What is jianghu

In the realm of wuxia literature, jianghu (江湖) is a profoundly evocative term that resounds with a mystique, capturing the imaginations of readers and viewers for centuries. Its literal translation, “rivers and lakes”, conceals a deeper cultural and literary context that forms the very heart of the wuxia genre.

Origins of Jianghu

There are many attempts to explain jianghu, but they often mistakenly use the literal meaning of rivers and lakes or refer to it as a way of life, an alternate universe, a hidden world, or a brotherhood.

To understand jianghu, we must first delve into its historical genesis and how it emerged from the intricate tapestry of ancient Chinese society.

Ancient Chinese society

The origin of the term jianghu is attributed to Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi1庄子 zhuāng zi. Zhuang Zhou 庄周. Zi the highest title for an intellectual, especially philosopher, in ancient China. See Wikipedia. from the 4th century BCE. In “The Great Ancestral Teacher”2大宗师 dà zōng shī. The sixth chapter in the collected works of Zhuangzi. from his self-titled collected works Zhuangzi, he wrote, “Better to forget each other in the jianghu.”

Zhuangzi refers to the three rivers and the five lakes. It is said that the Yangtze River split into three rivers that emptied into the sea in ancient times, Jing River,3荆江 jīng jiāng. The Yangtze River stretch that flows in Hubei, named after Jingzhou, one of the Nine Provinces of ancient China. See Wikipedia. Song River,4松江 sōng jiāng. The original name of Suzhou Creek, that flowed into the mouth of the Yangtze River. See Wikipedia. and Zhe River,5浙江 zhè jiāng. The original of Qiantang River that the Zhejiang Province is named after. See Wikipedia.. The five lakes refer to those found along the Yangtze River, Dongting Lake,6洞庭湖 dòng tíng hú. The second largest freshwater lake in China that is a flood basin of the Yangtze River. The provinces Hubei and Hunan are named after their locations relative to the lake, north of the river and south of the river respectively. See Wikipedia. Tai Lake,7太湖 tài hú. Located the Yangtze River Delta in the Jiangsu Province, it is the third largest freshwater lake in China. It drains into the Suzhou Creek. See Wikipedia. Poyang Lake,8鄱阳湖 pó yáng hú. Located in the Jiujiang Province, it is the largest freshwater lake in China. It drains into the Yangtze River. See Wikipedia. Qingcao Lake,9青草湖 qīng cǎo hú. A lake that was located to the south of Dongting Lake. It had merged with Dongting Lake during the Northern and Southern dynasties. and Danyang Lake.10丹阳湖 dān yáng hú. A large marsh located in modern day Gaochun and Lishui Districts of Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, and Dangtu County of Ma’anshan, Anhui Province.

Jiangxi and Hunan

The term jianghu later became a common term in Buddhism to describe wandering monks as jianghu persons or jianghu monks, people or monks who wander the three rivers and five lakes.

River town by Jenxi
River town by Jenxi

There were two influential Chan Buddhist monks during the Tang Dynasty – Mazu Daoyi11马祖道一 mázǔ dàoyī. See Wikipedia. in Jiangxi and Shitou Xiqian12石头希迁 shítoú xīqiān. See Wikipedia. in Hunan. These two contemporaries are considered the founders of the Chan Buddhism, also known as Zen Buddhism. They were renowned through the lands and monks from all over the country would journey to Jiangxi or Hunan to pay respects to them.

Back then, it took a year or so to travel to Jiangxi or Hunan, hence they would visit many places along the way. This became known as travelling or wandering through the jianghu.

Some speculate that the term jianghu could also refer to the journey between Jiangxi and Hunan, with “jiang” alluding to Jiangxi and “hu” denoting Hunan. Others point out that travelling over the rivers and lakes was the most efficient means of transportation back then, wandering the jianghu could also mean travelling by the waterways.

Those who travelled the jianghu were referred to as jianghu persons, jianghu monks, or jianghu community. The Cloud and Water Halls where temples provided lodging for wandering monks was called the Jianghu Halls in the past, or simply the Communal Halls. The wandering monks were referred to as the jianghu monk community.

Zan Ning13赞宁 Zàn Níng. An author who wrote books on Buddhism. See the Chinese Wikipedia. wrote in the Tales of the Great Song Revered Monks, “People come and go in droves with Master Mazu in Jiangxi and Master Shitou in Hunan. It is a sign of ignorance to not pay respects to these two great masters.”

