Women in Water Margin: Repression of Romantic Love and Civil Service Examinations

Water Margin states several times that hao han have little interest in women. Song Jiang once articulated this code of sexual repression: What a hao han should be most ashamed of, what makes him a laughing stock, is to be swayed by born marrow (male bodily fluid). (Chapter 32)  This explicit prohibition reflects the general suppression of romantic love in the Han-Chinese tradition.


The Han tradition held the continuation of the house a most important human obligation; marriage was considered as a way to achieve this purpose. A marriage was a kind of contract between two families, with considerations for the social implication of the union, which required the parental consent. Emotions such as romantic love were not to interfere with the duty of continuation of the house, though, of course, they sometimes did.


While romantic love has been the major driving force in the development of literature in the European and Islamic traditions, in the Han Chinese tradition, romantic love was sidelined. Love was to be between husband and wife, not between two unmarried people. Since the nomadic people of the north and west, as well as the agrarian groups in the south, had more relaxed customs, stories of romantic love did exist, but were not considered moral by the Han Confucian standard. There is only one story of romantic love in Water Margin which occurs in the extended 120 chapter version. During the campaign against the warlord Tian Hu, a Liangshan general named Zhang Qing marries beautiful Qiong Ying. 


When Qiong Ying was ten years old, local bandit Tian Hu killed her wealthy parents and stole their property. Tian Hu’s step brother, Lang Li, noticed how lovely Qiong Ying was and took her to his childless wife who was very happy to adopt her. In order to stay close to and protect Qiong Ying, Ye Qing, who had been the head servant to Qiong Ying’s slain father, pledged loyalty to Lang Li. Ye Qing made his wife serve as a maid to Qiong Ying, and worked hard to gain Lang Li’s trust.


Even though she grew up in Lang Li’s household well cared for, Qiong Ying could not forget her real parents’ fate and kept seeking an opportunity to avenge them. When she was sixteen, a spirit appeared in Qiong Ying’s dream and taught her martial arts to help her avenge her parents. One night, the spirit brought a young general and made him teach the technique of finger-shooting stones. This young general was Zhang Qing, nicknamed Featherless Arrow for his deadly stone shooting skill. The spirit told Qiong Ying that she was destined to marry this young general.


Qiong Ying told her adoptive mother that a spirit appeared in her dream to teach her martial skills so that she could assist Lang Li become a king. Qiong Ying’s skill impressed not only Lang Li, but also Tian Hu. Qiong Ying became a general of Tian Hu’s army and faced off the Liangshan bandits army.


Song Jiang and his men found Tian Hu’s army tough to beat, and were looking for a break in the stalemate. The break came through Ye Qing. Tian Hu was hit by a poison arrow during a battle and needed a doctor who knew how to handle this particular poison. On the pretext of searching for a doctor, Ye Qing left Tian Hu’s army and secretly sought a meeting with Song Jiang. Ye Qing told him that Qiong Ying had been seeking to avenge her parents, and asked him to help her to destroy Tian Hu’ army from the inside. Song Jiang was not sure whether to believe Ye Qing. Doctor An Dao-quan, however, happened to know that Zhang Qing met beautiful Qiong Ying in his dream. (Zhang Qing fell sick because of his longing for her, and An Dao-quan had to coax the story out of him so that he could properly care for him.) An Dao-quan persuaded Song Jiang to let him and Zhang Qing accompany Ye Qing and infiltrate the enemy camp.


An Dao-quan successfully healed Tian Hu, who, in turn, invited An Dao-quan and Zhang Qing to join his army. Knowing that some were suspicious that An Dao-quan and Zhang Qing were spies, Ye Qing challenged Zhang Qing to a battle. Qiong Ying recognized Zhang Qing’s face and his fighting style. In order to make sure that he was the general in her dream, she jumped into the battle and shot a stone at him. The first stone, Zhang Qing caught with ease, and the second, he shuttered mid-air by his own stone. Qiong Ying knew he was the one.


