Ever heard of the Chinese Shuihu Zhuan? For most people, it probably sounds like a menu at their favorite Asian restaurant in Berlin-Moabit. However, few people know that these are Chinese Robin Hoods and that Shuihu Zhuan are the model for the Japanese Suikoden of the 18th century.
Shuihu Zhuan -more than just a fairy tale
The Shuihu Zhuan is a collection of Chinese tales. The events described are said to have taken place in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1125). 108 Chinese rebels, under the command of Song Jiang, revolted against the corrupt and unjust regime.
The rebels left their normal lives behind and sought refuge with the brigands in the mountains near Liangshan Marsh (today’s Shandong Province). Their reasons included oppression, crime, or defeat in the struggle against the regime.
As we know from the story of Robin Hood, the robbers in their community followed a strict code of honor: honor, loyalty and a sense of justice drove the men and women to action. They actively work against the injustice of the Chinese regime and help friends in difficult situations. To achieve their goals, they also never shy away from using violence.
Atrocities necessary in their eyes, such as murder and beheadings, are described in detail in the novella. Centuries later, this would inspire Japanese artists such as Hokusai, Kunoyoshi to bring to life impressive woodblock prints depicting their adventures.
Stars of heaven
The novella consists of about 70 chapters. The first 30 chapters introduce the individual characters who are hiding from the government in Liangshan. Later, the deeds and the coming together of the whole group are described, which is constantly growing. The original edition concludes with the appearance of a stone tablet. Here the names of the 108 rebels are listed as a heavenly message. The the Chinese Shuihu Zhuan are divided into 36 leaders and 72 subordinates. As “Stars of Heaven”, the names of the leaders are shown on the front. While the “Stars of Earth”, the subordinates appear on the back of the stone tablet.
The Moral Death of Song Jiang
As we do with orally transmitted fairy tales, the stories were changed through time. In order to generate more sales, book sellers greatly adapted the stories, which were said to be based on true events, starting in the 16th century. For example, the “short” 70 chapter version was expanded to longer versions with up to 120 chapters. The newer versions include Song Jiang’s desire to join military forces and fight robbers and criminal gangs himself. These novellas, unlike the original, end with the death of him and his fellow soldiers. This adaptation lends a certain morality to the ending, as no crime should go unpunished.
How Shuihu Zhuan became the Suikoden
In the 18th century, the demand for literature increased in Japan, as it was now accessible to everyone. During this period, special Japanese scholars studied the Chinese language to expand their literary knowledge. It is therefore not surprising that Shuihu Zhuan also fell into the hands of Japanese scholars. Okajima Kanzan translated and simplified the story around 1727, and about 100 chapters were published. The the Chinese Shuihu Zhuan thus became the “Suikoden – Stories of the Water Margin”.
The detailed stories of the Suikoden were perfect for woodblock prints. Inspired by these, Bakin, the most popular yomihon author, and Hokusai, an illustrator, joined forces. Around 1838, they published the “Shinpen Suikogaden”. At the same time, 1827 – 1830, a series of woodblock prints by the artist Kuniyoshi on the same theme called “Suikoden” was published. Who inspired whom is still unclear. However, the Suikoden brought the hitherto little successful Kuniyoshi his long-awaited and deserved success.
and if he didn’t die…
By the way, it is typical for Chinese novellas that the end remains open, so that the readers stay on the ball. We use this tradition and tell you how the Japanese tattooing “Irezumi” from forced tattoos to full body tattoos on everyday heroes has moulted.
So you can look forward to another series – the Suikoden – besides the series about the 7 gods of luck, which will make your hearts of Japanese tattoo art beat faster.