Meditating monk by Jenxi
Meditating monk by Jenxi

The term jianghu also holds other meanings. If a Chan Buddhist master was away from famous mountains and monasteries, choosing to conduct their own research along the rivers or lakes, they were also referred to as jianghu persons.

The residence of a hermit was also called jianghu, as mentioned in The Book of Han, “Able to gain the hearts of the people in the jianghu.”

The life of a hermit was also used to describe those who chose to distance themselves from the circles of power to live in anonymity. Fan Zhongyan14范仲淹 Fàn Zhōngyān. A Chancellor in the Song Dynasty. See Wikipedia. wrote in On Yueyang Tower, “Living deep in the jianghu, one worries for their liege.”

Thus, we can conclude that the term jianghu was positive and symbolised the pursuit of truth freely. Jianghu person was also a favourable term used to describe those who were able to give up everything in search of the true meaning of life.

Evolution over dynasties

As dynasties waxed and waned, so too did the contours of the jianghu.

In the Tang Dynasty, jianghu became a common term that referred to people who roamed the lands to earn a living, such as travelling merchant, craftsmen, beggars, and vagabonds. They were referred to as people who “wandered the jianghu” or “travelled the jianghu”, and the experienced ones were called “old jianghu” while “jianghu director”15郎中 láng zhōng. An imperial government director supervising a section or bureau depending on the dynasty. was used to refer to those who made a livelihood with their skills. All these carried a positive connotation.

This diverse ensemble gradually absorbed the renegades and outcasts, weaving a tapestry of those who dwelled outside existing laws and societal rules, choosing to live by their own moral principles or extralegal code of conduct.

Rebels and criminals

The Ming Dynasty heralded a further evolution, infusing jianghu with an air of rebellion. This era witnessed the emergence of bards and novelists who wrote tales of audacious adventurers and rebels in literature that criticised what they saw as corruption and weaknesses in the government and authorities.

These figures navigated a world governed not by societal norms, but by an inner code of ethics.

As the tides of dynastic change surged, so did the tapestry of Jianghu. In the Qing Dynasty, it embraced the shadowy realms of the underworld, becoming synonymous with secret societies and a clandestine way of life. Here, codes of conduct and honour held sway, casting a distinct hue on the character of jianghu.

The phrase “one is bound by circumstances when in the jianghu”16人在江湖,身不由己 rén zài jiāng hú, shēn bù yoú jǐ. Literally “When one is in the jianghu, one’s body is not one’s own.” became one often used in an attempt to absolve one’s crimes and sins.

The negative connotations to the term jianghu has brought comparisons to the mafia. The use of the term to describe the criminal underworld and triads have further strengthened this negative aspect. That said, there are similarities in the world of organised crime when it comes to the code of conduct within the milieu.

Through the epochs, jianghu evolved from the refuge of hermits to a sub-society pulsating with its own ethos and ideals. Its historical roots run deep, each dynasty leaving its indelible mark on this enigmatic realm, setting the stage for the rich tapestry of jianghu in wuxia literature.

Definition of Jianghu

Jianghu is a social environment, or a milieu to use the sociology term, that people live in. It encompasses the culture that the people are educated or lives in, and the people and institutions they interact with.

An important feature of the jianghu is the detachment from the mainstream. We see this with Chan Buddhists who sought inner peace and meaning, and scholars and officials who wanted escape from politics and power struggles. Likewise with those who abandoned the stable life rooted in a place to seek fortunes through wandering the lands.

Wuxia lady by Jenxi
Wuxia lady by Jenxi

Jianghu in wuxia

During the Song and Yuan dynasties, bards and writers began crafting stories that incorporated the concept of the jianghu, creating fringe societies where the characters lived outside societal laws. Instead, they lived by their own set of moral principles and code of conduct. This is often due to a dysfunctional government and abuse of power, pushing the characters to become outlaws and establish their own laws on what was right.

Writers in the early 20th century started creating worlds with martial arts being a tool for the protagonists to fight evil, similar to superhuman powers in the superhero genre. This led to the creation of the term wulin, which literally means “martial forest”, to refer to the community of martial arts.

Jianghu vs wulin

A common mistake beginners to the wuxia genre make is to use the terms jianghu and wulin interchangeably. Jianghu referred to the whole social environment, while wulin only applies to the martial art community.

Individuals who had no connections to the martial arts could be a part of the jianghu, but they were not part of the wulin.

What jianghu isn’t

Jianghu is not a separate magical world. Some readers have a misconception that the jianghu is like the wizarding world in Harry Potter that is detached from the Muggle world.

