Wu Song is a fictional character in Water Margin, one of the Four Great Classical Novels in Chinese literature. Nicknamed "Pilgrim", he ranks 14th among the 36 Heavenly Spirits, the first third of the 108 Stars of Destiny. In folklore, Wu Song is an apprentice of the martial artist Zhou Tong and he specialises in Chuojiao and the use of the staff and double broadswords.
In Water Margin
Wu Song is from Qinghe County (in present-day Xingtai, Hebei). The novel describes him as a good-looking man of an impressive bearing and with shining eyes, thick eyebrows and a muscular body. As his parents died early, he was raised by his dwarfish elder brother, Wu Dalang (武大郎; literally "Eldest Brother Wu").
Wu Song once knocked out a man in a drunken rage. Thinking that he had killed that man, he goes on the run to avoid arrest and takes shelter in the residence of the nobleman Chai Jin. He meets Song Jiang there and they become sworn brothers. He decides to go home after learning there is no charge against him.
Slaying the tiger
On his way home, Wu Song passes by a tavern near Jingyang Ridge which puts out a large sign that reads "After Three Bowls, Do Not Cross the Ridge" (三碗不過崗). He stops there for a break. The tavern waiter explains the meaning of the sign to Wu Song; The wine sold at the tavern is so strong that customers usually get drunk after having three bowls and are unable to cross the ridge ahead. Still sober after drinking three bowls, Wu Song demands that the waiter continue serving him wine. By the end of his meal, Wu Song had consumed 18 bowls of wine but he still appears sober. He is about to leave when the waiter stops him and warns him about a fierce man-eating tiger on the ridge. Wu Song suspects that the waiter is lying to him so that he'll pay to spend the night at the tavern. He ignores the waiter and continues his journey.
While crossing Jingyang Ridge, Wu Song sees an official notice which convinces him that there is a tiger on the ridge. However, he does not turn back for fear of losing face. As he moves on, the alcohol starts taking effect, so he decides to take a nap on a big rock. As he is falling asleep, the tiger leaps out from the woods and attacks him. After narrowly dodging the tiger three times, Wu Song attempts to fight back but breaks his staff on a tree. Left with no weapon to defend himself, Wu Song summons all his might and manages to pin down the tiger with his arms. He rains blows with his bare fist on the tiger's head and kills it, falling asleep soon after. Local hunters in the area find Wu Song with the dead tiger and are amazed by his feat. Wu Song becomes famous as a result. The magistrate of the nearby Yanggu County (in present-day Liaocheng, Shandong) offers him the job of chief constable in the county office. Wu Song accepts the job and settles down in Yanggu County, where he runs into Wu Dalang, who has recently moved there.
According to some scripts used in Yangzhou storytelling, particularly the "Wang school", Wu Song's slaying of the tiger took place "in the middle of the tenth (lunar) month" of the "Xuanhe year ".
Avenging his brother
Wu Dalang brings Wu Song home and introduces him to his wife, Pan Jinlian. Wu Song learns from them that they had moved to Yanggu County because they wanted to avoid gossip and harassment from their neighbours. Wu Dalang, who sells shaobing for a living, and Pan Jinlian contrast starkly in physical appearance. Wu Dalang, who is described as "ugly", is nicknamed "Three-Inch Tree Bark" (三寸丁谷樹皮) for his short stature, whereas Pan Jinlian is beautiful and attractive.
Pan Jinlian is immediately attracted to Wu Song and tries to seduce him but he sternly rejects her. Later, he accepts an assignment from the magistrate to escort a convoy of gold to the imperial capital, Dongjing (present-day Kaifeng, Henan) – partly because he wants to avoid his sister-in-law's sexual advances. He returns home two months later and learns that his brother had died, apparently from illness, and that his body had already been cremated.
Wu Song does not believe his sister-in-law's account and secretly conducts an investigation. He learns that Pan Jinlian had an adulterous affair with a rich man, Ximen Qing, with the help of the teahouse owner Granny Wang. Wu Dalang caught Ximen Qing and Pan Jinlian in bed together, but was left bedridden after Ximen Qing kicked him hard in the abdomen. Abetted by Granny Wang, Ximen Qing and Pan Jinlian then murdered Wu Dalang by poisoning his medicine. Wu Song goes to the county office to present his case, bringing along two witnesses. However, the magistrate, who has been bribed by Ximen Qing, dismisses the case with the excuse that there is insufficient evidence.
