I've always wondered how to translate the word "江湖" in a context such as that in Du Mu's poem:


This link clearly explains what 江湖 means, but "underworld" isn't particularly good English even in a 武侠小说 context (and in the quote above it makes it sound like Du Mu was carrying wine with him around in hell) : has anyone come up with a better way to get across this word in English, or is it just one of those concepts that defies easy (succinct) translation? How do you suggest translating the word, in the above couplet for example?

Concerning the Rules of Engagement, I'm really not asking for someone to do my homework for me; rather curious to know whether anyone has a solution to a problem that's bugged me for a while now.


3 Answers 3


Took me a while to find a translation of the poem, by Witter Bynner:

With my wine-bottle, watching by river and lake 
For a lady so tiny as to dance on my palm, 
I awake, after dreaming ten years in Yangzhou, 
Known as fickle, even in the Street of Blue Houses.

It looks as if the translator didn't really get it, but in this poem "rivers and lakes" should be appropriate. The poet was writing about his ten years in 扬州, where there were plenty of rivers and lakes. You could imagine him riding on a vessel, with a drinking vessel in his hand, watching girls dance and wasting himself away.

As for the extended meaning, oh boy that's hard. 金庸 has a book titled 笑傲江湖, when translated to English, it becomes "The Swordsman", "The Legendary Swordsman", "The Smiling, Proud Wanderer", and "Laughing in the Wind". It looks like everyone is spending their best effort to try to avoid translating 江湖.

I guess people doing this because they thought they are translating up to a more prestigious language. They try to avoid anything that's slightly less comprehensible to an English reader, lest he gets offended by a few unrecognizable loanwords and throws the book away.

That's hardly the problem. James Nicoll once said this:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

English cares not a bit about its purity, so I would suggest that we defile it a little more by translating it as "Rivers and Lakes", or even "Jiang Hu".

江湖 is a world. It's a vastness of turbulence. It's a world where people obtain their loafs at the peril of their lives. It's the world where hermits bide, where wanderers ride, where swordsmen stride, where clans collide... It's like Dungeons and Dragons sans magic and monsters. Now, describe it with an existing English word.

You can't.

  • yeah- I'm interested in the extended meaning.:) Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 11:28
  • You might be able to find some cues for a translation of 江湖 in, say, the story of Robin Hood, since he is a 江湖好汉. Maybe "the Wood"?
    – Gao
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 16:42
  • "It's a world where people obtain their loafs at the peril of their lives. It's the world where hermits bide, where wanderers ride, where swordsmen stride, where clans collide... It's like Dungeons and Dragons sans magic and monsters." hmm ... I think of ... slums? Ghetto? Underbelly?
    – Ming
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 0:11
  • 2
    The wood, the jungle, the street, the underworld -- they all work to some degree, but since it's something specific to the Chinese culture, I don't think approximations would work.. Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 1:52
  • right thats the struggle. at a minimum it was good to learn that the word actually just meant rivers and lakes at some point.:) Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 3:21

江湖 is not just a world. In the context of most poetry and other literary works (excluding novels) by ancient educated people, 江湖 contained meaning of "out of the central government's or emperor's control or sight", and sometimes "far away in the large world".

Famous quote from 范仲淹's 《岳阳楼记》

Note that 庙堂 here means "temples and halls" and actually refers "the central government around the emperor"

Unlike most countries, the ancient Chinese government made a system 科举, which let educated people to have titles by passing through district/nation wide contests, and get provided by the government for his whole life. So educated men especially the elites of them, have two choices of their life, either stay away and live a free life in 江湖, or join the political system, the power hierarchy in 庙堂.

In recent 500 years (guessing, I am not a historian) 江湖 gained meaning of underworld. Basically no matter where one lives or works, if he/she is connected to local and/or especially remote underworld forces, he is in 江湖. Take Game of Thrones for example, Eddard Stark who rules far away from the King, but resides himself only in the power system and hence he is not in 江湖. By contrast, Varys and Baelish, who work beside the throne, have lots of connections in outside the political system ("little birds", brothels) and hence they are also in 江湖.

  • teehee I like your comparison to GoT. Have an upvote :) Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 2:48

I originally wrote a comment that said:

it could easily just be translated as the world, in fact A Chinese-English Dictionary notes that 江湖 is the whole-wide world; if you want something more ghetto you could say something like the streets----(and in the quote above it makes it sound like Du Mu was carrying wine with him around in hell): why not try something like "on the streets with a 40" (oz, of course)....

This is, again, proven by:

百度百科 遣怀(杜牧诗作)


四方各地, so pretty much, everywhere -or- the world -or- the whole wide world, like:

  • 闯荡江湖
  • 流落江湖
  • 闯江湖
  • 走江湖
  • 江湖未静,不可让位
  • 浪迹江湖
  • 落泊江湖


other contexts will result in different translations, though, I would imagine.

  • that's interesting... so 江湖 might not always have had the extra connotation of ~wild outback that it came to have in the context of 武侠小说. good to keep in mind. Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 11:34
  • @MasterSparkles especially in the poem/example you gave...as Encylopeida Baiduica says it just means 四方各地...
    – Mou某
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 12:11
  • yeah this question arose specifically in relation to that poem, which i was writing about the other day. based on some research today it looks like 陈平原 wrote a book called 千古文人侠客梦... maybe Chen talks about evolution of the 江湖 concept in there. Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 22:53

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