Mr. Jonathan Wick (a.k.a. John Wick “The Boogeyman” and “Baba Yaga”). A lethal, suave, highly skilled anti-hero assassin, played by one of Hollywood’s most treasured action stars of the 21st century, Keanu Reeves, stars in this year’s highly anticipated neo-noir action thriller, John Wick: Chapter 4. This is the fourth installment of the John Wick series, which includes John Wick (2014), John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), and John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019).
For those who may not be familiar with the character John Wick or who haven’t watched any of the films, the series follow the journey of a professional hitman who’s been forced out of retirement after the death of his beloved wife Helen and furry companion, Daisy the puppy. Although that covers the main plot of the first film, it becomes a driving force throughout the entire series that takes us on a non-stop adventure into a deep criminal underworld of assassins and secret societies, that John must continuously pursue till his death. Governed by one of the most powerful criminal organizations known as “The High Table,” this lays the groundwork for the establishment of the John Wick universe and the character profile of John Wick.
But, what does all of this have to do with wuxia? If you’re familiar with the genre or are new to it, secret societies and criminal underworlds play a significant role in shaping the wuxia world as the Jiāng hú (江湖; a.k.a. Rivers and Lakes). It’s considered as an underworld society that’s separate and out of sight from regular mainstream society, consisting of people from different backgrounds and social classes (i.e., criminals, peasants, outlaws, hermits, wandering heroes, scholars, etc.). The John Wick universe can be perceived as a Jianghu world of its own, but with a slightly different lens.
In honor of the series’ fourth film release, we’re going to take a glimpse into the world of John Wick and how it adapts its own version of the Jianghu - John Wick style.
The Urban Jianghu: The Continental Hotels
In John Wick’s world, the Jianghu aspect is shaped as a criminal underworld filled with assassins working for mob families across the globe, secret societies and gangs, secret clubs and assassin hotels acting as sanctuaries. It’s a completely separate world from mainstream society with no links to any external affairs of the world, and has its own rules set in place like the wuxia world’s Jianghu. I like to imagine it as an urban Jianghu because all of these aspects in the film series take place in modern cities and towns like New York City, Rome, Casablanca and Osaka - different than in forests or by rivers and lakes.
Urban Jianghus in John Wick can be perceived as “The Continental Hotels” throughout the series. These are assassin hotels where organized crime and criminal activities are recorded by hotel administrators, and are kind of like an assassin headquarters. The one rule that all hotel attendees (and specifically assassins) must follow is that “No business shall be conducted or executed on Continental grounds.” This means assassins are not allowed to fight, murder or carry out contracts on other assassins when present at the hotels.
They’re also safe spaces where assassins can rest, exchange money for goods and services and gain some sense of inner peace without having to worry about being attacked out of the blue.
All hotels are operated in the criminal underworld and have a network of service professionals, spies posing as homeless people, and adjudicators governed by an extremely powerful and elite council of crime lords called “The High Table.” They’re the ones who possess full control and authority over all criminal related matters that occur around the world and make sure that all members (especially those in the assassin community) obey strict rules and policies enforced by the council. This is so that all criminal operations can be executed and delivered smoothly without having mainstream society and law enforcement get involved with underworld business.
Secret Society Leaders
Whether one is an assassin or not, everyone has to know the rules that play out in the John Wick world, and if not, you’ll end up having consequences with members you work with OR The High Table (definitely don’t want to end up here!). The High Table’s head leader is “The Elder” (a.k.a. The one who sits “Above the Table”) who exercises the highest level of power over all operatives beneath him (also referred to as those “Under the Table”).
The same goes for wuxia in that all members (no matter who they are or where they come from) who frequent or are part of the Jianghu should avoid getting into disputes, fights or creating chaos over different martial arts styles or masters. Wuxia’s Jianghu world may not necessarily operate exactly like a criminal underworld, but there is the potential for corruption and evil deeds coming from the unorthodox/evil martial arts sects to influence the Jianghu’s entire reputation. Innocent people outside of these secret societies would also be at great risk if the Jianghu were to extend itself beyond its boundaries with the disruption of immoral rulers and evildoers.
As a martial arts world that’s measured by members and their embodiment of righteousness, loyalty and peace (as found in the code of xiá (侠)), those who deviate from those values will be met with the leader of the Wulin Alliance (武林, meaning Martial Forest: a community of martial artists) called the “Wulin Meng Zhu (武林盟主).” This is usually an alliance formed and controlled by righteous/orthodox sects of the Martial Forest with a leader who gets elected for demonstrating a high degree of righteousness and martial arts mastery. They make sure that peace is maintained in the Jianghu, and that all conduct aligns with the Wulin community’s ethics and values.
Vengeance and Honour
Think being an assassin in the world of John Wick is all about guns, blood and committing acts of violence for no reason? It seems like that on the outside, but what really lies behind them is vengeance and honor.
Wuxia stories are heavily rooted on these themes, and we can see them being demonstrated in characters who embrace the code of xia in the Jianghu. It emphasizes the importance of returning favours back to others who have provided their assistance in times of need (ēn; 恩), or seeking vengeance (chóu; 仇) on the bad guys to bring justice.
Being an assassin like John Wick, is actually a lot more than just being a cold-blooded contract killer. It’s about serving and honouring those who you work for and work with in the criminal underworld. If assassins don’t take their commitments seriously or end up breaking the rules, they can be marked as “excommunicado.” In John Wick terms this means that one has been removed from being able to access underworld resources, and has also become an easy target for other assassins.
Assassins have the option to help one another in times of need (or when their hit list starts piling up) by using markers. It’s almost like a locket that flips open with a silver plate inside, and acts as a blood oath between two assassins. When assassins need to ask favours from one another, bloody thumbprints must be printed inside of the plate from both parties as an agreement that a favour from one party has been requested to the other, and is expected to be completed and returned in due time. This is one of the ways in which honour is measured in the assassin community by serving as a “repay of debt”, though not honouring the marker is considered as punishable by death.
Well, I must say that these aspects do not cover the entire John Wick universe, but are some prominent elements and themes that can resonate with the Jianghu through a wuxia world perception. Not to mention, there’s a saying in the rivers and lakes that those who have retired from the Jianghu but are returning, are “re-entering the Jianghu" (重出江湖; Chóngchū jiānghú). In this case, we could say that the John Wick film series embraces this component by centering its universe around a retired assassin who re-enters the criminal underworld of secret societies and assassins to seek vengeance for himself and those who want him dead.
by C. Hong