Chinese Culture Through the Great Novels: The Water Margin Shuǐ Hǔ Zhu – Outlier Linguistics

Learn about Chinese culture through the great novels

A full course on The Water Margin 水滸傳, taught by an expert!

  • In this online course we will cover one of the world's greatest novels, The Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳; also called All Men Are Brothers and Outlaws of the Marsh in English), as a lens into Chinese culture, history, and literature.

    A remarkable novel that first appeared in the sixteenth century, the Water Margin narrates the various journeys and eventual assembly of 108 bandit-heroes, each who were forced to become outlaws after suffering injustices at the hands of corrupt officials and the declining authority of the Northern Song Kingdom.

    This course will maintain a brisk tempo at 8 chapters per week, with insights on key chapters, plotlines, characters, motifs, and connections to Chinese culture, but of course you’ll get lifetime access to the lessons, so there’s no pressure to keep pace.


The course starts June 11, 2024. Sign up now so you don't miss it!

Online Course with 12+ hours of video lessons (plus Q&A sessions!), just $299 $199 using discount code 'watermargin' at checkout!

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Rated 4.8/5 by 1000's of Chinese learners

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The course will follow Sidney Shapiro's outstanding translation, Outlaws of the Marsh. The book is four volumes (though don't be intimidated—it's affordable and it isn't heavy reading) and we'll be covering 8 chapters per week.


In addition to discussing the novel itself, there will be lectures on relevant aspects of Ming history, culture, and literature, including literary criticism, historical sources of the novel, China’s fascinating fiction commentary tradition, martial arts & wuxia, and Chinese masculinity.

Lifetime Access

Lessons will take place over a 12-week period, but like all of our courses, you'll be able to access all of the materials after it's finished. No need to stress about keeping up—you'll be able to go at a slower pace if you want!

  1. Week 1: Chapters 1-8
    Week 2: Chapters 9-16
    Week 3: Chapters 17-24
    Week 4: Chapters 25-32
    Week 5: Chapters 33-40
    Week 6: Chapters 40-48
    Week 7: Chapters 49-56
    Week 8: Chapters 57-64
    Week 9: Chapters 65-72
    Week 10: Chapters 73-80
    Week 11: Chapters 81-88
    Week 12: Chapters 89-100

  3. Each lesson will include a discussion of the book chapters plus talks on relevant aspects of Ming history, culture, and literature. There will also be weekly live Q&A "office hours" sessions with Dr. Lem.

16th-17th century China witnessed one of the most robust commercial publishing markets in Chinese history. At the book market, one could purchase classics, histories, examination aids, how-to manuals, almanacs, literary collections, and much more, all catered to increasingly diverse readers. This demand for book of all kinds would lead to the popularity of more entertaining books, among them novels (xiaoshuo) which led to the elevation of the “Four Masterworks” that would grow out of this literary genre.

Among the Four Masterworks, the Water Margin is certainly one of the most popular, entertaining, and thought-provoking. It narrates the assembly of the 108 bandit-heroes of the Liangshan Marsh and their dilemma between holding up the oath of sworn fraternal honor and remaining loyal to the emperor. Specifically, the Water Margin deals with tropes common to human nature: honor vs. betrayal, rebellion vs. submission, sworn friendship vs. duty to one’s country, and freedom vs. domination. The seemingly contradictory nature of the novel and the potentially subversive ideas it presents through vivid descriptions of sex, violence, and transgression certainly caused some premodern Chinese literary critics to deem this book as damaging to the moral Confucian order. Yet, as we shall see in this course, the Water Margin is actually a highly complex novel that simultaneously elevates and complicates the traditional understanding of the novel and Confucian moral code, achieved through a complex author and reader dynamic, various narrative devices, and sophisticated characterization combined with a compelling plot.

This will be a 12-week reading-intensive course. We will use the 100-chapter edition of Water Margin, translated by Sidney Shapiro, across five volumes. Students are also welcome to use various additions of the 100-chapter edition in Chinese. Supplemental readings from literary critics and Chinese historians will be provided. We will cover the book at a rate of 8 chapters per lesson, with each class week being split between a discussion of the book and lectures on relevant aspects of Ming history, culture, and literature, including literary criticism, historical sources of the novel, China’s fascinating fiction commentary tradition, martial arts & wuxia, and Chinese masculinity.

