The concept of Jianghu can be traced to the 14th century novel ''Water Margin'' , in which a band of noble outlaws retreated to their hideout who mounted regular sorties in an attempt to right the wrongs of the corrupt officials. These bandits were called the ''Chivalrous men of the Green Forests'' or 綠林好漢, the ''green forest'' was the antecedent to Jianghu.
One of the earliest coinage of Jianghu was by a dejected poet Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹 in the Song Dynasty in his poem 岳陽樓記 , in which the context of Jianghu was set out as distant to the courts and temples, meaning a world in its own right.
Premises in Jianghu
It is a tacit assumption in many wuxia novels that the law and order in the actual historical setting were dysfunctional or poor, like the change of dynastic China from Song Dynasty to Yuan Dynasty, to Ming Dynasty and to Qing Dynasty, periods in time correlating to tremendous upheavals and turmoil in the society. In Louis Cha's novels the dysfunctionality can come in two levels: firstly, law and order broken down locally within China and secondly, the sovereignty of China came to be challenged by invaders. Localised disorder is the predicate where the chivalry and the code of ''xiá'' will be much needed to mend the ills of the world. The second layer of dysfunctionality in Cha's work would then become setting to showcase the patriotism and loyalty of the protagonists to their epoch or their emperors.
Integral to Jianghu is the smaller circle of martial arts practitioners usually including the protagonists called .
Morality in Jianghu
A strong element in the structure of Jianghu, is the line between Good and Evil, ''Right and Wrong'' is crystal clear; it is absolute. With some exceptions in Gu Long's work, protagonist in wuxia novels usually represent the right side of the law and ethos, their nemesis the opposite. It is here that theories abound on Star Wars's philosophy of the Jedi knights were based on that of xiá and the setting of Jianghu in this genre. The absolute definition of morality in wuxia is understandably a reaction to the real world where it is not quite so clear what or who is purely good or otherwise, consider the context and the historicity of Hong Kong at the time of Louis Cha's work.
Code of xiá is absolute, and sometimes with no regard to the law or authority. It is ''righteousness'' taken to the extreme, in that the xiá-adherents when righting a wrong would be answerable only to his/her morality. The modus operandi, and the benchmark morality of all xiá adherents in Jianghu is on en and yuan .
There is one profession within Jianghu where code of xiá might become situational, which is the security-bodyguard equivalent ''biaohang'', who are for-hire xiá for delivery of goods or escort services. This is the closest equivalent to the bushido samurai or the soldier of fortune in the Jianghu world.
Wulin 武林 is a term referring to the smaller microcosm within Jianghu. Inhabitants of wulin are clearly differentiated from those within Jianghu, in that they all know some form of wushu or martial arts. And the way to differentiate the good from the bad within wulin is the code of xiá, those who adhere to it are good, those who do not are bad.
The standard of morality within wulin is less vigorous than that in Jianghu or in the historical setting. It is common to split wulin into black and white ''ways'', denoting the criminous and virtuous. Killers, murderers and those less scruplous belong to the ''black way'' would live in wulin with a bad reputation, until someone would right their wrongs. The virtuous ''white way'' adherents are commonly represented by the major schools including Shaolin, Wudang, Emei to name a few, who are the benchmark ''good guys'' of wulin.
The different schools are looked up to, and usually act as the elder advisors to the smaller elite circle within wulin. Every now and again wulin needs to have a champion, a general or a commander to lead the collective resources of wulin participants for China. A ''wulin mengzhu'' will sometimes be nominated and voted for this role. Typically but not always, the protagonist of a wuxia novel will become this leader and command the actions of wulin.
In many wuxia novels, many seemingly uprighteous masters harbour seedy ambitions eventually turning them into dark personalities. These characters are in fact real-life approximations and reflections of politicians and lobbyists, where the truths are in shades of grays, instead of the absolute black or white.
In modern times, the term ''jianghu'' can take on several meanings, including different professions and sometimes used to refer to the and the secret societies of gangsters.