Wuxia Novelist: A Writer's Blog

Wuxia Novelist: A Writer's Blog looks at the broad range of issues encountered by me as a novelist working in the Chinese wuxia (heroic fiction) genre. I have, however, a very broad background and this blog will not narrowly focus on one genre of literature, rather I will consider books, movies, and ideas that relate to my life as a writer. For more information about my background please visit my author's website: www.thedragongateinn.com or www.facebook.com/WuxiaNovelist

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Jianghu, The Writer, & The Globalization of Storytelling, part 2

Time to turn to our English explanations/translations of the jianghu.

Professor James J.Y. Liu in his great book, The Chinese Knight-Errant, only refers to jianghu in passing when he translates the title of a book that uses the term, and there he translates it literally as “rivers and lakes.”

Of the other explanations I’ve seen in English, the Internet’s Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiang_Hu) probably sums them up when they write:

…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". Metaphorically, however, it refers not to a physical place or geographic location but to the wild and romanticized domain of secret societies, gangs, fighters, entertainers, prostitutes, assassins, thieves, actors, beggars, and wanderers that is roughly the Chinese equivalent to the English terms "bohemian" and "the underworld".

And their definition continues with a brief look at the term in Chinese literature:

The term originally started in Chinese literature in the more literal sense of "rivers and lakes" to denote an unsettled geographic area. In medieval China, outlaws often fled to the frontiers, returning only to prey upon the law-abiding world. The roots of jianghu wuxia (frontier heroes) go back at least as far as the 12th century novel Water Margin (水浒传), in which a band of noble outlaws retreated to a swampy hideout and mounted sorties in an attempt to right the wrongs of the corrupt officials. Over time, especially in the wuxia novel tradition, the term eventually took on the more metaphoric meaning.

This sort of agrees with my look into the Chinese use of the term, but it should be noted that the great Water Margin is a mid-14th century work. What is useful, however, is the point that the term “eventually took on the more metaphoric meaning.” I really wonder if it ever held anything but a metaphoric meaning as a home for the xia.

The well-known Chinese heroic film critic, Stephen Teo, in a fine article (www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/hu.html) about the great wuxiapian director, King Hu (Mandarin: Hu Jin-quan) refers to the use of the term in 20th century wuxia fiction:

In 20th century wuxia fiction, a historicist paradigm of the genre, suggested by Chen Pingyuan in his book The Literati’s Chivalric Dreams, Narrative Models of Chinese Knight-Errant Literature, encompasses the following: firstly, the world of the jianghu, secondly martial arts action, and thirdly, Buddhist concepts. Chen defines the jianghu (literally “rivers and lakes”) as a kind of Utopia where xia (the knights-errant) are free to defy authority and act on their conscience to punish evil and exalt goodness; without this imaginary world, there would be no xia.

So these descriptions are of the home of the “common people” or in Chinese, the laobaixing. It was not so much a “lawless” area, but, like most traditional societies, the area of daily life where relationships (guan-xi) and not the law held the most authority. And these patterns held sway in all societies whether it was China, New York, Chicago, Tokyo, or Hong Kong where the crime gangs like the Mafia, Yakuza, or Triads had their areas of influence. Or, even more interesting and closer in terms of analogy, the “Wild West” of the American frontier.

In a magazine article (Classical Fighting Arts, Issue #9, pp.31-37), Brian L. Kennedy, JD and Elizabeth Guo take this definition one step further when they write:

It is much like the American Old West of John Wayne movies and dime store cowboy novels. It was physically inhospitable; weapons were the norm; and for better or worse a “man could be free.” In a very real sense the jianghu was a “state of mind” as much as a physical place…

In the jianghu the official courts of law, in fact the normal state sanctioned law itself, is useless. They are useless either because of judicial corruption or because the laws themselves are skewed to favor the rich and the politically powerful. As a result, men have to “take the law into their own hands,” and differences can only be resolved by the sword, the spear, or the fist.

The authors’ points are well taken: that jianghu is both a “state of mind” and a “place” where institutional justice does not function. We can say that it is a fictional place where perceived injustices are dealt with. But in this age of globalization is this “place,” this jianghu limited only to the boundaries of China? Are our literary xia only Chinese characters?


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