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DRA 244 - Daoist Movement and Rhetoric

Duskin Drum - 03.15.2013

Playing the Changes of Riverslakes (江湖) with Weihai Lishi

This essay sets out to trace the some of the rhetorical movement of an untranslatable Chinese term, jianghu (江湖)1. Literally meaning “riverslakes,” jianghu flows easily between fictional, fantastic, political, and physical worlds. The most common definitions of jianghu2 are certain martial arts fantasy worlds, secret societies, people on the margins, and itinerants including street performers. Arriving in China as a travelling street performer, I became submerged in the jianghu before I ever heard the term. I cultivate my (mis)understandings of the term because it has come to inflect my artistic and political work. In essay, I argue for using Daoist concepts, embedded in both a movement form called Weihai Lishi Quanfa and the Chinese classic text of divination, the I Ching, to analyze uses of jianghu. Interestingly, it is a distinctly Chinese concept, but it also travels transnationally with Chinese migrants. Provocatively, jianghu could also be migrating through film and online media out of just Chinese language contexts. Tracing jianghu maybe a way to consider the cultural vectors that might accompany China’s influence in global economics.

Helena Wu in her very useful article “A Journey across Rivers and Lakes: A Look at the Untranslatable Jianghu in Chinese Culture and Literature” proposes that jianghu is Derrida’s supplementary. While I do not disagree directly, I want to work from an analytical concept apparatus perhaps closer to the origins of jianghu. In a move similar to Lynette Hunter’s draft paper “Winning, Losing, and Wandering Play: Zhuangzian Paradox and Daoist Practice.” This essay will layout a conceptual apparatus for rhetorical comparison based on improvised partner movement from the Daoist health movement system called Weihai Lishi Quanfa.

In this essay I want to do conceptual work with Daoist analytics. This is an attempt to work with conceptualizations of rhetoric that may be closer to jianghu than Derrida’s. Jianghu is a concept that moves; it should be considered with an analytic that moves. For considering a Chinese culture term it makes sense to attempt description based in Chinese philosophy. I will compare Yi Jing and Weihai Lishi Quanfa to set up a Daoist rhetoric based on nested and nestled recursive undulations of intervals yin and yang. “In the Chinese Yin and Yang principle, such a movement of receptivity is nothing other than the fundamental movement of inhalation and exhalation that sets into motion and sustains all of life.” (Minh-ha 56) After setting up the conceptual apparatus I use it to consider a couple of examples from the jianghu.

Concepts that Move

Jianghu is a concept that moves through/adheres to the worlds of fantasy, fiction, and the physical. Weihai Lishi Quanfa is a complex system of movement that promotes health, (auto/physical/environmental/ecological) sensibility and Daoist philosophy through training and play. It is a living tradition formed and transmitted by physical practice and verbal instruction since ancient times. Weihai Lishi contains/uses forms of tai’chi, qigong, and some exercises that resemble Daoist martial arts. I am just a beginner with Weihai Lishi. My descriptions of Weihai Lishi are based on only 70 hours of practice. I imagine I am just beginning to feel the possibilities of the system as Daost analytics. I am suppose that it could be a physical apparatus for making physical analogies for conceptual problems/considerations. A physical apparatus that trains particular useful ways of thinking that are fluid and in motion, flowing through multiple rhetorical stances and positions. This is the kind of analytic for flowing through moving concepts like jianghu.

In the following section I shall start by summarizing how Weihai Lishi training can be described as a rhetorical system. Then I shall summarize some of the basic stances and kinds of exercises Weihai Lishi uses. I will close by examining one exercise/activity, called Adhering Hands, alongside the some of the principles of the Yi Jing (Book of Changes). Adhering hands is the dialogic exercise I develop as a conceptual vessel to navigate the flows of jianghu.