Ye Qing proposed that Qiong Ying married Zhang Qing, since she had earlier declared that she would marry only a person who could shoot stones as well as she did. The wedding took place, and the newly-weds spent the honeymoon night exchanging their life stories and plotting to destroy Tian Hu. Zhang Qing, Qiong Ying, Ye Qing, and An Dao-quan staged a coup and took the control of Lang Li’s household. They then sent a forged invitation to Tian Hu, using Lang Li’s name. Ting Li unsuspectingly came to Tian Hu’s residence where Qiong Ying avenged her parents. The Liangshan bandits’ expedition, thus, came to a successful conclusion. (Chapter 98-99)


Zhang Qing died during the last Liangshan expedition against Fang La, which Qiong Ying did not join because of a pregnancy. By the time the news of his death reached her, Qiong Ying was the mother of a son, named Zhang Jie (Chinese women keep their own family fame after marriage, but the children are given the father’s family name, in this case Zhang). Qiong Ying cried her eyes out and immediately set off to collect his coffin so that she could give him a proper funeral. Faithful Ye Qing also passed away soon afterwards. With the help of Ye Qing’s widow, Qiong Ying raised the son and lived the life of a chaste widow. Zhang Jie grew up to become a great warrior, and distinguished himself during the expedition against the northern Jin kingdom, which earned him an official rank. Instead of serving in the official capacity, Zhang Jie chose to go home to serve his mother till her death. He also told the emperor of his mother’s story so as to ensure that people would hear of her faithfulness and righteousness. (Chapter 110)


Zhang Qing fell ill because of his longing for Qiong Ying. Romantic love between two unmarried people was not socially acceptable, so the lovers were expected to encounter obstacles. Such obstacle-ridden love stories even forms a literary genre called the Beauty and the Talented (才子佳人). The early Qing dynasty era (seventeenth century) novel Hao Qiu Zhuan (The Story of a Good Match) is a prime example of such storytelling.


Hao Qiu Zhuan tells the story of  how Miss Shui (Shu Bingxin), who was not only stunningly beautiful but also intelligent and courageous, and Iron Prince (Tie Zhong Bao), who was also stunningly good-looking, well learned,  and a great hero, came to marry. Because romantic love is morally impermissible, these two have to overcome many obstacles until finally making their union morally respectable.


Miss Shui, the belle of belles, received an unwanted marriage proposal from the local bigwig Guo Long-gong’s son. Though she managed to fend off his marriage proposal many times, when Guo Long-gong became a minister at the court, things got trickier. Guo Long-gong framed Miss Shui’s father, so he lost his position and had to leave for a remote location for a new post. Miss Shui, who had lost her mother early, had no protector at home. The Guo father and son, then, bribed the local magistrate to issue an order that Miss Shui should marry Guo Junior. Miss Shui could find no way out of the unwanted marriage this time.


            On her way to the forced wedding, her bridal procession happened to cross the way with Iron Prince. Knowing his reputation as the protector of those in distress, Miss Shui called out for help. After hearing her story, Iron Prince rushed to the local magistrate to demand this illegal order for her forced marriage be withdrawn. Since Iron Prince was such a well-known hero, the magistrate had to comply. The magistrate, however, hatched a plan to get rid of this pesky young hero. The magistrate invited Iron Prince to stay at his mansion as an honored guest, and one day poisoned him.


            Knowing the person of the magistrate, Miss Shui was suspicious of his intentions in keeping Iron Prince. She maneuvered to get a servant at the magistrate’s house to serve as her informant. Learning through the informant that Iron Prince was gravely ill, Miss Shui immediately took him into her household to nurse him back to health. Morality dictated that Miss Shui could not nurse him in person. Her maid did the actual nursing while Miss Shui stayed in the next room, asked questions and gave directions. Iron Prince got better and Miss Shui hosted a feast to celebrate his recovery. Since morality dictated that she should not be seen by him, this feast was held in a room divided by a curtain, with a maid relaying the conversation between Miss Shui and Iron Prince. They recognized each other’s sharp brain and high morality and fell in love, but without acknowledging their love for each other.


