— a careless tale from jianghu.1
by Priest Once plunged into rivers and lakes2, time urges
Youths and elders from lakes and rivers.
This is the story of a chief spy from the Imperial Secret Service who quits the court, to drift jianghu.
The world under the skies is vast,
Wherever there is man, there are lakes and rivers.
—— Summary to the story by priest
Notes on the Summary:
1. Jianghu (lit. “rivers and lakes”) is a hard to translate concept that designates the marginal fringe of society that doesn’t obey the Imperial Court’s rule. Half-legendary, half-historical, it is a liminal and lawless world populated by martial arts heroes, bandits, vagrants, priests and monks, but also demons, gods and immortals from folk tales. Jianghu is the default setting for Chinese historical fantasy.
Geographically, it’s traditionally set in the southern regions of China, after the seminal text Water Margins.
Metaphorically, the fierce battles taking place in jianghu represents the human struggle within any social environment.
I've seen some explanations on the internet that attempt to translated jianghu as "the pugilists' world" or "martial arts' world". These translation are restrictive and essentially wrong.
The terms jianghu goes back two thousand years, before the formalisation of the wuxia genre. And if pugilists and martial arts heroes both dwell in jianghu, they do not define it. It is jianghu — as the quintessential concept of the human struggle in a lawless environments, like fishes in rivers and lakes — that defines them.
Note that the novel's original title 天涯客 (Tianya Ke, lit. "guest of the skies and horizons") is a direct reference to Du Fu's use of the term 江湖客 (Jianghu Ke, lit. "guest of jianghu") in his poems.
2. See above.
There are two main subgenres in Chinese fantasy. Wuxia (lit. “martial arts heroes'') and xianxia (lit. “immortal heroes''); their protagonists all dwell in jianghu. Faraway Wanderers (on which the web-series Word of Honor is based) is wuxia as the story revolves around martial arts clans/schools. In contrast, the BL novel on which The Untamed is based is xianxia, as its story revolves around Daoist clans/sects and magical powers. Though the delineation between the two subgenres is sometimes tenuous.
Notes on Chapter 1 - Skylight:
1. 天窗 (lit. “sky window”) is the name of the Imperial Secret Service headed by Zhou Zishu. It could be translated variably as Sky’s Window, or Heaven’s Window (both “heaven” and “sky” referring to the emperor who rules by heaven’s mandate). I chose the direct translation Skylight to keep the theme of “light” that surrounds Zhou Zishu’s character.
2. “In the time for a zhu of incense to burn” in the text. Span time for the combustion of incense was a common method to measure time; a commonly accepted conversion is 1 zhu or stick of incense= 30 minutes.
3. Refers to acupuncture points of Traditional Chinese Medicine. As far as I can tell, the seven “main” acupoints are artistic licence by the author.
4. Pretty much a standard description of the typical 高冷 or “cold and haughty” character in Chinese BL. Here the emphasis is on detached/almost cruel but (of course) handsome looks. Also, note that a high-bridged nose is considered beautiful by Chinese beauty standards.
5. Torture device, artistic licence from the author.
6. Made up historical date. Daqing (lit. “great celebration”) is a fictional 年号 or era name (name given to an era by an emperor), and Rongjia (lit. “contain excellence”) is a fictional emperor. Note that two historical Daqing eras do appear under the Western Xia (11th-12th century CE), but no Rongjia emperor existed during those periods (or at all). Whether the historical Daqings give a period frame to the story is up to personal appraisal (to me: they don’t for multiple reasons).
7. Also fictional. Chinese emperors had multiple names. Note that Rongjia could be also translated as “Emperor Jia of Rong”, if one considers that Jia is the emperor’s posthumous name, and Rong the name of his dynasty. Helianyi is either the fictional emperor's personal or courtesy name; it’s also a homophone of 和连一 or “unite in one” which hints at a glorious emperor who united all of China together.
8. 四季庄主 translated literally.
9. The name is given a special meaning by the other half of the pairing later on. Here we can note that 周子舒 (lit. “cycle son leisure”) carries connotations of something comfortable and refined.
10. Refers to the eight extraordinary meridians in TCM; differ from the standard twelve organ meridians in that they are considered to be storage vessels or reservoirs of qi energy. Qi is the basis of many martial arts practices.
11. The five viscera in TCM are: heart, liver, spleen, lung and kidney.
12. Small inconsistency here, as Old Bi wasn’t described as being drenched in blood after receiving the Nails.
13. A plaque or medal issued by the hierarchy that authenticated an order’s authority. Here Zhou Zizhu is issuing his own command token.
14. 段鹏举 lit. “segment roc lift”. Hint at someone who is strong.
15. 上书房 is the Emperor’s private study in the Forbidden City. Unofficial meetings were often held there, both historically and fictionally. It was built in the Qing Dynasty, which is one reason why the Western Xia timeline doesn’t make sense.
16. A.k.a. Kowtowing plus wishing the Emperor well.
17. This paragraph shows great intimacy and favour from the Emperor, as Imperial Physicians are normally reserved for the emperor and his family. Whether they are BL/homoerotic subtones here is debatable. IMO, the relationship is normal by Emperor/Favoured Servant standards as usually depicted in non-BL stories.