Weihai Lishi is divided into two pools (or possibly a pool and a river) of activities the Yin Arts and the Yin Plus (formally Yang) Arts. Each pool is a repertoire of movements, stances, steps, and bodied knowledge that infold and unfold into a two (or more?) person physical dialog of moving and reacting. The dialogic forms are called respectively Adhering Hands in the Yin Arts and Roll-Aways in the Yin Plus. For sake of brevity, in this essay I will focus on the Yin Arts. Weihai Lishi is taught and practiced through comparison, repetition, addition, division, and repetition. There is a basic vocabulary of principles and stances. Stances are specific placements of feet coupled with a particular weight distribution and body posture. Standing upright with feet shoulder width apart is called bear; standing upright with heels touching is called eagle. Some basic principles are to keep hips forward, know what stance you are in, maintain proper weight distribution, and always move or step heel-toe. Stances and principles provide a foundational vocabulary for exercises and forms. Forms and exercises are accompanied by hand gestures. Forms are long sequences of stances and hand gestures that are performed in groups working in unison. Each form is a kind of expository sequence; I am not experienced enough yet to understand them, but I suspect they are thematic schema that entrain practitioners in particular ways of moving for particular physical and energetic results. Exercises are usually done in pairs. They use comparison, division and repetition to train awareness, energy expression, discernment and balance. The remainder of this essay focuses on the aforementioned exercise called Adhering Hands.

I shall describe Adhering Hands in parallel with my interpretation of Daoist cosmology (in the Greek sense of “world-discourse”) as presented in the ancient Chinese text called the Yi Jing or Book of Changes. I do this to show how Adhering Hands could be experienced as processual version of the comparative logos of Daoism based on nested undulations of a (recursive) breath-like interval(s). The Yi Jing is sometimes considered simply a fortune tellers text. “Of far greater significance than the use of the Book of Changes as an oracle is its other use, namely, as a book of wisdom. Lao-Tse knew this book, and some of his profoundest aphorism were inspired by it.”( Wilhelm liv).

Training for Adhering Hands starts simply with two people facing each other, one person in duck stance, the other in dragon. Dragon stance has one foot forward, lets say, right foot forward, right knee bent, right foot in full contact with the floor. Hips rotated forward, of course. Left leg extends straight back with left foot fully planted and turned out comfortably. The weight of the stance is almost entirely on the right foot forward, so that the left foot can be lifted off the ground without shifting the stance. The players alternate between dragon and duck stances at the same tempo. From dragon, the weight shifts to the back, left foot, while the right knee straightens and the left knee bends. The pelvis and torso glide backwards until all the weight is on the left foot. The left foot extended out from its straightened leg looks a bit like a ducks head and neck dabbling the fields for slugs. The players, one in duck while the other is in dragon, undulate forward and back between their dragon and duck stances. Their forward pointing front feet are lined up parallel with an inch between them. While the players undulate they are rotating their touching or adhering wrists, hence the name Adhering Hands. This basic motion back and forth is the interval between the Creative and the Yielding, or Yang and Yin. “

Also called the Two Ch'i or the Breaths of Heaven and Earth, the Yin and Yang concept is one in which, significantly enough, the two motions inward and outward or upward and downward is actually the same and one motion. Thus, Two does not necessarily imply separateness for it is never really equated with duality, and One does not necessarily exclude multiplicity for it never expresses itself in one single form, or in uniformity. (Minh-ha 56)

The Adhering Hands takes place in the world already unfolded from the underfirentied Dao. As described in chapter 42 of the Dao de Ching, “The Way bears one. The one bears two. The two bear three.” I am using Ursula Le Guin’s interpretation here. Now listen to her commentary on this chapter.

Beginning with a pocket cosmology, this chapter demonstrates the "interplay of energy" of yin and yang by showing how low and high, winning and losing, destruction and self-destruction, reverse themselves, each turning into its seeming opposite.