Jianghu is not a parallel world where some mystical power exists that grants the martial artists superhuman abilities.

Jianghu is not a hidden world shrouded in secrecy like some underground guild or fraternity. It is not a closed society, but one that is open and free for anyone to become a part of.

Significance of Jianghu in Wuxia Literature

Central Theme

Jianghu isn’t merely a backdrop; it is a vibrant, living entity. It serves as the crucible for the development of characters and the unfolding of intricate plots. At the heart of many wuxia tales lies the exploration of the jianghu. It is a canvas upon which the complexities of human nature are painted with broad, sweeping strokes. Characters grapple with their inner demons, confront their deepest desires, and struggle to stick to the jianghu code of conduct.

Influence on Character Motivations

Whether a wandering swordsman or a disciple of a martial arts sect, every character is inexorably shaped by the ethos of this world. The allure of power, the pursuit of justice, the burden of vengeance – these are not mere plot devices, but manifestations of the Jianghu’s profound influence on the human spirit.

Loyalties are tested, alliances forged and shattered, and destinies intertwined. Friendships and enmities are often as transient as the shifting tides of jianghu itself. The ebb and flow of these relationships serve as a microcosm of the greater world, where allegiances are forged in the crucible of shared trials and shattered by the weight of conflicting ideals.

Spear-wielding warrior by Jenxi
Spear-wielding warrior by Jenxi

Jianghu code of conduct

The wuxia genre often features anti-establishment sentiments similar to that in the punk genres. The governments and authorities in these wuxia worlds are often inept, corrupt, or outright evil.

People of the jianghu fight against the establishment by binding themselves to their own set of values, principles, and rules or laws. The core moral values are chivalry, righteousness, virtue, loyalty, and vengeance.

Honor and integrity

In the jianghu, honour more than just a word. It’s a way of life. It’s the bedrock upon which relationships are built, and the beacon that guides every decision. One’s reputation is paramount, and a slight to one’s honour can be a cause for mortal combat.

To renege on one’s word is to sever the ties that bind, a transgression not easily forgiven.

Loyalty and brotherhood

Within jianghu, bonds of loyalty and brotherhood form the bedrock of alliances and enmities alike. These connections often dictate the course of entire sagas.

Jianghu is a place where alliances forged in blood and tempered in trials hold unbreakable sway. Loyalty is an oath, an unspoken understanding that binds individuals into brotherhoods and sisterhoods. These bonds are often stronger than family ties, and the sacrifice for a sworn brother or sister is considered the highest form of devotion.


The concept of vengeance is a potent force in the jianghu. It arises from a deep-seated commitment to righting wrongs and seeking retribution for past injustices.

Loyalty and honour meant that one should exact avenge any wrongdoings that befall a sworn brother or sister.

Vengeance is a double-edged sword, often blurring the lines between righteousness and obsession. It can be a driving force for heroism, motivating characters to confront formidable adversaries and overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. However, it can also lead to a dark path, consuming individuals with a singular focus on retribution.

Little shimei by Jenxi
Little shimei by Jenxi

Justice and righteousness

Authority is not infallible, and often, it is the renegades of the jianghu who champion the cause of justice. They challenge oppressive regimes, offering a glimmer of hope to the downtrodden. Their methods may be unorthodox, but their aim is clear: to tip the scales back towards righteousness.

The people of the jianghu thrives on the edge of legality, where outlaws are often hailed as heroes and champions of justice. It’s a place where the conventional boundaries of right and wrong blur, and the pursuit of a greater good often necessitates unconventional means.

The jianghu breeds a special kind of hero, one who stands as a bulwark against tyranny and protects the vulnerable. These individuals are not confined by titles or mandates; their authority arises from a deep-seated sense of duty to shield the innocent from harm.

All is not black and white

Of course, nothing is straightforward and moral ambiguity is prevalent. There are good people in a corrupt government and evil individuals within the jianghu. The very code of conduct and rules they uphold could end up being the cause of their spiralling into the darkness of evil.

In Laughing Proudly at the World, Jin Yong challenges the concept jianghu being the righteous counterpart to the corrupt government by depicting moral bankruptcy within the jianghu itself. In a world where one sought escape in the jianghu, one find their own moral compass.

Exploring the jianghu

Delving into the rich tapestry of jianghu requires the right literary compass. Here are some quintessential wuxia works that offer immersive journeys into the martial world: