Li Kui (Water Margin)

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Li Kui
Water Margin character
Nickname "Black Whirlwind"
Also known as "Iron Ox"
Rank 22nd, Killer Star (天殺星) of the 36 Heavenly Spirits
An illustration of Li Kui, by Chen Hongshou.
Infantry leader of Liangshan
Origin Prison warder
Ancestral home / Place of origin Baizhang Village, Yishui County, Yizhou (in present-day Linyi, Shandong)
First appearance Chapter 37
Weapon Pair of axes, Pudao
Simplified Chinese 李逵
Traditional Chinese 李逵
Pinyin Lǐ Kuí
Wade–Giles Li K'uei
For other people named Li Kui, see Li Kui (disambiguation).
This is a Chinese name; the family name is Li.

Li Kui is a fictional character in Water Margin, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. He ranks 22nd of the 36 Heavenly Spirits of the 108 Liangshan heroes and is nicknamed "Black Whirlwind".


Water Margin describes Li Kui as a muscular man with a dark complexion, a reddish-yellow unibrow, and fiery eyes. He is as strong as an ox, which earns him the nickname "Iron Ox". However, he is more popularly referred to by other jianghu figures as "Black Whirlwind" for his berserk behavior in combat and dark complexion. Li Kui has a bad temper and a strong penchant for wine and is known to be a hardcore gambler. He strikes fear in the hearts of many and a mere glare from him is said to frighten away aggressors. He is a tough melee fighter and uses a pair of axes in battle, often charging ahead of his men on the front line.

Li Kui is from Baizhang Village (百丈村), Yishui County (沂水縣), Yizhou (沂州), which is in present-day Linyi, Shandong. He flees from home after killing someone in his hometown, to avoid arrest from the authorities. He comes to Jiangzhou (江州; east of present-day Chongzuo, Guangxi) and becomes a warder in the prison there under the chief warden Dai Zong. He meets Song Jiang, who has been sentenced to exile in Jiangzhou. He does not recognise Song Jiang during their first encounter and tries to extort money from Song for gambling. When Song Jiang refuses, Li Kui threatens to beat him up but Dai Zong arrives and stops him. Dai Zong introduces Song Jiang to Li Kui and Li is stunned to hear that the man before him is actually the famous philanthropist he has always admired. He apologises for his earlier rude behaviour and becomes friends with Song Jiang.

Later, Dai Zong and Li Kui bring Song Jiang to a restaurant for a meal. Song Jiang has a sudden craving for fish but the fish from the restaurant is not fresh. The waiter says that the restaurant does not have fresh fish. Li Kui volunteers to get fish from the nearby fishmarket and he gets involved in a brawl with Zhang Shun. He wins Zhang Shun on land but loses when the fight takes place in the water. Luckily, Song Jiang and Dai Zong arrive on time and stop the fight. Li Kui and Zhang Shun then have a good laugh over the fight and become friends.

An 1887 woodblock print by Yoshitoshi, depicting Li Kui (bottom) wrestling with Zhang Shun underwater.

Joining Liangshan[edit]

When Song Jiang and Dai Zong are arrested and sentenced to death, Li Kui joins the Liangshan outlaws as they storm the execution ground to rescue Song and Dai. The outlaws manage to escape to White Dragon Temple (白龍廟) on the riverbank, killing some innocent bystanders along the way and only stopping at Chao Gai's insistence. The government sends troops to besiege the temple and eliminate the outlaws. Li Kui is the first to charge out and engage the enemy in a fierce battle. The outlaws score a major victory over the government forces and return to Liangshan in triumph.

Fetching his mother and slaying four tigers[edit]

Li Kui leaves Liangshan later to fetch his mother to join him. Along the way, he encounters Li Gui, who impersonates him and robs passersby in the woods in his name. Li Kui defeats Li Gui after a fight and wants to kill the latter for discrediting him. However, after believing Li Gui's account that he has no choice but to rob to feed his 80-year-old mother, Li Kui softens and lets Li Gui off. He even gives Li Gui some money and tells him to take good care of his mother. Shortly after, Li Kui runs into Li Gui again and overhears a secret conversation between Li Gui and his wife. They are plotting to capture him and hand him over to the authorities to claim the bounty on his head. Li Kui is furious and he bursts in and kills Li Gui but Li Gui's wife escapes.

Li Kui reaches home and meets his cowardly brother Li Da. Li Da scolds him for being an outlaw and leaves to get some men to help him capture Li Kui to claim the bounty. Li Kui flees from home with his mother and carries her on his back. They travel along a path through the woods and up the hill. Along the way, Li Kui's mother complains that she is thirsty so Li immediately rushes off to find water for her. When he returns, he is shocked to discover that his mother has been attacked and killed by tigers. Li Kui is overwhelmed with grief and he charges into the tigers' lair and slays all four tigers in blind rage. He becomes famous in the town later for his brave act but he is still deeply saddened by the loss of his mother.