The Adhering Hands exercise could be describing the three becoming. The way (Dao) being the ungraspable conditions of possibility of the game. The one becomes the game. Of course, in Chinese philosophy one is an impossible number for being. For it to be discernable there is another and then no longer one but two.3 Thus, the game has two players creating the third, the movement between them. Each player is undulating between Creative/Yang, pushing forward into dragon, and Yielding/Yin, gliding back into duck. The movement between them is also the interval wavering but on slightly different register of temporality seeming almost simultaneous. In the I Ching these undulations are simplified into figurative oscillations marked by either a solid line for Creative or a broken line for Yielding.

It is important to mark that these figures are not meant to read as fixed on/off, dark/light, yin/yang, they are marking the extreme but represent the breath-like waver between yin/yang or any other conceptual interval. The changes between the three figures in the adhering hands play give us eight possible combinations known in I Ching and Daoist texts as the Bagua (8 figures).

The I Ching doubles each line to express more subtleties in the undulations. This results in the 64 hexagrams that are used in Chinese philosophy to describe all the changes in the world(s). Each hexagram is a conceptually frozen moment (could bracket any temporal span) of the changes. Changing any line in a hexagram produces another.

In the Adhering Hands the quality and intentions of each player can easily be divided into two waves depending on their intentions and responses in the play (and upon the energetic qualities of their intentions and responses). The circling hands, one, in time with the bodies shifting in and out, two, is already a doubling of the third figure. So my conceit is that the basic starting structure of Adhering Hands models/is a physical analog for the complexity of the I Ching. This is before the play really even begins. The goal of Adhering Hands is maintain balance or put otherwise to train for balance. The training for the play begins with slowly undulating in and out of dragon/duck while circling adhered hands. The players take turns taking each other off balance. So imagine (or remember) you are up close facing someone your, front, right feet lined up next to each other. Your wrists are touching. You glide forward and back between duck and dragon slowly rotating your hand anti-clockwise on a horizontal plain. As you move forward in to dragon your hand rotates in toward your partner. As you glide back onto your left foot into duck, your hand circle back toward your chest. First one partner leads the circling slowly taking the hands to their right until the follower starts to lose balance or break pose. When following you feel hyper attentive to the contact on the wrist and also to the whole motion of your body in relation to theirs. An intense kinesthetic and proprioceptive listening. At first, I tried to follow my partner with my eyes but I slowly learned that I feel the changes in the lead kinesthetically and proprioceptivly before I can see them. Your partner from their duck, your hands close to their chest, rotates the hands out widening the circle to your left. Your arm is across you chest and you feel a little internal wobble as you start to feel the edge of your balance. The partners take turns leading each other to the edges of balance expanding their sensitivity to those boundaries. Conceptually each direction of going off balance is a rhetorical change in the six part imagined figure.4

This is the beginning of feeling the possibility of the physical rhetorical analog. I feel it not as a cognitive symbolic language of the six figures; the figuration here is a textual exercise that illustrates how the embodied analytic could be described as analogous to the I Ching. What I feel when I am using Adhering Hands as an analytic is a kind of calm suspension of my recoiling at contradiction in arguments and concepts; I feel more acute body presence while the concepts feel to move through their arguments flickering comfortably in and out of my cognitive grasp. So far while working with Adhering Hand as a conceptual apparatus, I use it not directly while doing the exercise. Though I am excited by the possibility. Rather I use it as a kind of sensual reference where I place ideas, concepts, and arguments into the memory/imagination of the exercise and feel them move.

The exercise expands to taking off balance to the left, back, front, up, down, and then to paired operations like right to go left, in to go out. These paired operations are fundamental principles in Weihai Lishi. They use the undulations of the intervals to gain something like momentum. Eventually, the players begin to move about following the pulls of balance, maintaining their balance and hand contact by moving through the stance vocabulary of Weihai Lishi. The entire hexagram of undulating intervals expands into an additional dimension of phase space. The exchange of pulling off balance and reacting becomes a kind of free play. I cannot not do this. But I can imagine. The players become like the pairs of swirling, wavering whirlpools that spin off of the tips of rowing oars. Now that I have roughly sketched out the possibility of Adhering Hands as conceptual vessel, a motional concept, I shall try to float it in the turbulent waters of the jianghu.

