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February 20, 2011

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施耐庵 Shi Nai'an (1296-1370) - Author steeped in mystery

Shi Nai'an is widely believed to be the first author or compiler of "Water Margin" (also known as "Outlaws of the Marsh" or "All Men Are Brothers"), one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. The other three are: "Romance of Three Kingdoms," "Journey to the West" and "A Dream of Red Mansions."

Shi was born in today's Suzhou in Jiangsu Province. When he was 19, Shi passed the county-level civil service examinations and won the degree of Xiucai (or licentiate). When he was 30, he again sat for the provincial examinations and won the degree of Juren (or recommended man). Then, he went to the capital to take the imperial palace examination and was first quite confident that he could pass the test and obtain the title of Jinshi (or presented scholar). But he failed completely.

Feeling ashamed, he didn't want to return to his hometown, so he decided to accede to the office of a minor official in Yuncheng County in east China's Shandong Province. Yuncheng subsequently became an important setting in Shi's novel about rebels.

Later, Shi served in other offices, but eventually he resigned and went back home to teach and write.

Shi loved to sit in local teahouses to listen to stories circulating among the visitors there. Finally, he decided to write a novel based loosely on historical events involving Song Jiang, the leader of an army of rebels during the Song Dynasty in the 12th century.

Vividly describing the unusual tales about 108 outlaws, "Water Margin" is divided into 100 chapters and each chapter contains a relatively independent story. The chapter titles include: "Yang Zhi Sells His Precious Saber," "Robbing the Convoy of Birthday Presents," "Song Jiang Kills Yan Poxi" and "Dandy Monk Uproots a Big Willow Tree."

In the novel, the 108 outlaws all came from different backgrounds. They included the former chief military instructor of imperial guard troops, former government officials, monks, thieves, bandits, street peddlers and down-and-out scholars.

They eventually gathered at Mt Liang in southwest Shandong Province to build up a base to fight the troops sent by the imperial court.

The stories in the novel are so well-known that many of the book's heroes have become household names among Chinese speakers.

The novel is particularly loved by young readers as it hails the fight of the common people against the corruption of the authorities. But, some conservative scholars have suggested that "one should not read 'Water Margin'" when young, probably in an attempt to prevent the young from imitating the brave and violent revolt of the 108 outlaws.

There have always been debates on who's the real author of the novel and some even doubt that Shi Nai'an existed. Many believe that Shi was the author of the first 70 chapters and his student, Luo Guanzhong (the author of another Great Chinese Classical Novel, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms"), wrote the last 30 chapters.

But almost all agree that the popularity of "Water Margin" will last for as long as readers admire the heroism of the common people or corruption exists in the world.


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