The Jianghu is a shared world and an alternate universe. It consists of several martial artists and pugilists gathered in the Wulin (武林), who are usually congregated in sects, clans, disciplines and various schools of martial arts. It is also inhabited by others such as "Youxia" (wandering heroes), nobles, thieves, beggars, priests, healers, merchants and craftsmen. The best Wuxia writers draw a vivid picture of the intricate themes of honour, loyalty, love and hatred between the individuals and communities within this milieu.
A common aspect of the Jianghu is the tacit suggestion that the courts of law are dysfunctional. All disputes and differences can only be resolved by use of force, as such, predicating the need for the Code of Xia and acts of chivalry. Law and order within the Jianghu is maintained by the various "orthodox" and "righteous" sects and heroes. Sometimes, these sects may gather to form an alliance against all evils within the Jianghu.
A leader, called the Wulin Meng Zhu (武林盟主), is elected from amongst them to lead the sects to ensure law and order within the Jianghu. The leader is usually someone of great reputation for righteousness and has a high level of mastery in martial arts. In some cases, the protagonist of the story may become the leader by coincidence, while in some other cases such as in the TV miniseries Paradise, the position of the leader is hereditary. The leader is an arbiter who presides and adjudicates over all inequities and disputes. The leader is a de jure chief justice of the affairs of the Jianghu.
The term Jianghu is linked to cultures other than those pertaining to martial arts in Wuxia stories only. It is also applied to societies where there is no law and order. For instance, the Chinese Triads, secret societies and gangs use the term "Jianghu" to describe their world of organised crime. Sometimes, the term "Jianghu" may be replaced by the term "underworld", with reference to the "criminal underworld".
In modern day terminology, Jianghu may mean any circle of interest such as show business, sports, etc. Colloquially, retirement is also referred to as "leaving the Jianghu" (退出江湖). In Wuxia stories, when a reputable pugilist decides to retire from the Jianghu, he will do so in a ceremony known as "washing hands in the golden basin" (金盆洗手). He washes his hands in the golden basin filled with water, signifying that he will no longer be involved in the affairs of the Jianghu. When a reclusive pugilist who had apparently retired from the Jianghu reappears, his reappearance is described as "re-entering the Jianghu" (重出江湖).