The Suikoden (The Water Margin)

A bearded figure in a flowing yellow robe is holding a sword upright in his right hand. At his feet a gigantic snake with black scales and light green belly scales has its mouth open aggressively baring its fangs.

This print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi depicts Ju’unryu Kosonsho from the Suikoden. The vivid colours and movement in the picture make it easy to understand why these print series became so popular. They’re gorgeous.

The Suikoden is the Japanese translation of a classic Chinese novel titled Shui Hu Zhuan. The translation in to Japanese is the ‘Suikoden’ and both are most often rendered into English as ‘The Water Margin’. This novel, its translation into Japanese, and the ukiyo-e illustrations that accompanied the translation, were responsible for launching a Japanese tattoos craze and culture that endures to this day.

The Water Margin tells the tale of a band of outlaws that form around the marshes that surround Mount Liang (in Japanese the mountain is called Ryosanpaku). There are 108 outlaws that make up this ‘band of merry men’. Get it? That’s a reference to a Western equivalent, Robin Hood and his band of outlaws.  In this case their Sherwood Forest would be the Marshes of Mount Liang.  These marshes formed the ‘water margin’ surrounding the mountain.

However the characters of The Water Margin don’t all focus on a central hero. It is in fact a massive collection of stories broken into multiple chapters wherein various characters take central stage in various adventures.  This band is led by Song Jiang after the death of their first leader Chao Gai.  The central theme being that the band of outlaws are in conflict with the corrupt government and officials of Emperor Huizong.

The Water Margin in Japan

The earliest recorded version of The Water Margin is a 100-chapter edition that is traced back to 1589. There are also 70-chapter and 120-chapter versions that date to the 16th-17th century.  But the 100-chapter collection is generally considered the base edition.

The authorship of the novel is uncertain but is often attributed to Shi Nai’an, sometimes alongside various other Chinese writers famous during that era. Japanese translations of The Water Margin became available just over a century and a half later. Historians are more certain of the identity of the Japanese translators that helped popularize the novel in their native land.

The first recorded versions of a Japanese translation of The Water Margin occur in the latter half of the 18th century. But it’s not until the edition begun in 1805 with illustrations by Katsushika Hokusai and penned by the author Kyokutei Bakin that the story became quite popular. This version in Japanese is titled ‘Shinpen Suikogaden‘. The completion of this took quite some time, spanning the years 1805-1838. During this period the translator Bakin and illustrator Hokusai had a falling out and Takai Ranzan subsequently replaced Bakin as translator. Despite this lengthy stretch of time and change of translators the novel was a great success in Japan.

A black and white diptych of four warriors clutching themselves in pain. There are clouds of smoke in the curling in the background.

A black and white diptych by Hokusai shows four warriors clutching themselves in pain during an attack. There are clouds of smoke in the curling in the background.

Tattoos and The Water Margin

A large figure naked from the waist up is holding a staff horizontally in front of his face. He has curling blue tattoos on his shoulders and coming around his sides. There is a red octopus tattoo on his shoulder.

Cao Zheng is one of the tattooed figures from the Suikoden. In this print by Kuniyoshi you can see his blue tattoos with a red octopus on his shoulders and sides.

So how do tattoos come into play? How do you go from a classic Chinese novel to traditional Japanese tattoos? Well it turns out that four of the main heroes in The Water Margin are tattooed.  In the ‘Shinpen Suikogaden’ the character Shishin has nine dragons, Rochishin is tattooed with cherry blossoms, Choujun with blossoms or pine spray, and Ensei with peonies.  Apparently as the story caught on with the general public it was these characters, amongst all the outlaws, that were quite popular.

Around the height of the ‘Suikoden craze’ an ukiyo-e artist was commissioned to produce a series of woodblock prints.  This collection was to depict the heroes from The Water Margin. This artist went by the name Utagawa Kuniyoshi. The first five prints Kuniyoshi produced in 1827 were an immediate sensation. And two of the five characters in those prints are the tattooed heroes Rochishin and Shishin. The rest of the 108 characters quickly followed and the series was completed in 1830. The series was called ‘Tsuuzoku Suikoden gouketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori’.  This is translated as ‘The hundred and eight popular heroes of the Suikoden’.