            Iron Prince left for the capital to take the higher levels of civil service examinations (More about civil service examinations later). He passed it with the flying colors and became a favorite of the emperor. Iron Prince uncovered how Guo Long-gong had framed Miss Shui’s father, and obtained the imperial order to restore his honor and promote him.


            Miss Sui’ father, now Minister Shui, paid a visit to Iron Prince to thank him. Minister Shui found Iron Prince to be an impeccable young man and asked him to marry his daughter. Iron Prince firmly declined. Undaunted, Minister Shui formally proposed the marriage to Iron Prince’s parents. His parents were very happy, but Iron Prince absolutely refused to marry her. The perplexed mother asked why. Is she ugly? No, she is beautiful beyond words. Is she dull-witted? No, she is smarter than any devil. Is she immoral in some way? No, she possesses the highest moral. What is your problem, then? Iron Prince finally explained. I adore her so much that I cannot forget her even in my sleep. However, I am not predestined to marry her. If I were, I would have met her under better circumstances. Considering that we met in the time of her distress, I have to conclude that I am not meant to marry her.


            Iron Prince’s story only convinced his parents that this was indeed a great match. They sent the letter of acceptance to Minister Shui. Now it was Miss Shui’s turn to refuse. Minister Shui was even more convinced than ever that Iron Prince and his daughter would make a great match. But he knew better than trying to overrule her objection.


            Miss Shui and Iron Prince kept attracting unwanted marriage proposals. Iron Princes’ father conferred with Minister Shui and decided to hold the wedding, to fend off unwanted proposals. Because their continued refusal to marry would put their fathers in awkward positions, Miss Shui and Iron Prince had to agree to the wedding.


            They wed. However, these morality-obsessed lovebirds decided to keep the marriage as pretense and remain friends, despite their deep affection for each other. Though having wed, Miss Shui remained in the Shui household. Because Miss Shui did not live in her husband’s household, this wedding did not stem the pressure of unwanted marriage proposals which kept on coming. Miss Shui, therefore, had to agree to move into the Tie household.


The Guo father and son still did not give up. They brought a suit against Miss Shui and Iron Prince, accusing them for adultery. The suit claimed that since they lived in the same house (when Iron Prince was ill) while they were not married, Miss Sui and Iron Prince must have committed adultery.


            The emperor became the final judge in this strange law suit. The emperor asked the empress to examine Miss Shui. The empress reported that Miss Shui was indeed a virgin. The emperor punished the Guo father and son for the false accusation and lavished praise on Miss Shui and Iron Prince. Only then, Miss Sui and Iron Prince allowed themselves to hold the real wedding, to finally consummate their marriage.


This convoluted love story of Miss Sui and Iron Prince was introduced to Europe as early as in the eighteenth century, where it attracted the attention of the greatest of German Romantic novelists, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Goethe praised this novel as a “rare concordance of morality and poetical beauty.” The author of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) clearly did not see this love story absurd or contrived. And considering the popularity of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe was far from being alone in his appreciation of subordination romantic love to morality.


Qiong Ying and Zhang Qing follow the similar patterns of repression of their love. When Zhang Qing fell desperately in love with Qiong Ying, he did not know how to deal with it, because hao han are not supposed to show interest in women. He fell sick because of his inner conflict. An Dao-quan had to wok hard on him to coax the real cause of his sickness out of him. Once learning this secret, An Dao-shan not only kept his patient’s information confidential but also maneuvered to solve his patient’s sickness for one and for all—by taking on the mission to penetrate the enemy fortress so that Zhang Qing could be united with Qiong Ying.

While Qiong Ying and Zhang Qing follow the social acceptable mode of repression of romantic love, two of the three female Liangshan 108 bandits came from a different mold. One is named Sun Er Niang. She was the daughter of a highway robber, and taught martial arts by her father. Before joining the Lingshan, she ran a tavern with her husband. They had the despicable habit of poisoning travelers to steal their possessions, and using their meat in the steamed buns they sold. She liked meaty victims, so she once poisoned Flowery Monk Lu Zhishen.  She also tried to make Wu Song drink her poison wine. Wu Song noticed her evil intentions, and grabbed her. Her husband and father had to profusely apologize to save her.  This encounter led to Wu Song and Sun Er Niang's husband Zhang Qing to become sworn brothers. (Chapter 27) Zhang Qing and Su Er Nian were the ones who later supplied Wu Song wandering Buddhist practitioner's outfit (which belonged to the one they had killed.)  She is described as having murderous aura around her, and nicknamed Devil Mother.