Denied of proper legal options, Wu Song is forced to take matters into his own hands. He invites the neighbours, including Granny Wang, for a belated wake. During the wake, he coerces Pan Jinlian at knifepoint to make a full confession about the murder, and then decapitates and disembowels her. He also forces Granny Wang to make a statement about the murder in front of the neighbours. He then goes to Lion Restaurant (獅子樓) to confront Ximen Qing and kills him after a fight. After avenging his brother, he goes to the county office to surrender himself, bringing along Granny Wang to face justice.
Becoming an outlaw
The locals sympathise with Wu Song and plead for leniency, so the magistrate spares him from execution and sentences him to flogging and face-tattooing, and exiles him to a prison camp in Mengzhou. Along the way, Wu Song and the two guards escorting him pass by Cross Slope (十字坡; in present-day Fan County, Henan), where they take a rest in Sun Erniang's inn. Wu Song immediately senses Sun Erniang is up to no good and pretends to be unconscious after drinking the wine spiked with drugs. When Sun Erniang tries to lift him, he easily overpowers her. Just then, Sun Erniang's husband Zhang Qing comes back and stops the fight. The couple befriend Wu Song and hosts him at their inn before seeing him off to Mengzhou.
In the Mengzhou prison, Shi En, the chief warden's son, has heard of Wu Song's fame and hopes Wu Song could help him seize back his restaurant at Happy Forest, which has been forcefully taken away by the hooligan Jiang Zhong, who is nicknamed "Jiang the Door God" for his large stature and fighting skills. The restaurant is in fact a base for collecting protection money from local businessmen and tolls from travellers. Shi En finds an excuse to help Wu Song get spared from the compulsory beating that all new inmates must receive. He also ensures that Wu Song leads a comfortable life in prison. Wu Song is eager to repay Shi En for his kindness so he agrees to help him take back the restaurant. He says that his fighting ability is at its peak when he is drunk, so he asks to be served three bowls of wine at every tavern he passes by on his way to the Happy Forest. By the time he reaches the restaurant, he has already consumed an enormous amount of alcohol but is only partially drunk. He provokes Jiang Zhong, fights with him, and defeats him with a set of martial arts known as "Jade Circle Steps and Mandarin Ducks Kicks" (玉環步，鴛鴦腳). He then orders the beaten Jiang Zhong to apologise to Shi En, return the restaurant, and leave Mengzhou for good.
Jiang Zhong collaborates with his friend, Instructor Zhang, and a local official Inspector Zhang, to take revenge against Wu Song. Inspector Zhang pretends to admire Wu Song for his fighting skills and invites him to stay at his manor as a retainer. However, it turns out to be a trap when Inspector Zhang frames Wu Song for theft. After getting beaten up and imprisoned in an underground cellar for six months, Wu Song is sentenced to exile in another prison camp. Jiang Zhong has bribed the escorts to kill Wu Song along the way. When they and two disciples of Jiang try to kill Wu Song at Flying Cloud Pool (飛雲浦), Wu Song breaks free from his shackles and kills the assassins. He returns to Inspector Zhang's manor, where he kills Inspector Zhang's entire family and household. He then makes his way to Mandarin Ducks Tower (鴛鴦樓), where Inspector Zhang, Instructor Zhang and Jiang Zhong are drinking as they wait for the news of his death. He kills all three of them and writes "Wu Song is the killer" in blood on a wall.
After fleeing Mengzhou, he meets Sun Erniang and Zhang Qing, who advise him to go to Mount Twin Dragons to join the outlaw band there. Sun Erniang suggests that he disguise himself as an unshaven Buddhist pilgrim to avoid being recognised because the authorities have put up posters everywhere for his arrest. Earlier on, Sun Erniang had butchered a Buddish pilgrim who left behind a Buddhist robe, a necklace of skulls, a headband and a pair of broadswords. Wu Song disguises himself by wearing the Buddhist robe and letting down his hair to conceal the tattoo on his face. He is thus nicknamed "Pilgrim".
On his way to Mount Twin Dragons, he passes by a temple where an evil priest keeps a kidnapped woman for his sexual pleasures. Wu Song kills the priest and his servants, saves the woman, and burns down the temple. He then passes by a tavern and has a quarrel with Kong Liang, whom he defeats in a fight. Later in the night, with help from his brother Kong Ming and their servants, Kong Liang tracks down a highly intoxicated Wu Song who is barely able to maintain his balance. They overpower him easily and tie him to a tree. At the time, Song Jiang, who is a guest at the Kong residence, chances upon the scene, recognises Wu Song, and asks the Kong brothers to release him. The Kong brothers resolve their misunderstanding with Wu Song and they become friends.