Kuniyoshi’s Tattooed Heroes

Unlike previous illustrations or versions of The Water Margin, Kuniyoshi chose to illustrate a number of characters with tattoos.  Beyond the four mentioned above from the Hokusai edition. The table below includes the characters and their tattoo motifs found in Kuniyoshi’s prints:

Character Name Series No. (of 108) Tattoo Motif
Kyumonryu Shishin 23 Nine dragons
Kaosho Rochishin 13 Cherry blossoms
Botsusharan Bokuko 24 Dragon and waves
Konkouryu Rishun 26 Raijin, the thunder god
Senkaji Cho-o 28 Pine sprays, maple leaves, raven with monkey
Tanmeijiro Genshogo 29 Leopard and flames
Rorihakucho Chojun 30 Pine sprays, blossoms, vine leaves, serpent, flames
Roshi Ensei 36 Peonies and lion cubs
Shutsudoko Doi 68 Maple leaves
Sotoki Sosei 81 Cuttlefish
Byotaichu Setsuei 84 Dragon and waves
Kirenji Toko 89 Dragon and waterfall
Kanchikotsuristu Shuki 92 Cat with nine tails
Seiganko Riun 97 Cat with nine tails
Hakujitsuso Hakusho 106 Dragons and flames
Kinmoken Dankeiju 108 Fujin, the wind god

This series of The Water Margin characters by Kuniyoshi was incredibly popular.  And it immediately launched him as one of the preeminent ukiyo-e artists of his time. His vivid, and sometimes lurid, style, action, and colors were novel and captivating.  And these prints have remained very popular to this day.

Tattoos as Symbols of the Antihero and Socioeconomic Class

In this print by Kuniyoshi we can see he heavily tattooed Byotaichu Setsuei engaged in hand to hand combat. His entire body is tattooed and a dragon can be seen on his back in the style of Japanese tattoos

In this print by Kuniyoshi we can see he heavily tattooed Byotaichu Setsuei engaged in hand to hand combat. His entire body is tattooed and his backpiece is a dragon.

Due to the illustrated Suikoden novel from Hokusai and the Kuniyoshi prints, The Water Margin became the equivalent of a modern day blockbuster trilogy. And the outlaws of the novel were antiheroes to the working class. This may have had something to do with the fact that it was early 18th century Japan.  At the time the country was still under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. During the Edo period (1603-1868) this rigid feudal system was characterized by a hierarchical class system.  The shogun, his lords (daimyo), and their samurai composed the ruling class. Whereas the merchants, peasants, artisans, and craftsmen, formed the lower classes.

Emulating the very outlaws that had absconded, hidden, and fought against their own despotic rulers could be seen as a political statement.  An expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo. The spread of Japanese tattoos observed in Kuniyoshi’s prints can be seen as a lionisation of the heroes that sported them in The Water Margin.  And perhaps a desire to embrace their own roguish nature.  Everyone loves the antihero.

Some historians have also postulated that wealthy persons of the non-ruling classes (merchants) in Japan enjoyed the beauty of artwork denied them by the samurai class.  They theorize that tattoos were embraced by this group as a means to enjoy fashionable attire while at the same time hiding it under clothing.  And when subsequently revealed out in the open the  Japanese tattoos may have been both a means to flaunt wealth and be seen as somewhat rebellious.

Japanese Tattoos and Stigma

It could be argued that the association of tattoos with the feudal underclass during the Edo period was a continuation of the tattoo stigma that began with the practice of tattooing prisoners. Subsequently this negative stereotype and the ban of tattooing in Japan during the Meiji period may have led to the association of tattooing with the Yakuza that developed in the 20th century.  It is important to note that the Meiji era ban and the association of tattoos with modern Japanese organized crime came after the Suikoden-associated rise of Japanese tattoos in the Edo period

The Impact of the Suikoden Still Resonates Today

This image of Kanchikotsuritsu Shuki is a print by Kuniyoshi. Kanchikotsuritsu Shuki is one of the characters from the Suikoden. Here he is shown stripped to the waist with a large tattoo of a fox with any tails.

This image of Kanchikotsuritsu Shuki is a print by Kuniyoshi. Kanchikotsuritsu Shuki is one of the characters from the Suikoden. Here he is shown stripped to the waist with a large tattoo of a fox with any tails.

However one chooses to attribute the sociopolitical rationale for the surge in tattoo popularity during the Edo period, there is no mistaking the fact that The Water Margin – the Suikoden – had a major impact on tattoo culture in Japan. The intense swirling patterns, colors, and motifs, that are so iconic today might not exist as seen and practiced today were it not for this novel and the associated artwork.

Consequently many Japanese tattoo artists still render their own versions of popular themes, stories, or prints from The Water Margin.  Their own contemporary telling of a timeless story that has indelibly influenced their craft.

For more information regarding the Suikoden, its associated artworks, and its influence on Japanese tattoos, please refer to these excellent references:

  • Oliver Impey and Mitsuko Watanabe. 2005. Kuniyoshi’s Heroes of China and Japan. Ashmolean Museum Publications, Oxford, United Kingdom.
  • Willem R. van Gulik. 1982. Irezumi: The Pattern of Dermatography in Japan. E. J. Brill, Leiden, Netherlands.
  • Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong. 1994. The Marshes of Mount Liang. Trans. John and Alex Dent-Young. The Chinese University Press, Sha Tin, N.T., Hong Kong