jianghu: rivers and lakes

In Chinese writing, there’s a term which is composed by the characters for rivers and lakes: jianghu. That is why jianghu is commonly translated as ‘rivers and lakes’.

One finds the notion already in ancient poetry and philosophy of two thousand years ago. Sometimes jianghu refers to watery sites, like in ‘fishes are better off in rivers and lakes than in dried up springs’.

However, the term has always carried also a metaphorical meaning. Helena Yuen Wai says the context defines the atmosphere, the emotions or the weight of the word. Hence, jianghu may refer to the abstraction of cosmic infinity, or to freedom and mobility, to desires or remembrance.

During the twentieth century, the concept of jianghu knows a sort of revival, specifically when linked to the genre of wuxia. Wuxia are the stories (in literature, film, strips, games or theatre) about knight-errantry and Chinese martial arts (wushu). Famous examples are movies such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon from 2000 or Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (2004), but also Tarantino’s Kill Bill contains references to wuxia. According to Helena Yuen Wai, “jianghu and the wuxia genre are defined by and through one another: the notion of jianghu is embedded in different texts of the wuxia genre, whereas the wuxia genre needs jianghu as a context for its narrative to take place.”

Metaphorically jianghu always carries an atmosphere of indeterminacy and multiplicity. In that sense, the reference to rivers and lakes is obvious. Yuen Way says the concept resists singularity and homogeneity; it celebrates hybridity, ambiguity and heterogeneity. The rivers and lakes of jianghu are a site of contestation, dissemination and communication.

Well, I’ll do my best.

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