The other female bandit is Gu Dasao. She ran a tavern, casino, and a slaughter house, and was strong enough to beat twenty, thirty men with bare hands. She and her husband joined the bandits after she decided to help her brother-in-law escape from a prison. She was nicknamed Mother Dragon. (Chapter 49) Though their nicknames call them Mother, this naming is a show of respect, not necessarily mean they were actually mothers.


After they had joined the Liangshan, they ran taverns in nearby towns together with their husbands, to collect information for the bandits. Though both of them were made up heavily and dressed up for running their taverns, they are  described as having thick waist, thus lacking the desirable attribute of female beauty. (The desirable attribute is the willowy slender waist.) They both showed dislike for traditional female art such as sawing and embroidery, but had particular fondness for yielding weapons. They led a division of 1,000 together with the third female bandit Hu San Niang when the bandits laid a siege of Beijing. These bandits ladies clearly marked as exceptional (not necessarily in a good sense) and socially undesirable (or scary) women.

The third female bandit, Hu San Niang, is more of the standard Han Chinese mold. Hu San Niang was the third daughter of a warlord. She was young, tall, beautiful, and a skilled warrioress. This young beauty, however, got married off to a rather unworthy husband, Wang Ying, nicknamed Stumpy Tiger.  Wang Ying was a lesser member of the bandits. Not only lesser in the physical stature (as the nickname of Stumpy makes it clear), he behaved less than an ideal hao han should; he lusted after women. One day, Wang Ying saw a woman captured by the bandits, and wanted her for his concubine. Song Jiang wanted to send her back home safely because she happened to be the wife of the colleague of his friend Hua Rong. This is when Song Jiang uttered the words quoted in the opening (“What a hao han should be most ashamed of, what makes him a laughing stock, is to be swayed by born marrow persuaded “) He persuaded Wang Ying to give her up by promising that he would find a suitable wife for Wang Ying. (Chapter 32)


When Hu San Niang became a prisoner of war, Song Jiang requested that Hu San Niang married Wang Ying. Considering that San Niang had earlier defeated Wang Ying in a battle and captured him as a prisoner, it is hard to imagine Hu San Niang would have been happy to marry Wang Ying. This guy was not only stumpy but also a lesser warrior, with no apparent redeeming qualities. She, however, could not bear to say no, because Song Jiang had adopted her as daughter—her family was slaughtered by Li Kui because of misunderstandingand because she understood the depth of Song Jiang’s commitment to keep his words. Hu San Niang and Wang Ying thanked Song Jiang and got married. (Chapter 50) This union is much in reminiscence of the beauty and beast union of dazzlingly beautiful Deng Chanyu and midget Daoist Tu Xingsun in Creation of Lesser Gods. Hu San Niang led her own division in wars, fought male generals on equal footing, and even captured them.  This couple remained childless and both perished during the last Liangshan expedition against the warlord Fang La.


Except for the two formidable bandit ladies Sun Er Nang and Gu Sao, there are few happy wives described in Water Margin. Wives are mentioned only in passing; they get described only when they are unlucky or bad. Lin Chong’s beautiful wife took her own life to remain faithful to him. Most other prominent women in the story are described as untrustworthy, causing nothing but trouble to men, such as Yan Poxi, Song Jiang’s adulterous concubine, and Lu Junyi’s faithless wife. Against the backdrop of these sorry episodes, Qiong Ying’s story works as an antidote as the promises of conjugal and familial love that binds the human society together.


Though it looks conventional, Qiong Ying’s story has some interesting twists. Her son Zhang Jie became a warrior, and once gained an official rank, which came with a stipend, returned home to serve mother. Zhang Jie refused to take the much coveted honor of being an official.  