Jianghu (江湖) is an everyday Chinese term used to describe fantasy martial arts worlds, people on the margins, itinerants, secret societies, and (political or metaphysical) escape. According to Helena Wu it is an untranslatable concept. A term that everyone knows but whose precise meaning dissolves into its uses. In Street Criers: A Cultural History of Chinese Beggers, Hanchao Lu describes the history of jianghu to understand the complexities of the statuses of beggars. “By all means they were subaltern to mainstream society, yet they had a recognizable influence on higher culture. These paradoxes had complex origins, but most of all they were derived from an intangible yet actual world known in Chinese as the jianghu.” (13) The play between “intangible” and “actual” could be the conceived as the figure of Adhering Hands. In Wu’s schema the players could be “untranslatability” and “understanding.”

Intriguingly, however ambiguous, arbitrary and unstable as it is in its meanings, the notion of jianghu is still commonly used and understood by Chinese-speaking communities such as China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan throughout the generations.” (Wu 60) Another potential aspect of the play being that Wu writes about the jianghu of literary and popular culture worlds, whereas Lu is writing about historical corporeal physical worlds. Fictional worlds/corporeal worlds, intangible/actual, and untranslatable/understood are three intervals that jianghu wavers and moves through. Gliding forward and back, dragon to duck, hands circling pulling each other out of balance, and then moving to maintain balance. The term first appears in more than 2000 year ago in ancient texts. In her article “A Journey across Rivers and Lakes: A Look at the Untranslatable Jianghu in Chinese Culture and Literature,” Wu cites Zhuangzi as an early use of the characters jianghu. From fourth century BCE, Zhuangzi is the second canonical Daoist text after the Dao de Ching. Wu explains the passage “ ‘to forget each other in jianghu’ (相忘於江湖) can indeed be understood as a way to look for enjoyment in life, so as to attain a state of xiao yao ( 逍遙, carefree) as much as one can.” (Wu, 61) This could be the first inflection of the Adhering Hands. After Zhuangzi poets began use jianghu to describe the emotions and affects of carefree. (Wu 61) The particular environmental/ecology qualities of a geographical location5 inflect the interval so that the name of the location becomes the sensation of being there. The corporeal world of real rivers and lakes becomes the fictional world of Zhuangzi’s desire/teaching of carefree. The tangible physical landscape becomes the intangibility of carefree. The understood becomes less translatable. In classical rhetoric this could be described as a metalepsis. (footnote-from Gk. meta, "change" and lambanein "to take" ("to change the sense") “Reference to something by means of another thing that is remotely related to it, either through a farfetched causal relationship, or through an implied intermediate substitution of terms.” (Silva).

Lu begins his account of jianghu with Sima Qian’s (ca. 145 BCE) Shiji (Historical Record) and a biography therein recounted of Fan Li who “ ‘took a flat-bottomed boat and floated along rivers and lakes (jianghu)’ toretreat from politics….(his) retirement…was strategic….He was to become the richest man in the country.” (13-14) Jianghu gains a new meaning in temporary strategic political retreat. Another undulation power/retreat, or power/exile, this one following the Weihai Lishi principles of out to go in, or down to go up. As early as second century BCE, Legalist philosopher Han Fei “considered jianghu subculture and the martial prowess of its elite (Xia) a potential threat to the state.” (Yang 74) Ancient Chinese poetry continued to use and multiply these wavering meanings.

