concern for each other is heartfelt; Lady Lu performs many of the deeds done by Lin Chong’s father-in-law in the original text (bribing and making arrangements for Lin Chong’s safety), and also makes arrangements for Lin Chong’s lighter punishment and eventual escape. These deeds, done out of goodwill and obligation for so close a friend, would impel Lady Lu into the schemes and plots of Cai Jing, a historical Chancellor in the Song court, who is this story’s main antagonist in many ways.

Lady Lu is written to be extremely self-confident and skilled, yet before the manipulations and threats of Cai Jing, we see her second-guess herself, and crumple into a contorted version of herself, where her loyalties, values, and perceptions are put through the wringer. This recalls the epistemic violence of real-world academe and civil service, where bright-eyed individuals are processed by professors and ministers into applying their skills and mind to the service of institutions and coteries.

I won’t share too much about Lady Lu’s plotline, as that might spoil you on Huang’s storyline, but suffice to say, I despaired many times upon reading Lady Lu’s chapters, at her ongoing experiences of isolation and forced compromises, and also appreciated Cai Jing’s characterisation as a (wěi jūn zǐ), a ‘false gentleman’ or hypocrite. Cultured, witty, intelligent, a patriot with high ideals and loyalties, and a master of calligraphy (another nod to the original Water Margin where forging his penmanship and seal was a significant plot point), I find this novel’s Cai Jing to be deliciously trashy and eminently despicable. He feigns knowledge he does not possess, and weaponises his deception to keep others unbalanced and in check; he acts like a Confucian gentleman, and plays at austerities, but in my eyes, he’s quite a brute of an old man, a puddle of dirt reflecting a glimpse of jade.

The second Lu is the crowd-pleasing Flower Monk, Lu Da (monastic name Lu Zhishen). The novel introduces Monk Lu by way of a friendly duel with Lin Chong, which also serves to instruct us in some of the metaphysics and ontology of Huang’s world (about magical power in stone-like substances called god’s teeth, which to me suggests the real-world Buddha’s teeth relics). Much like the character she is based on, Monk Lu is a delight to read. One of the great joys of Water Margin is its sheer vulgarity; Monk Lu thankfully serves to preserve this fine vernacular tradition, with her curses and coarse language. Every scene she’s in has me grinning and translating her lines into Mandarin out loud to experience her energy and enthusiasm, be it upbraiding herself or someone else:

“Sister Lin! Please speak. I’ve removed the manacles but I see no key for unlocking this awful cangue. I could tear it apart with my hands, surely I could, but the fragments would explode into your face and shred it bloody like cleavers. I could throw you over my shoulder and carry you to Liangshan without breaking it off, but the demon thing has nearly taken your head off already, so that would surely cause some ghastly injury, wouldn’t it? My god’s tooth would blast it to bits, but it’s the same problem, I’d crush up your tiny skull along with it and then where would we be. Oh! I should have learned better. Just as you told me, and as the monks said . . . Abbot Zhi was always telling me, ‘Lu Zhishen, you have great potential, if only you changed the way you do nearly everything.’ He was right, wasn’t he—’Deep and Profound,’ my eye, better call me ‘Head Full of Mud’ . . . ”

(Chapter 5)

Monk Lu is also a means by which Huang brings in discussions of class and the place of education in imperial life; her insecurities gnaw at her, despite her good-natured attitudes, yet they render her vulnerable to the machinations and ploys of those who call themselves her sisters. In a way, Monk Lu and Lin Chong are also a pair which exemplifies (wén wǔ shuāng quán) as the story emerges, with Monk Lu being the martial hero while Lin Chong gains knowledge as she reconstructs her episteme of her strange new world.

There are some things in Outlaws I did not enjoy as much; for example, I would have liked to see more of the common-folk, who play more frequent roles in Water Margin; Outlaws focuses on the characterisations of the larger-than-life heroes and villains, and where commoners do show up, they are likely to be killed, tortured, or otherwise victimised.

Also, the main plot attributes magical power to scholar’s stone, unusually shaped limestone formations of interest and value to Confucian high society; this was personally dissonant, as such stones are prestige objects in parks and private collections which I have come in contact with quite often. While I understand this is a reference to the historical Cai Jing’s 花石 (huā shí gāng) projects, which collected unusual rocks for Emperor Huizong’s pleasure gardens and parklands and disrupted many people’s lives and the economy, it still felt a little odd personally for these stones to possess such potency.

Shao Han is a Singaporean writer, TTRPG creator, cultural consultant, and independent researcher. He's currently working on Da Xia (大侠), a TTRPG melding wuxia and WW2 history in Japan-occupied Singapore. As @TanShaoHan, he tweets mostly about games, Southeast Asia, history, culture, cats, and Buddhism. Find him at https://www.tanshaohan.com/ and https://www.curiouschimeras.com/ .
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