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.

rivers and lakes
Bangkok, Thailand - October 5, 2013: BANGKOK - OCT 5: A man makes up before playing Chinese play at Lao Pun Tao Kong Shrine, Yaowarat on October 5, 2013 which first day of Vegetarian Festival in Bangkok, Thailand.

Rivers and Lakes People

There are countless examples of “river lake people” in martial arts lore. But in real life, the concept becomes less romantic and much more of a simple identifier. Saying that a certain person “walks the rivers and lakes” or that “he/she is a river lake person” expresses a timeless philosophy that stands at perpetual odds with the established hierarchy, general society, and the political and economic power structures in place at any given time.

The term “river lake person” is not quite interchangeable with the term “kung fu person,” but they are often attached to the same characteristics: the person for whom values and ethics don’t change regardless of the time, place, or condition. Such characters are often tragic, as they are wont to choose hardship and righteousness over comfort and compromise.

The changes Mainland Chinese society have undergone in the last few decades have affected the martial arts world greatly. Masters find it harder to find students, and those that do have a few students often find themselves choosing between a rigid adherence to traditional values—training methods for example—and compromise in order to survive financially.

The social network that allowed for itinerant artists of all stripes to make do has vanished. And in its place is something much less forgiving.

rivers and lakes
A martial arts performance at a marketplace in Shanghai, circa 1930
Photo Credit: Wong Fei Hung Museum

River Lake People in China

Like those who lament that traditional martial arts in Mainland China are dying, anyone who may believe that “river lake people” are also slowly disappearing from Chinese society need not worry. The archetype of the outcast artist, walking the fringes of society and yet free to make observations on that same society, is as durable as the next archetype and no less important.

For China today, it is a deep irony that the river lake people, by definition in flux, represent a reminder of a traditional ideal that can anchor society even has it breaks loose of its moorings and charges headlong into the future.

The idea of the rivers and lakes in Chinese society is not just for martial artists or any other artist, but for society as a whole to use as a mirror:

How do we look to that principled, free, almost indifferent observer? Who is happier, the free man with no home, or the settled man with no freedom?

River lake people, by sheer forces of their existence, speak truth to power. They are the yin to society’s yang, reminding everyone to take a close look at themselves from time to time and make a change.

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