The concept of “ the rivers and lakes ”(Jianghu) is a thread that weaves its way throughout the martial arts. In a traditional sense, the concept can refer to a geographic reality, a mental or spiritual state, or a community of like-minded people.
In Chinese culture, to “walk the rivers and lakes” puts one outside of society. Or perhaps better put, outside the reach of society. The lone wanderer without home or state is said be to a man of the rivers and lakes. Yet a band of outlaws, an itinerant tinker passing through. And even a circus performer all hold the same place in the imagination of the community as the proverbial kung fu warrior moving from village to village.
This status is both observed by the society at large and felt within the individual or the community. It confers a set of privileges as well as limitations, because sometimes it is hard for general society to tell if a person who is “walking the rivers and lakes” means well or not.
In terms of the Chinese martial arts world, a villainous man of the rivers and lakes is indeed an enemy of everything the culture of kung fu stands for, but he is easily surpassed by the corrupt bureaucrat, malicious landlord, or capricious ruler.
In this sense, the concept of the rivers and lakes—and the martial arts with it—plays a very serious and integral role in teasing out social mores and providing counter-culture archetypes for the average citizen.