At times, jianghu is understood by its exploration of cosmic vastness and infinity and the sense of abstraction it itself provokes. At times, jianghu conveys a sense of freedom, liberty and mobility, as it is sometimes deemed an escapist thought to get away from politics, power struggle, official authority, and the material world. At times, jianghu is correlated to different kinds of longing and desire, including but not limited to the pursuit of individual freedom, the love of nature, and the yearning for a carefree life. At other times, jianghu can also be perceived as a site of contestations where memory, remembrance, reminiscence, desire, emotion, affect and everything in between all come to mix and stir with one another. (Wu 62)

I imagine that the oral conversational use of the term must also have proliferated especially through the storytelling of itinerant performers and probably wandering Daoists (some political exiles?). The Outlaws of the Marsh (or Water Margin or All Men Are Brothers) a popular and widely distributed fourteenth century novel that collected a variety of probably already existing oral stories. The story recounts tales of a motley group of honorable characters living in a famously swampy wet area in who rise up to challenge the emperor. These outlaws turned revolutionaries popularized and proliferated the jianghu stories of sworn martial brotherhoods. Interesting in this famous novel the jianghu folds back recursively again to the geographic though in this stance both fantastic and political.

By the nineteenth century (footnote- jumps) jianghu seems to describe numerous real life secret sworn brotherhoods and all manner of real life vagrants. “The itinerant peoples of the ‘rivers and lakes’ (jianghu or pao jianghu) was a general name for the people who traveled around to make a living, including fortunetellers, itinerant doctors, astrologists, Buddhist monks and Taoist priests, and others….” (Wang 81) The flowing movements and the shifting balance of the Adhering Hands allow for simultaneously conceptualization of the distinct definitions of jainghu and allowing the multiplying satisfying blurs between fantasy and reality, homeless degenerates and cryptic power brokers. Listen to Di Wang’s list of secret societies in his paper examining the secret argot of the brotherhood known as the Gowned Brotherhood.

In the early Qing encoded languages took on increasingly political meanings—as they were used by anti-Manchu secret societies, including the Triads (Sandianhui), Heaven and Earth Society (Tiandihui), Elder Brothers Society (Gelaohui), and Hong Society (Hongmen). During this period, with the development of the underground resistance movement, secret languages were formalized through print with the publication of The Language of the Itinerant Peoples of the Rivers and Lakes (Jianghu qieyao).(Wang 81)

The jianghu has slide out of fictional fantasy and the geographical margins into political center stage. This is metalepsis in rhetoric again but also like the same trope in narrative theorydescribed as when the conceptual barrier between two or more narrative levels or worlds is crossed without being broken. (Cohn 110) Plays within plays such as the players in Hamlet or Pirendello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author are both classic examples. Another is when characters break from narrative world to interact with the author or narrator or both. The effect of metalepsis is described as provoking anxiety. (Cohn 111) My initial contact with jianghu caused me anxiety. Maybe the anxiety has remained thus I continue to move and worry the term and my (mis)understandings. A shimmering lure of jianghu Adhering Hangs is the sense of a material semiotic metalepsis moving between the worlds of fictions and physics, media and identities, imaginations/formations of artists and institutions.

In a recursive movement through a variation the interval of exile/power, the jianghu societies were instrumental in the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty. They were also contributed to the success of the Communist Revolution. In Fanshen, William Hintonrecounts the story of land reform in a small village in Central China. In the account a number of locals turned revolutionaries and cadres were members of a secret society. Agnes Smedley’s biography of Red Army Marshal Zhu De also describes the revolutionary activities of secret brotherhoods. Di Wang mentions in a footnote that one source estimated that 70 percent of adult men in Sichuan belonged to the Gowned Brotherhood in the late 1940’s. (80) This is hardly marginal. In some way, it is possible to think of jianghu as a moving term that adheres to all activities and emotions that go against or away from traditional Chinese patriarchy based in system of correspondences of filial piety. The ethos of brother and sisterhood in the Mao Era as may be a kind of high tide of one motion of jianghu. The contemporary suppression of Falun Gong could be considered paranoid fear of the submerged power the jianghu. This concept of motional material semiotic metaleptic jainghu could be an interesting way read history of the area(s) sometimes called China.

