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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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Jianghu, The Writer, & The Globalization of Storytelling, part 1

The milieu of the action/adventure/historical fiction genre can range from a “galaxy far, far away” to Middle Earth, visit the 21st century urban terrain of a James Bond or Jason Bourne or travel across the “rivers and lakes” of a fictional Middle Kingdom. As fans of wuxia know, the jianghu (“rivers and lakes”) is the essential milieu of this genre. I should mention at the outset of this blog that much of the material presented here has appeared in my “Wandering Blades Blog” on my author’s website. However, this and subsequent blogs on this topic have been updated according to my latest thinking regarding the nature of the jianghu.

For today’s blog, I would like to begin by taking a brief look at the appearance of that two-character combination [jiang and hu, literally, “river(s)” and “lake(s)”] in Chinese literature over the centuries. For a quick look at the history of this term, I consulted the 10 volume, 17,244 page (!) Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Chinese Language (Zhongwen da cidian) – this work is sort of the Oxford English Dictionary for the Chinese language. There are five meanings given:

1. The first reference in Chinese literature seems to have been in the great Chinese historian, Sima Qian’s (ca. 145–90 B.C.E.) Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) where he cites a reference to the “three rivers and five lakes” that is abbreviated as the “rivers and lakes” or “jianghu.” Thus, this is a geographic reference.

2. The next reference comes from the History of the (Former) Han Dynasty (Hanshu), which was completed in the early 2nd century C.E. There the term refers to the “world” in general; as in “out in the world” things/people are such and such.

3. The third meaning does appear in some of the English explanations of the term that I found. In Chinese literature, the term jianghu came to mean the region(s) or area(s) where hermits chose to live away from the Imperial Court. We are getting closer to the wuxia genre usage.

4. The fourth meaning is a more specific geographic one where the term refers to the Yangtze River (Changjiang) and Lake Dongting (Dongtinghu).

5. With the fifth meaning we are closer to “home.” Jianghu refers to the places where street performers, wandering panhandlers, and entertainers ply their wares and trades. Someone who is long experienced in such activities is referred to as “an old (i.e., experienced) rivers and lakes person” (lao jianghu).

We can see that from this last definition it is not much of a jump to making this a reference to the regions were our wandering blades roam. Yet, how do we translate that into English? We’ll look at the English in part 2 of this blog.


Blogger Bret said...

An engaging investigation.

The Dacidian is wrong to suggest that "jianghu" first appeared in Sima Qian. Zhuangzi used the term in at least two places about two centuries earlier.

July 18, 2010 at 12:58 AM  
Anonymous The Innkeeper said...

Hello Bret,

Thanks for the interesting comment. Do you know the Zhuangzi citation, as I'd be very interested in seeing its context.

The Innkeeper

July 18, 2010 at 5:05 AM  

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