Campaigns and death
After the battle between the outlaws from Liangshan Marsh and government forces in Qingzhou (in present-day Shandong), Wu Song and the others from Mount Twin Dragons join the Liangshan outlaws.
Wu Song becomes one of the leaders of the Liangshan infantry after the 108 Stars of Destiny come together in what is called the Grand Assembly. He is one of the few chieftains who vehemently object to accepting amnesty from the emperor and serving the Song government. Nevertheless, he follows the Liangshan heroes on their campaigns against the invading Liao army and rebel forces on Song territory after they received amnesty from Emperor Huizong.
During the campaign against the rebel leader Fang La, Wu Song is assigned to attack the enemy in Muzhou (睦州; in present-day Hangzhou, Zhejiang), where he encounters and fights with Fang La's sorcerer, Bao Daoyi. Bao Daoyi uses his magic powers to control a sword and slice off Wu Song's left arm. Wu Song is saved by Lu Zhishen before Bao Daoyi could kill him. He is one of the few Liangshan heroes who survive the campaign against Fang La. While the survivors return to the capital to report their victory to the imperial court, Wu Song declines to go with them because he does not wish to serve the Song government, which he perceives to be corrupt. He remains in Liuhe Pagoda in Hangzhou and leads the life of a Buddhist recluse until his death at the age of 80.
In Jin Ping Mei
The beginning of Jin Ping Mei is roughly the same as Water Margin. After his sister-in-law murdered his brother, he wanted to take revenge. At first, he tried to kill Ximen Qing, the lover of his sister-in-law, but he killed the wrong person instead. He was exiled to Mengzhou. He came back later, but Ximen Qing had already died of sickness. He then killed his sister-in-law, and fled to Mount Twin Dragons.
While Jin Ping Mei is famous for its sexually explicit content, there is nothing sexual about Wu Song in the novel.
Wu Song becomes Zhou Tong's apprentice
The following tale alternatively known as "Meeting Zhou Tong By Chance" and "Swordplay under the Moon" belongs to the "Wang School Shuihu" of Yangzhou storytelling. It acts as a spin-off story (Chinese: 书外书; pinyin: Shū Wài Shū; literally: 'story outside of the story'), which means it takes place in the same setting as Water Margin, but is independent of the main story line. The tale takes place after Wu Song kills the man-eating tiger, resists the charms of his sister-in-law and accepts a mission from the magistrate to transport money to Kaifeng, but before he becomes a bandit. It explains how he came to learn swordplay from Zhou Tong:
Wu Song was given orders to travel on assignment to Kaifeng after becoming a constable in Yanggu County. When he arrived in Kaifeng, Wu Song took his introduction letter to the yamen and retired to an inn to await his summons. The following day, he left his inn to explore the bustling city.
Kaifeng was one of the largest cities in China at that time and it was full of various kinds of shops and heavy traffic from people coming in and leaving the city. As Wu Song walked along enjoying the organised chaos, the sky changed colour and it became a torrential downpour. It rained so much that waves flowed across the ground and mist rose around the houses. The rain hurt the top of his head so he huddled under the roof of a small shop along with several other people vying for safety. However, as soon as it started, the rain suddenly stopped.
Wu Song continued on his way when he came to the Tianhan Bridge. It was arched, so people had to use steps to ascend to the top. When he stepped onto the bridge, Wu Song lifted up his clothing and looked down at his feet so he could avoid the huge puddles of water left from the freak rain shower. Unbeknownst to him, he was walking directly towards an elderly man who was descending the stairs right above him. Wu Song continued to walk up the bridge without looking in front of him. This old man was Zhou Tong and he was in a hurry. When Zhou Tong saw Wu Song approaching him on the bridge without watching in front of him, he took Wu Song to be another martial arts master who wished to tarnish his reputation by throwing him off the bridge with a shoulder strike. Zhou Tong prepared for a counterattack and began to swallow air with a subtle "Hm!" and directed his energy to his right shoulder, which turned red then purple and became as hard as rock underneath his clothing. When the two men brushed shoulders, despite being a master of Iron Shirt and Drunken Eight Immortals boxing, Wu Song was nearly knocked off the bridge and the pain caused saliva to pour from his mouth. The attack left him weak in the knees and one side of his body was completely numb. He thought after all of his years of martial arts practice his body was nearly invincible, but he had met his superior in Zhou Tong. Instead of cursing and reprimanding the old man, Wu Song held his tongue, which greatly impressed Zhou Tong. In lieu of a kind word, Zhou Tong simply bowed in apology and went on his way since he was in a rush.