The wealthy Squire Cao pretends to compliment Li Kui for his heroic deed. Actually, Cao met Li Gui's wife earlier and learnt that Li Kui is actually a wanted man by the authorities and a large bounty has been placed on his head. They plot to capture Li Kui and hand him over to the county office. Li Kui is unaware and he becomes unconscious after drinking drugged wine. The magistrate sends the constable Li Yun and some men to escort Li Kui, who is bound and carried on a stretcher, back to the county office. Along the way, Zhu Gui and Zhu Fu rescue Li Kui by serving the guards drugged food and wine. Li Kui kills the guards after getting free and he wants to kill Li Yun but is stopped. When Li Yun regains consciousness, he sees that he has no other choice but to become an outlaw and he follows them back to Liangshan.

Campaigns and death[edit]

Li Kui becomes one of the leaders of the Liangshan infantry after the Grand Assembly of the 108 Stars of Destiny. He follows the heroes on their campaigns against the Liao invaders and rebel forces after they have been granted amnesty by Emperor Huizong. Li Kui had tore the imperial edict earlier in anger after the first negotiations for amnesty between the outlaws and the government, which turns out to be an utter failure. He is one of the few lucky survivors after the campaigns and is appointed by the emperor as an official in Runzhou (潤州; present-day Runzhou District, Zhenjiang, Jiangsu). Often depressed, Li Kui shows little interest in his career and spends most of his time drinking with friends.

When Song Jiang realises that he has been tricked into drinking poisoned wine by the corrupt officials in the imperial court, he is worried that Li Kui might stir up trouble after his death. If Li Kui does attempt to avenge his death, the Liangshan heroes will be branded as outlaws instead of loyal subjects to the nation. Thus, Song Jiang summons Li Kui to Chuzhou (楚州; in present-day Huai'an, Jiangsu) under the pretext of discussing important issues. He allows Li Kui to imbibe the poisoned wine until he is half drunk, only then did he reveal that the wine is poisoned. Li Kui, however, happily embraces his fate and only requests to be buried together with Song Jiang after his death. He is dead by the time he and his entourage return to Runzhou. Although Song Jiang is responsible for Li Kui's demise, Li nonetheless reappears in the last chapter in Emperor Huizong's dream, brandishing his axes and seeking revenge for both his and Song Jiang's wrongful deaths.

Evaluation of character[edit]

Alongside Lu Zhishen, Li Kui is one of the strongest in terms of physical strength, of all the 108 Liangshan heroes. He seldom takes a steed to the battlefield, and instead charges into battle on the front lines brandishing his axes. Often stripped to the buff, he hacks his way through his foes. His actual combat skills outside of physical strength is questioned, as he was easily defeated in a contest of wrestling by Jiao Ting, and he is not efficient in tactics such as dodging attacks (he was an easy target for arrows fired from the Zeng Family Fortress). Thus, he typically fights with shield bearers at his side. It is presumed that he is only average in a one-on-one duel with named generals, and probably cannot defeat most of the Liangshan heroes if they were pitted in a fight. Despite his aggressiveness and impetuousness, Li Kui is fiercely loyal and filial, and respected for his unwavering moral beliefs. He was once even willing to kill Song Jiang after the latter was falsely accused of a kidnapping a man's daughter. From tearing up the amnesty decree to breaking up the meeting between Song Jiang and Li Shishi, Li Kui's controversies are usually preceded by a heavy drinking session.

Li Kui is one of the most memorable characters in Water Margin, often ridiculed and used for comedic effect. He represents both a light and dark side of the outlaws. His exploits with Taoist Luo and his journeys with Yan Qing represent the most humorous side of the novel. He is perhaps the most controversial character in the story. Often depicted as reckless, violent and cannibalistic, he kills indiscriminately whenever his blood lust is aroused. Men from even his own combat unit were sometimes afraid to go near him during battle. At the behest of Song Jiang and Wu Yong, he once killed a four-year-old child to force Zhu Tong to become an outlaw. Taoist Luo nonetheless describes Li Kui as a Heavenly Spirit sent to Earth to destroy the wicked.

Other cultural depictions of Li Kui[edit]

In the video game Jade Empire by Bioware, a character who resembles Li Kui and also goes by his nickname "The Black Whirlwind" joins the player's party during the game. He features many of the same personality characteristics as the literary character and the same fighting weapons of choice (twin axes).

The OVA adaptation of Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Giant Robo was unable to license the original supporting cast of the manga or the live-action series, so they used characters from Yokoyama's body of work, including his adaptation of Water Margin. The character of Tetsugyu (which roughly translates to "Iron Ox"), the Black Whirlwind is based on Yokoyama's depiction of Li Kui.

See also[edit]