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