After Zhou Tong disappeared into the bustling crowd, Wu Song rubbed his shoulder and returned to his inn. He ate his lunch and supper in turn, but felt it was too early to go to bed. He went outside into a quiet courtyard behind the inn to do a little shadowboxing underneath the starry night sky. He untied his belt and wrenched it to the left and right until it was very tight and tied it into a knot. He then focused his energy and began to practise his Drunken Eight Immortals boxing. Before he was even half way done with his routine, the loud screams of another person's martial arts practice interrupted his concentration. He grabbed a bench to steady himself on and looked over the top of a brick wall that opened into the hall of a large mansion to the east of the inn.
In the middle of the hall sat three tables laden with all the myriad kinds of food. However, the stately-looking people attending this sumptuous feast were underneath the eaves of the hall watching a person practise his swordplay in the manor's courtyard. This person was Zhou Tong and he had his beard tied into a knot so he would not accidentally cut it off with his double swords. Zhou wielded his swords to and fro and did it so fast that the flashes of light cast from the blades made it look like his entire body was wrapped in snow. Even if a person threw a bowlful of ink at him, not a single drop of it would tarnish his clothing. Wu Song became mesmerised by Zhou Tong's display of superior swordsmanship. When he twirled around and ended up facing in his direction, Wu Song recognised Zhou Tong as the old man he had bumped into on the bridge earlier in the day. He realised that Zhou Tong must be a great master adept in the art of the "deep breath" technique.
During his practice, Zhou Tong let out a mountain-crumbling scream and fell onto his back while kicking one leg into the air. Wu Song felt sorry for Zhou Tong because he thought maybe the man was too old to practise the martial arts and had lost his balance. However, Zhou Tong screamed once more and this time he shot high into the sky with his swords pointed upward towards the moon. After watching him land and perform a few punches and kicks, it finally dawned on Wu Song that Zhou Tong was indeed practising the boxing routines of the immortals Iron-Crutch Li and Han Xiang from the Drunken Eight Immortals style. Zhou Tong was so good at this style that his performance once caused a fellow warrior to become intoxicated. Puzzled, Wu Song remembered back to his own martial arts master who had told him there were only two people in the world (including Wu Song and his master) who could perform such boxing. Zhou Tong also knew the style too. Because Zhou Tong's performance was so great, Wu Song went against the rules of etiquette and shouted praise from the top of the wall.
This shouting interrupted Zhou Tong before he could finish the forms for the rest of the Eight Immortals. He spun around and asked his aristocratic audience who it was that was shouting praise of his performance. They were unable to answer because their snobbery prevented them from noticing anything outside of their own amusement. However, one of their level-headed servants heard the noise and pointed towards the brick wall. Zhou Tong used his magical X-ray eyes to peer through the brick wall and into Wu Song's bone structure to see he was a special person indeed. When Wu Song praised Zhou Tong's performance, he formed an instant friendship with the old man. Zhou Tong invited Wu Song over the wall to partake in the festivities.
When Zhou Tong asked for his name, he was delighted to learn Wu Song was the same fellow who became famous for killing a man-eating tiger with his bare hands on Jingyang Ridge in Shandong in the previous year. When Wu Song learnt who Zhou Tong was, he immediately dropped to his knees, kowtowed and pleaded to become his apprentice. Wu Song was thrilled to meet this "master of the older generation", who was famous throughout the jianghu for his skill in military and civilian martial arts. Zhou Tong helped Wu Song up and began to teach him swordplay under the moon.
In other media
Notable actors who have portrayed Wu Song in film and television include: Ti Lung, in The Water Margin (1972), Delightful Forest (1972) and Tiger Killer (1982); Zhu Yanping, in Outlaws of the Marsh (1983); Ding Haifeng, in The Water Margin (1998); Chen Long, in All Men Are Brothers (2011).
The Hong Kong comic Old Master Q also has a special edition animated cartoon with Water Margin characters, with the primary focus being on Wu Song. However, this version is extensively modified and presents a skewed version of Wu Song and the original story.