Becoming an official, especially a court official, was synonymous with success and fortune in imperial China. China introduced the imperial civil service examination system (keju: 科舉 ) during the Sui dynasty (581-618), which, with some disruptions, such as during the first years of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, lasted until 1905. Before the introduction of keju, officials were appointed mostly from among the aristocrats and through recommendations of local powerbrokers. The reason the emperor introduced the system was to reduce the power of local warlords and concentrate the power to the imperial court by building the central bureaucracy. (Conversely, the abolition of the civil examination system weakened the authority of the central government, which led to warlordism in the early twentieth century. The communist government introduced a national higher education entrance examination system in 1952.) During the Tang dynasty era (618-907) the examinations consisted of two rounds, examinations held locally and in the capital.


The Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) fully established civil service examinations as the system of advancement, by making the successful candidates landed gentries. The Northern Song dynasty added the third round of examinations that was held at the imperial court, to further ensure officials’ loyalty to the emperor. The Song dynasty era was the time of remarkable economic growth in China. This prosperity increased the pool of available candidates. It is estimated that some 14,000 applied for 300 to 400 positions available at the examinations that were held every three years. In the later Ming (1368-1644.) and Qin (1644-1912) dynasty era, the system added more layers and competition got fiercer. In the Qin dynasty era, civil service examination talkers had to pass eleven rounds of testing in order to become an official of the central government at the imperial court. About one in 3,000 candidates made it through to this level.


Since the Song dynasty era, practically all literate men dreamed of passing the examination and serve in the central government. Though achieving officialdom through military service was always another option, the Han-Chinese society placed premium on book learning and considered civil service as the pinnacle of success. In its ideal, the civil service examination system ensured a path for every bright young man to climb to the top by proving his superior intellect by passing examinations. In reality, the heavy financial burden of education made the examination taking doable only for the affluent minority of the society.


The families who could afford education pressed their sons hard to study for the civil service examinations, which required mastering the Confucian classics as well as being able to compose elegant poetry in beautiful calligraphy. Since fathers often had professional obligations outside of the house and were not avoidable for supervision, mothers had to take charge of preschool age children’s’ education. For this reason, the literati family’s daughters had basic classics learning, if not by reading and writing, at least by ear. In the late Min and Qing dynasty era where the competition got fiercer, pregnant mothers of literati family went through a prenatal education regimen which included behaving impeccably (to instill the baby morality), and listing to recitations of the classics. (Baby Mozart is nothing new.) After all, the fortune of the family, even of the entire clan, was depending upon the sons’ success in the examinations.


Because the civil service examination taking was the family and the even clan-wide enterprise, the civil service examination system rewarded not only the successful candidates, but also their wives, parents and even relatives, by conferring them honorable titles. Mothers were entitled to receive the title of ladyship, the government certificate of being a moral and wise mother.


Though certificates are no longer issued, this tradition still yields influence. When a son or daughter succeeds, people of the Confucian culture routinely acknowledge the mother’s educational effort, saying, “That wise mother enabled the child (to succeed).” This recognition of the mother’s influence over children is what still drives, for good or bad, Asian mothers of the Confucian cultural sphere to push their children hard in academics. However, Amy Chua type Tiger Mother is a modern phenomenon. While her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is marketed in the US as a Chinese mother story, in China, it is marketed under the title of Being Mom in America, i.e., as an “overseas Chinese” and foreign story.


In Water Margin, Qiong Ying’s son Zhang Jie made sure that his mother would be known for her faithfulness and righteousness that contributed to his success, but did not choose to keep working for the central government. This is consistent with the novel’s general anti-government sentiment, but also seems to indicate the author’s complex feeling about the establishment. 


