Rivers and lakes: quackery

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Get ready to go a-wanderin'.  I'll take you down to the rivers and lakes, and we shall lose ourselves in them, get lost from the hurlyburly hustlebustle of the mundane world.  That's what jiānghú 江湖 ("rivers and lakes") is all about.  It's where you go to xiāoyáo yóu 逍遙遊 ("wander freely / carefreely / leisurely").

The first occurrence of jiānghú 江湖 in traditional Chinese literature is to be found in the Zhuāng Zǐ 莊子 ("Master Zhuang") (late 4th-early 3rd BC), which happens to be my favorite work of ancient Chinese literature:

Quán hé, yú xiāngyǔ chǔ yú lù, xiāng xǔ yǐ shī, xiāng rú yǐ mò, bùrú xiāngwàng yú jiānghú.


"When springs dry up, fish huddle together on the land. They blow moisture on each other and keep each other wet with their slime.  But it would be better if they could forget themselves in the rivers and lakes."

VHM, tr., Wandering on the Way:  Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu (New York:  Bantam, 1994), p. 53.

After Master Zhuang, though, as with so many other lexical creations of his protean, prolific, playful mind, jiānghú 江湖 ("rivers and lakes") entered the flow of Chinese literature and took on many figurative usages:

1. all corners of the country; (around) the whole country
2. society, community
3. wandering life; private and plebian domain beyond the control of the government; underworld
4, place of residence of a hermit; reclusive place
5. vagrant; itinerant (entertainer, quack doctor, swindler etc.)
6. old experienced person; man of experience


It is because of the fifth figurative definition given above that I was prompted to write this post, since the question of quackery came up in this recent comment thread, "Sinological formatting" (6/3/23), where it was insinuated that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a form of quackery.  The expression for "quack doctor" in Mandarin is jiānghú yīshēng 江湖醫生, so I thought that Language Log readers would be interested in learning the derivation of this term.


Selected readings



  1. Doctor Science said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 4:56 pm

    Having been reading works (pro or fan,) either in translation or originally in English, set in the jiānghú, and seeing the various approaches writers take to translating it or not, it's seemed to me that part of the flavor is what in Western culture is traditionally given by "gypsy"–which is of course unusable in any number of ways. But that got me wondering why I can't seem to find anything about itinerant cultures in Eastern Eurasia, equivalent to the Roma, Travellers, etc. Or if the name "rivers and lakes" implies communities like the Tanka, but more widespread.

  2. Paul Frank said,

    June 17, 2023 @ 12:26 am

    In Ching Siu-tung's The Legend of the Swordsman (笑傲江湖II東方不敗, 1992), there's a memorable line, which often crops up on Chinese social media: "Where there are people, there is jianghu." Jianghu was of course a central concept in The Water Margin (水滸傳) and in Mao Zedong's psyche. Here's a song: https://music.163.com/#/mv?id=5437552

  3. John Swindle said,

    June 17, 2023 @ 12:55 am

    @Doctor Science: There were of course nomadic herders to the north and west of the Chinese heartland, but that feels a little different.

  4. Doctor Science said,

    June 17, 2023 @ 8:41 am

    @Paul Frank:

    Tell me about Mao & jianghu, this is new to me! I can see how he could have taken inspiration from the idea of the righteous government-outside-the-government. It makes me think that the current regime is probably happy to encourage the idea of the jianghu as a realm defined by martial arts, cultivation, and out-and-out magic, because otherwise it's definitely a dangerous line of thought …

  5. Doctor Science said,

    June 17, 2023 @ 9:53 am

    I can't remember where I saw it, but I did see someone argue that "rivers and lakes", especially to people from the Yangtze basin and south, traditionally had the flavor of "the road", because that was how you traveled any distance. Like Western use of "gypsy", it could imply not that you've withdrawn from normal society, but that you're moving quickly along the edges of it, seeing too much of it rather than too little. Not unlike the American idea of The Road, or even Tolkien's.

    Though in the jianghu works I've encountered, most travel seems to be on foot, with only occasional trips on rivers or lakes (and a high chance that there will be a scene where someone's martial arts skills allows them to tiptoe across the water …)

  6. Gene Anderson said,

    June 17, 2023 @ 1:30 pm

    Chinese medicine is certainly not quackery, though many quacks practise their own forms of it! And "Tanka" is usually considered a prejudice term. The boat people in question do not lead anything like "rivers and lakes" lives–they are, or were, terribly hardworking fishers and watermen (and waterwomen). The houseboat dwellers of old Europe and England are much more like the rivers-and-lakes, but they too were often hardworking. Houseboat dwellers in today's Sausalito, Seattle, and elsewhere, however, do seem to live a rivers-and-lakes life.

  7. Paul Frank said,

    June 17, 2023 @ 2:09 pm

    @Doctor Science: “Don’t let the young read The Water Margin; don’t let the old read the Three Kingdoms”. Mao read and loved both. In 1975, Mao channelled the Three Kingdoms in a campaign against capitulator Song Jian – an attack against Zhou Enlai. But when Mao was a young man, The Water Margin was his favorite book because of its “jianghu” spirit of rebellion against authority. Mao’s rival Zhang Guotao once begrudgingly observed that no one in the CCP, himself included, could match Mao’s skill at deploying “江湖手段.” See 翟志成, “毛澤東對明代歷史文化的吸取和應用,” 近代史研究所集刊 76 (2012): 19.

  8. Doctor Science said,

    June 18, 2023 @ 12:26 pm

    @Gene Anderson: I should have expected that "Tanka", like "Gypsy" would turn out to be a prejudice term.:(

    Thinking about how Roma (et al.) were traditionally perceived as lazy/carefree/*happy*, and how a lot of that is associated with music and dancing. And how musicians and other performers are often itinerant, even in the most home-bound societies.

    So I went to Google Scholar looking for info on itinerant musicians & such in imperial China, and found "Itinerant Singers: Triangulating the Canton–Hong Kong–Macau Soundscape" by May Bo Ching. She starts by quoting Dou Won, a blind dragon-boat singer who worked in the Pearl River Delta beginning in the early 20th Century: "…I began to earn my living in every corner of the world [jianghu 江湖]"

    This jianghu is in fact very watery, connected by literal rivers (and occasional lakes), on flower boats and other liminal locations.

  9. Aardvark Cheeselog said,

    June 20, 2023 @ 3:34 pm

    I encountered the term "jiānghú, in connection with the tea trade, specifically with markets in puer tea, courtesy of Jinghong Zhang and some English-speaking puer sellers. It's a land of self-made heroic stories or maybe uncontrolled bullshitting. "Wild West" is how that last guy put it.

  10. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 23, 2023 @ 3:18 am

    « I should have expected that "Tanka", like "Gypsy" would turn out to be a prejudice term ». I don't think that "gypsy" is a "prejudice term" (or "perjorative", as I would put it), at least among the more enlightened — genuine gypsies are (or were) a traditional part of the English landscape, whilst it is the behaviour of some travellers ("faux gypsies") which is, in the main, responsible for the poor reputation that both groups have latterly (and, in the case of gypsies, unfairly) acquired …

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