The Edo Period (1603-1868) witnessed a fascination for Chinese popular fiction and one of the novels that found particular favor with the public was “The Water Margin.” Set during the Song dynasty (960-1279), it is a picaresque tale of 108 outlaws who gain government amnesty for subduing other bandits. It became hugely popular, and its influence spread far beyond the confines of literature.

Remarkably, it also remained for a long time largely incomprehensible to its readers. For centuries, classical Chinese united the intellectual elites of East Asia, much as Latin did in Europe. But the kind of popular fiction that entered Japan from the 17th century was written in the vernacular, a tongue that only a tiny minority of Japanese interpreters in the port city of Nagasaki understood. For most others, it might as well have been Greek.

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