Hsui-ju Stacy Lo: The ‘Rivers and Lakes’ (jianghu) of Beijing, 2012
This grant supported my anthropological investigation of ‘rivers and lakes’ (jianghu) – a concept, or an imaginary world about which every Chinese person knows, but no one seems to be able to draw the complete picture of the world. Often understood as a collective fantasy space created by the disenfranchised in which adventure and honor are valued, jianghu is “the other clue to understanding Chinese society”.1 Although the term jianghu finds ancient origins that go back to the fourth-century BC Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, common references to jianghu – literally ‘rivers and lakes’ – in everyday Chinese life are regarded as something of a revival of an ancient cosmos.
However, it is misleading to call it a ‘revival’ since the existence of jianghu cannot be limited to the utterances of the term, but should extend to the imageries, metaphors, and representations in art and literature. When a more comprehensive approach is adopted, one sees the process of mimesis and transmogrification through history.2 From this standpoint, the scenarios of today’s jianghu are not only specific to the temporality of the present, but also subject to the legends and stories long passed down. An extensive study of jianghu requires both synchronic and diachronic methodologies.
One of the aspects of jianghu I proposed to research is the urban jianghu. I chose Beijing largely because of cultural critic Chen Guanzhong’s co-authored volume Boximiya Zhongguo (2003), or Bohemian China. The Beijing as depicted by Chen and co is the bohemian capital of China, a cosmopolitan city whose creative energies, imagination and freedoms have blossomed in ways similar to the nineteenth-century Paris, cultural capital of Europe at the time. What is intriguing about the volume is Chen & co’s close association between boximiya and jianghu. For them, jianghu appears to be the Chinese answer to bohemia. Ten years since its publication, does this association still make sense?
From my exploration of jianghu and interaction with the self-styled jianghu characters over the summer, I would conclude tentatively that the spontaneity and the organic beginnings of jianghu are obsolescent. However, the question that deserves more thought is not whether Chen’s Beijing has survived to this day, but the myriad ways jianghu has transmuted since it was first introduced.
While the granting period is too short to complete the dissertation research as proposed above, I have conducted interviews and library research in and around Beijing in quest for the contours and colors of this imaginary world. Interestingly, everyone I have spoken to over the summer confirmed its existence and continuingeffect on the contemporary Chinese society. In Li Peifeng’s opinion, Songzhuang, an organic artist village on the outskirt of Beijing, is the epitome of jianghu. The artists, as he told me, come here from all over (nationally and internationally), to realize their dreams and fulfil ambitions. Not dreams of creating the once-admired utopia, but dreams of making money and achieving fame. The organism may not be the same, but the techniques and tactics with which Songzhuang artists operate remain those particular to jianghu.
Wang Guofeng, Caochangdi-based artist, holds similar views. While he does not idealize jianghu quite as romantically as Chen, as an insider (quanneiren), Wang has an acute insight into the workings of jianghu techniques. For him, jianghu exists because these techniques are in everyday use. These techniques, derived largely from Confucian, Mohist and Taoist principles, operate outside of a strictly legal society that modern China strives for. These principles are guided by the spirit of jianghu (jianghu yiqi), a gift-like quality in friendship in which feelings and responsibilities are to be shared at the risk of losing autonomy. Jianghu principles deserve a thorough study because they reveal the pre-law moral characteristics unique to Chinese society. Li and Wang are important contacts I have established over the summer as they are well connected in their respective fields. Both have agreed to assist my ongoing research.
Documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang suggests that jianghu is “about floating in the unpredictable torrents of a different kind of life after the body has left the familiar soil.”3 The jianghu he documents is a “life on the road,” a kind of life lived mainly by migrant workers and artists alike. His projects revolve around the ideas of wandering and the world of jianghu. I am very fortunate to have obtained his support for my dissertation research.
In addition to the interviews, I have also conducted considerable library research in the National Library of China. The textual and video material I have collected over the summer contributes enormously to my overall project. This summer fund has helped me lay the necessary foundation for a two-year dissertation research.
For more information on the Weatherhead Undergraduate Training Grant fellowship, please contact Kim Palumbarit at email@example.com.
1 The subtitle of Wang Xuetai’s latest book Shuihu, Jianghu (2011) is “理解中國社會的另一條線索”which, as I have translated above, is “the other clue to understanding Chinese society”.
2 I stated the theoretical framework in more detail in the proposal.
3 My translation. Emphasis added. Quoted in Zhu Dake, The Festival of Liumang, 2006, 308. Wu Wenguang is a well-known contemporary artist who works mainly in video and performance art. His works include Bumming in Beijing: the last dreamers (Liulang Beijing, 1990) and Jianghu: Life on the Road (1999).
For more information on the Weatherhead PhD Training Grant fellowship, please contact Kim Palumbarit at firstname.lastname@example.org.