This course will be taught live, as a combination of video lessons and Q&A (though if you can't make it to the live Q&A sessions you can watch the recordings later). The weekly live Q&A sessions will be held via Zoom.

Can I go at my own pace? Will I be able to access the course once it's finished?

Yes! Our courses are all self-paced, though they're initially taught live. You can keep pace with the "live" course—we'll cover 8 chapters per week—or you can go at your own pace. Once the course is complete, we'll keep everything available online so that you can continue to go through it at your own pace.

How much Chinese do I need to know to take this course?

None! This is not a language course, so it will be taught entirely in English. We'll be reading the novel in English translation, although you may also read the novel in Chinese if you wish to read the original.

How long does the course take to complete?

There are 12 lessons, and we'll be releasing one lesson per week. The course begins on 11 June and ends on 30 August, 2024.

How much time will it require per lesson?

Each lesson/week covers 8 chapters in the novel, so you need to set aside time to do that reading. There will also be 1-2 hours of video lessons per 8-chapter block.

We'll also do a live "office hour" session once a week on Zoom, so you can pop in and ask questions if you'd like. There will also be a discussion forum, so if you can't make it to the office hours, you can still get your questions answered.

Will I need anything (apps, etc.) in order to take the course?

We'll be following Sidney Shapiro's translation, Outlaws of the Marsh, so you'll need a copy of that—either digital or print is fine. Any additional readings will be supplied in PDF form.

What time will the lessons be?

The video lessons for this course will be pre-recorded, not live, and we'll be posting one lesson per week (on Monday) for you to watch at your own pace. Dr. Lem will hold live Q&A sessions each week, with the time TBA—we'll try to schedule it at a time that's convenient for as many time zones as possible.

Can I study at my own pace or do I have to take the course live?

Either way. It's a self-paced course, and we'll be releasing one lesson per week starting 11 June 2024. But you don't need to feel pressured to keep pace! Live Q&A sessions will be happening weekly throughout the initial 12 weeks (while we're releasing new lessons), and will continue once or twice a month once the course is completely released.

Keep in mind that if you can't show up to the live Q&A sessions, you'll be able to watch the replay at any time. Many people don't show up for the live session, but just watch the replay at their own pace. That's totally fine! You can also post to the course discussion board to get your questions answered.

What does "lifetime access" mean?

In practical terms, it means the course materials will be available online for as long as Outlier is in business. If we do ever go out of business or otherwise need to remove the course for any reason, we'll make the material available for you to download for a period of at least 6 months.

Can I get a refund if I decide the course isn't for me?

Yes! Our usual refund policy is "30 days from purchase," but since the course doesn't start until 11 June, we'll extending the refund date to "the 11th of July." If you sign up after 11 June, then the 30-day policy applies, as usual. If you decide you don't like the course for whatever reason, just reach out by then and we'll be happy to refund you!

Will there be assignments or homework?

You'll need to set aside time each week to read the assigned passages—about 8 chapters per week. Though keep in mind that since you have lifetime access, there's no pressure to keep pace with the live course—you can always watch the lessons later at your own pace!

Can we collaborate with other students or form study groups?

Definitely! Our live courses have up to a few hundred students enrolled, so there should be plenty of students of all backgrounds and interests in this course too.

And sure, working together is no problem! We'll have a private online community where you can work together, ask questions, share notes, etc.

Your Instructor

Dr. Henry Lem

Henry began his journey in Chinese literature at Portland State University and would later continue studies in China and Taiwan, the latter where he earned his Master’s degree in Chinese literature. After spending a few years in Taiwan traveling, translating, writing, and teaching, Henry returned to the United States to earn his doctoral degree in Chinese language and literature at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Combining research in late imperial Chinese fiction, hermeneutics, and Confucianism with interests in masculinity, martial arts, and teaching, Henry served as Assistant Professor at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) from 2020-2022, where he taught language, culture, and literature courses. His research has appeared in Frontiers of Literary Studies in China, Ming Qing Studies, and various academic journals in Taiwan.

Sign up now!

Online Course with 16+ hours of video lessons (plus Q&A sessions!), just $299 $199 using discount code 'cursive' at checkout!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Rated 4.8/5 by hundreds of Chinese learners