The outlaw gangs are depicted in two different phases. While their behavior is truly outside the law at the beginning, after they are stopped, they begin working on behalf of the state and their activities are considered heroic. These evaluations seem to depend almost as much on the motivations for their actions as on the actions themselves. Luo Guanzhong thus conveys that the heroes of these tales, which he updated from versions written some two centuries earlier, have the enduring qualities of nobility, generosity, and strong convictions, as well as a physical prowess that renders them heroic.
The 108 outlaws led by Song Jiang form a veritable army. Historically, they are known to have been active in China’s Huinan region in the early twelfth century. They roamed the countryside so boldly that they even attacked government forces, until those commanded by Zhang Shuye were able to pacify them. Once their campaigns ceased, they received amnesty in exchange for defending the kingdom from internal and external enemies. Their exploits defending the borders and combatting rebels earn them their heroic reputations.
Although earlier versions of the outlaw-heroes’ tales (in which there were usually fewer than 108) were well known, as the boldness of their exploits were magnified in successive generations, so too was their number. Their reasons for joining were as diverse as the mens (and a few women) themselves, which included ordinary men and scholars as well as ex-military officers. Those who had held official government positions had often gotten into trouble by opposing corruption and had to flee unjust punishment. Many were killed, however, in battling the government forces sent to detain them. Their bravery was so great that the rulers decided to let those remaining stay at liberty, as long as they worked with the government to keep the country safe, especially from foreign invaders.
Because the outlaws’ actions often were for the protection and benefit of the common people, they are considered “social bandits,” of the type known to English-speaking readers through Robin Hood, to whom these outlaws are often compared.
A recent analysis by Yoko Miyamoto notes several qualities of the hao han, including advanced martial skills and a finely tuned devotion to justice. Thus, their actions are motivated by their desire to correct social wrong-doing. They are extremely loyal to other band members. Recognizing in others the motivations that led each of them to join their fellows, they also accept into their ranks those who became fugitives by opposing evil leaders or are falsely accused.
Miyamoto uses Eric Hobsbawm’s now-classic definition of the “noble robber” type of social bandit. Although such figures operate outside the law, they are not revolutionaries; that is, they support the central ruler but oppose corrupt local-level officials. By taking a principled stance, they are heroic figures.