Attributed to Shi Nai’an and written in vernacular Chinese, the story, set in the Song Dynasty, tells of how a group of 108 outlaws gathered at Mount Liang (or Liangshan Marsh) to form a sizable army before they are eventually granted amnesty by the government and sent on campaigns to resist foreign invaders and suppress rebel forces. The novel was originally titled in Chinese Jianghu Haoke Zhuan (江湖豪客傳), and the title was sometimes extended to Zhongyi Shuihu Zhuan (忠義水滸傳).
Folk stories of Song Jiang circulated during the Southern Song Dynasty. The first text to name Song Jiang’s 36 companions was Miscellaneous observations from the year of Guixin (癸辛雜識) by Zhou Mi, written in the 13th century. Among the 36 were Lu Junyi, Guan Sheng, Ruan Xiaoer, Ruan Xiaowu, Ruan Xiaoqi, Liu Tang, Hua Rong and Wu Yong. Some of the characters who later became associated with Song Jiang also appeared around this time. They include Sun Li, Yang Zhi, Lin Chong, Lu Zhishen and Wu Song.
A direct precursor of Water Margin was the Old incidents in the Xuanhe period of the great Song Dynasty (大宋宣和遺事), which appeared around the mid 13th century. The text is a written version of storytellers’ tales, based on supposed historical events. It is divided into ten chapters, roughly covering the history of the Song Dynasty from the early 11th century to the establishment of the Southern Song regime in 1127. The fourth chapter covers the adventures of Song Jiang and his 36 companions, and their eventual defeat by Zhang Shuye. Some of the more well known stories and characters in Water Margin are clearly visible, including “Yang Zhi sells his precious saber”, “Robbing the convoy of birthday gifts”, “Song Jiang kills Yan Poxi”, “Fighting Fang La”, among others. Song Jiang and his outlaws were said to operate in the Taihang Mountains.
Stories about the outlaws became a popular subject for Yuan Dynasty drama. During this time, the material on which Water Margin was based evolved into what it is in the present. The number of outlaws increased to 108. Even though they came from different backgrounds (including scholars, fishermen, imperial drill instructors etc.), all of them eventually came to occupy Mount Liang (or Liangshan Marsh). There is a theory that Water Margin became popular during the Yuan era as the common people (predominantly Han Chinese) resented the Mongol rulers. The outlaws’ rebellion was deemed “safe” to promote as it was supposedly a negative reflection of the fallen Song Dynasty. Concurrently, the rebellion was also a call for the common people to rise up against corruption in the government. The Chongzhen Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, acting on the advice of his ministers, banned the book as a means of preventing revolts. Source
The Shaw Brothers Movies about Water Margin and 108 outlaws ;