Contemporary media has seen an explosion of the jianghu marital arts fantasy genre through novels, movies, television serials, comics, and video games. The real life secret societies have morphed in to contemporary organized crime sometimes known as Triads. “Not only is jianghu adapted into the urban context and is recontextualized into the Triad society as one can see in many Chinese gangster films, the term is also incorporated in the common usage of some everyday slangs and idioms.” (Wu 66) These gangster and martial arts films have another interesting interval, questioning/reinforcing government power. Some media productions very successfully deploy the vernacular of the jianghu in order support the currant structures of power in China (and Taiwan and Hong Kong). I am thinking particularly the recent streak of high budget nationalistic jianghu fantasy martial arts films. A certain flavor of Chinese gangster movies protraiting brotherhoods of honorable criminals above the law seem to justify the abusive corruption of government official. While others such as Still Life, a movie, halfway between a gangster and migrant 6(foot note about migrant friendship networks) drama made the in shadow of the Three Gorges Dam Project, manages to make critical art in the jianghu.

The play of Adhering Hands is a wandering figure that describes the term jianghu could prove a useful concept. It can be a way to read paradoxical metaleptic flows of the riverslakes and perhaps develop sensibilities for crafting in the riverslakes. Lynette Hunter’s draft paper ““Winning, Losing, and Wandering Play: Zhuangzian Paradox and Daoist Practice” uses Weihai Lishi practices to explore paradox as “wandering play.” Jianghu is a term that does wandering play across Chinese cultures. By using Adhering Hands as a moving Daoist conceptual water works we may have a way to consider multiple streams and intervals of the wandering of jianghu. Jianghu is a term that moves between two bodies that are undulating between comprehensive and mysterious. Helena Wu following Derrida notion of supplementary describes “the ultimate meaning of jianghu is forever deferred, jianghu is always about something more: it is more than a representation, more than a philosophical concept, more than a mentality and more than any theoretical framework. “ (68) I think both descriptions are useful. The idea of “wandering play” being an Daoist analytic allows us to consider the paradoxical motion of the term as its meaning. I think potentially a Daoist rhetoric of jianghu is a theoretical framework. I want to call jianghu is a material semiotic metaleptic paradox best described as the Daoist logos of change or motion. Using Weihai Lishi as a moving allows one to fluidly conceptualize the flowing river and the still lake. I am trying to figure it as a double figure in motion each body undulating between the Creative and the Yielding. Would the yielding be described as taking the form of a reflection pool of known definitions? And the creative gushing a river of new meaning and connection. But then they waver constantly almost off balance. And waver. the known and new, shimmer and ripple, undulating each other, like the golden ridges, and black and blue shadows of rippling surface of the sea at slack tide in the sunset.


I wanted to add a section questioning my thinking. First I want to interrogate the possibility that I may be doing a double romantic Orientalizing/exotic thing. My second auto interrogation, following a recent reading on the idea of the Neo-barroque, was to consider the specific way that I am making connections using scale, reversibility, and a kind of double vision. Content wise I managed to write my own very interesting experiences with the jainghu out of the paper. Artists, street entertainers, corrupt police, poets, soldiers, village mafia, and so on.

Works cited and consulted:


The pictographic composition of the term can be broken down as follows:

It is important to note the composition of characters with other characters does not necessarily have a direct relation in meaning. Sound substitution and other conveniences matter as much.

the list:


a setting


1For a break down of the pictographic character see Appendix

2For a incomplete list see Appendix

3 Traditionally the one conceptually implies an above and a below. Splitting the one into heavan and earth. “The Great Treatise” I Ching (Wilhelm 319)

4 Perhaps a better conceptualization would be for each direction to be one of the intervals of the hexagram.

5 But for SunTzu who wrote “The Art of War” the wet places are the strategically the most dangerous.

6 Migrant workers refer to their networks of non-familial friends and allies as their jianghu networks “For contemporary migrant workers, jianghu friendship is a kind of practical network.” (Yang 74)

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