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- For the 2004 Hong Kong film, see Jiang Hu (film).
Jiānghú (江湖; Cantonese: gong woo) is the milieu, environment, or sub-community, often fictional, in which many Chinese classical wuxia stories are set. The term can be translated literally as “rivers and lakes”. Jianghu is an alternative universe coexisting with the actual historical one in which the context of the wuxia genre was set. Each wuxia novel has its own Jianghu setting although in the trilogy like Jin Yong‘s Condor series it will be one with continuity; whereas Gu Long‘s Jianghu would be distinct in every novel.
The concept of Jianghu can be traced to the 14th century novel Water Margin (traditional Chinese: 水滸傳; simplified Chinese: 水浒传), in which a band of noble outlaws retreated to their hideout who mounted regular sorties in an attempt to right the wrongs of the corrupt officials. These bandits were called the Chivalrous men of the Green Forests or 綠林好漢, the green forest was the antecedent to Jianghu.
One of the earliest coinage of Jianghu was by a dejected poet Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹 (989—1052 CE) in the Song Dynasty in his poem 岳陽樓記 (sees reference), in which the context of Jianghu was set out as distant to the courts and temples, meaning a world in its own right.
Premises in Jianghu
It is a tacit assumption in many wuxia novels that the law and order in the actual historical setting were dysfunctional or poor, like the change of dynastic China from Song Dynasty to Yuan Dynasty, to Ming Dynasty and to Qing Dynasty, periods in time correlating to tremendous upheavals and turmoil in the society. In Louis Cha‘s novels the dysfunctionality can come in two levels- law and order broken down locally within China and secondly, the sovereignty of China came to be challenged by invaders. Localised disorder is the predicate where the chivalry and the code of xia will be much needed to mend the ills of the world. The second layer of dysfunctionality in Cha’s work would then become setting to showcase the patriotism and loyalty of the protagonists to their epoch or their emperors.
Integral to Jianghu is the smaller circle of martial arts practitioners usually including the protagonists called Wulin.
Morality in Jianghu
A strong element in the structure of Jianghu, is the line between Good and Evil, Right and Wrong are crystal clear; it is absolute. With some exceptions in Gu Long‘s work, protagonist in wuxia novels usually represent the right side of the law and ethos, their nemesis the opposite. It is here that theories abound on Star Wars‘s philosophy of the Jedi knights were based on that of xia and the setting of Jianghu in this genre. The absolute definition of morality in wuxia is understandably a reaction to the real world where it is not quite so clear what or who is purely good or otherwise, consider the context and the historicity of Hong Kong at the time of Louis Cha‘s work.
Code of xia is absolute, and sometimes with no regard to the law or authority. It is righteousness taken to the extreme, in that the Xia-adherents when righting a wrong would be answerable only to his/her morality. The modus operandi, and the benchmark morality of all xia adherents in Jianghu is on en (good-deed or gracious deeds) and yuan (feuds or misgiving).
There is one profession within Jianghu where code of xia might become situational, which is the security-bodyguard equivalent biaohang, who are for-hire xia for delivery of goods or escort services. This is the closest equivalent to the bushido samurai or the soldier of fortune in the Jianghu world.
Wulin 武林 is a term referring to the smaller microcosm within Jianghu. Inhabitants of wulin are clearly differentiated from those within Jianghu, in that they all know some form of wushu or martial arts. And the way to differentiate the good from the bad within wulin is the code of xia, those who adhere to it good, those who do not bad.
The standard of morality within wulin is less vigorous than that in Jianghu or in the historical setting. It is common to split Wulin into black and white ways denoting the criminous and virtuous. Killers, murderers and those less scruplous belong to the black way would live in wulin with bad reputations, until someone right their wrongs. The virtuous white way adherents are commonly represented by the major schools including Shaolin, Wudang, Emei to name some, who are the benchmark good guys of the wulin.
The different schools are looked up to, and usually act as the elder advisors to the smaller elite circle within wulin. Every now and again Wulin needs to have a champion, a general or a commander to lead the collective resources of wulin participants for China. A wulin mengzu will sometimes be nominated and voted for this role. Typically but not always, the protagonist of a wuxia novel will become this leader and command the actions of wulin.
In many wuxia novels, many seemingly uprighteous masters harbour seedy ambitions eventually turning them into dark personalities. These characters are in fact real-life approximations and reflections of politicians and lobbyists, where the truths are in shades of grays, instead of the absolute black or white.
Last paragraph in 岳陽樓記…嗟夫！予嘗求古仁人之心，或異二者之為，何哉？不以物喜，不以己悲，居廟堂之高，則憂其民；處 江湖 之遠，則憂其君。是進亦憂，退亦憂；然則何時而樂耶？其必曰：“先天下之憂而憂，後天下之樂而樂矣！”噫！微斯人，吾誰與歸！
- Jiang Hu: Chinese Martial Underworld
- Wuxia Fiction: An Introduction to the Wuxia Genre
- Uncovering Wuxia Jargon