Becoming a writer was usually not by choice, but the result of not passing the civil service examinations. The South Song Chinese were even barred from the examination in the Yuan dynasty era. Frustration at the civil servant establishment is expressed very explicitly by Song Jiang’s closest friend Hua Rong, Commandant of the Clear Winds Fort. Upon meeting Hua Rong, Song Jiang told him that he saved his colleague’s wife. Far from being grateful, Hua Rong replied that Song Jiang should have taken the opportunity to shut her mouth permanently. Surprised Song Jiang asked the reason of Hua Rong’s harshness, and Huan Rong broached his grievances against his civil servant superior Liu Gao:

“Of course, you don’t know. I don’t mean to brag, but this Clear Wind Fort defends the vital area of Qingzhou. If I were the sole commander, I wouldn’t let the local bullies raid and exploit the people. Now this greedy, contemptible scum Liu has been installed as my superior commander. Though he is a civilian official (and supposedly well-educated), he understands nothing of morality. He’s been exploiting the locals from the day he took the office, disregarding the law, and doing whatever he wants. I’m the military commandant, so I ‘m outranked and face indignity every day. I even thought of killing the disgusting lowlife! Why did you, Brother, have to save such a trash’s wife? Why, she’s a nasty piece of work, always cajoling him to do more evil, driving him to harm people, ever hungry for more bribes. She deserves insult and humiliation. Brother, you saved a worthless woman!”(Chapter 32)


Song Jiang reminded Hua Rong that a wise man’s way would be to overlook Liu’s shortcomings and praise his virtues. However, Liu and his wife proved to be beyond redemption by such polite tactics. Liu’s wife made Liu arrest Son Jiang as the bandit who kidnapped her, and had him tortured. Hua Rong had to rescue Song Jiang, which made Hua Rong rebel, to join the Liangshan bandits. As a bandit, Hua Rong gained the liberty to capture Liu and executed him together with his wife, to do the right thing for local people. (Chapters 33-35)


Many such stories of civil servants’ despicable behaviors are told. During the imperial age of China, there was a saying, “Become an official, become rich.” It reflects the social reality that government officials tended (and still tend) to get fat on bribes. Civil service examination system itself perpetuated the problem. Educating sons for civil service examinations was an expensive undertaking. Because there were no such thing as free public education—except for a short period from the mid-Northern Song (mid twelfth century) to Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) era when the dynasty ran the public university whose graduates had the same status as having passed civil service examinations—the role of the family was paramount in education. Sons’ education often required financial help from the extended family, which, in return, produced reciprocal obligations. Once obtained an official position, the new official was expected to help all the extended family members who had helped him to get there. With the interconnected web of relations, the number of people an official was expected to feed could reach 100 or more, while he was getting paid barely enough to feed his own family. The system bled officials' embezzling.


Against such backdrop, the story of Qiong Ying, the wise mother of a great warrior who refused to serve as an official becomes a criticism of the society that placed so much emphasis on civil service career. Being a bandit novel, Water Margin is already a criticism of the existing authority. By adding the story of Qiong Ying,  Yang Dingjian, the author of these chapters.  subversively added his own.


施耐庵 水浒传

Shinji Komada, trans, Suikoden (Water Margin), 3 vols. (Tokyo, Heibon-sha, 1972).

John Dent-Young and Alex Dent-Young, trans, Mount Liang by Shi Nai'an and Luo Guanzhong, 5 vols. (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1994-2002).

Sidney Shapiro, trans, Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong, Ourtlaws of the Marsh,  4 vols.(Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1993).

名教中人   好逑傳 (The Story of  a Good Match).

Ei Muramatsu, Chugoku Retsujo Den (Dragon Ladies of China) (Tokyo: Chuo Koron-sha, 1968).

Ishisada Miyazaki, Kakyo: Chugoku no Shiken Jigoku (Chinese Imperial Civil Service Examination System), revised ed., (Tokyo: Chuo Koron, 2003).

Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance (New Haven/ London: Yale University Press, 1981).

David Pierson, “Tiger Mother' hits Chinese bookshelves,” Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2011.  

Co Kyo (Zhang Jing), Koi no Chugoku Bunmei-shi (Love in Chinese History) (Tokyo: Chikuma  Shoten, 1993).

Wang Yong, "Suikoden no Bunnka-shi" (Cultural History of Water Margin), Japanology of China.