The Chinese word jianghu (江湖) literally translates to “rivers and lakes” but it means so much more. Jianghu is the name of the brotherhood of outsiders that existed in old China. It is the counterculture society of workers who made their living with the skill of their own two hands: craftsmen, beggars, thieves, street performers, fortune tellers, wandering healers, and many martial artists. In ancient China, where education was valued over physical ability, this was the lowest rank of social order. Mainstream society belonged to the Confucian scholar-officials. Its underbelly was the jianghu. The jianghu has inspired countless numbers of novels and movies. Jianghu tradition still influences martial arts to this day.
The first known use of the word Jianghu can be found in the writings of the Daoist sage Zhuangzi. In the 4th century B.C. he wrote:
“When the springs dry up and the fish are left stranded on the ground, they spew each other with moisture and wet each other down with spit—but it would be much better if they could forget each other in the rivers and lakes.” (泉涸，鱼相与处于陆，相呴以湿，相濡以沫，不如相忘于江湖. Burton Watson translation).
In the Jianghu, instead of learning the Confucian classics, a young man would be apprenticed to a master craftsman for three years, living and learning from their teacher full time. After three years of study passed, he would work alongside his master for two more years. In the fifth year, he would leave his master’s side, and enter the Jianghu on his own. This was also true for the martial arts. Traditional martial arts lineages were like a family. A teacher would only have a handful of students. The relationship between the teacher and the student would be very close, like a father-son relationship. This is reflected in the Chinese word for “master” (师父) which is made up of two characters, “teacher” and “father”. Students would not pay the teacher, but would take care of household chores, teach and were expected to care for the teacher in his old age. The first three years you trained martial arts, you were “entering the lineage” (入门) and getting to know the style. After three years, a student would take on some responsibilities, including teaching younger students. The teacher may bring a student with him when he traveled. This would give the student life experience and allow him to learn from how the teacher acted out in the world. The student could also be sent out into the Jianghu on their own. Over time, this traditional model changed. Students could live at home with their families, and go to the teacher’s house to train or help out. They would visit with gifts on the teacher’s birthday or to celebrate the New Year.
Those living in the Jianghu followed their own moral code, which they viewed as superior to laws mandated by the government, which many saw as corrupt and incompetent. When traveling martial artists, performers or journeymen traveled to a new town, their first stop would always be to pay respects to the local Jianghu leader. The Jianghu leader was an unofficial rank, a person treated with respect for their high level of skill, not a government representative. If the Jianghu leader did not give you their blessing, nobody would interact with you. There was a strict procedure for meeting new people.
This hand gesture symbolizes the Jianghu. The five fingers of the right fist are the five major lakes in China (Lake Tai in Jiangsu and Zhejiang, Hongze Lake in Jiangsu, Lake Chao in Anhui, Poyang Lake in Jiangxi, and Dongting Lake in Hunan). The four fingers on the left hand symbolize the four seas. “Five lakes and Four Oceans” refers to a vast territory. The gesture means that throughout the land, all men are brothers, all men are equal. When this gesture is done incorrectly, bowing with the left thumb not tucked in, it is a sign that you do not consider the person your equal. In the jianghu, it is a challenge. In the 1980s, a famous tai chi teacher traveled to Zhoukou (Henan Province) to teach. The local martial artists sent a representative to meet him. When the representative extended his hand, the famous martial arts teacher did not shake it. Instead, he used a tai chi movement to push the representative’s hand away. This was a huge insult, so the representative knocked him to the ground. The famous martial artists instantly lost the support of every martial artist in the area. He was not allowed to teach and had to leave town.
When you met another person from the Jianghu, they would probably ask your lineage. If the person was from the same lineage as you were, they might test you. For example, they could ask about people’s names, events from the lineage history, secret medicine formulas, or even test your martial skill. A student always had to be careful. You were never safe. Even while eating, sleeping, or going to the bathroom, a person could jump on you and test your skill.
In modern China, many Jianghu traditions have been lost. The majority of martial arts teaching models itself after a school, not a family. The school with the most students is seen as the most successful. In most cases, The relationship between a student and teacher is not as strong.
There have also been positive changes. Jianghu teaching was a closed system. Teachers rarely taught those outside the lineage. This allowed teachers to control the quality of students’ practice but often shut the doors on hard working students of other lineages. In modern times, students have access to a larger number of teachers and techniques. This is a positive change. I often teach students from other lineages. As long as the student is not hurting themselves or others, sharing the art with them is a good thing.
Martial arts are living arts. They change over time. Every master has their own insights and puts their own stamp on the style. This is how the practice grows and evolves. We have to change. But as we change, we need to remember our traditions, and this means remembering the jianghu.