Be Water — the Ancient Chinese Way
How does the way we perceive water affect our self-identities? What does water teach us about treating one another and the earthly environment? Let’s behold today’s water crisis and injustice around the world through an ancient lens. The first story is about China.
Water is the root metaphor in Chinese culture that constructs how the Chinese civilization has perceived nature since ancient times. Being the most present element in daily life, water has always been a prevalent symbol in Chinese philosophy and mythology but is also where the ancient sages find peace and freedom. Moreover, water further manifests its aesthetic value through the creation of Chinese artists and architects, impeccably blending the beauty of the human world into its greater natural surroundings.
Seeing with Water
The Chinese character for water, shui (水), in its diverse font typefaces and variants, depicts an image of a flowing stream. The ancient Chinese are perceptive observers of nature: having a profound appreciation of water’s movement and temperaments while contemplating their relationship in the cosmos.
Water is believed to be the medium through which heaven communicates its judgment to the earth. The invisible force that governs the rise and fall of water between heaven and Earth is embodied in the mythical creature, the Chinese dragon or Long. The Chinese dragon, combining the bodily features of a fish, a turtle, and a snake, is believed to be the living force that moves bodies of water. Not only is the dragon the symbol of the emperor in imperial China, but also a unique cultural, and spiritual identity of the nation. The Chinese often use the term “Descendants of the Dragon” to refer to their ethnicity. Wherever there is the presence of water, there lives the dragon, who controls rain, thunder, storms, and flood. The Dragon is both benevolent and powerful, just like the force behind water that can both cause life to flourish and kill.
Thinking with Water
In contrast to the abstract western philosophical ideas, the language of Chinese philosophy is embedded in the natural environment. In ancient China, water is the model for philosophical ideas about the nature of the cosmos. Daoism is a Chinese philosophical tradition formed in the 6th century BC. The core belief of Daoism is that as humans are a part of nature, we will align ourselves with nature’s Dao (the Chinese word signifying the “way”, “principle of being”) by living in harmony with all sentient beings. Therefore, Dao is also the social manifestation of Water, as Chapter 8 of Daode Jingdescribes the essence of water and how its virtue manifests in every building block of social life:
The highest virtue is like water
Water nourishes myriad creatures without contending with them
It flows to the low loathsome places
Therefore, it comes close to the way.
Live in accordance with the nature of things.
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In action, watch the timing
So no blame.
A clear stream of water flows from poem to poem throughout the book of Dao De Jing. Its philosophical significance and social impact are not limited to the cultural context of China but universally constructive to every person’s life just like water itself.
Feeling with Water
The word landscape in Chinese, shanshui, is a union of shan (the mountain) and shui (the water). The mountain depicts stillness and the water represents change. Together, they are intimately entwined in the composition of the transience and continuity in nature.
There is no coincidence that the primary medium of Chinese art is water. The cloud, waterfalls, and rivers are ubiquitous in Chinese paintings, and sometimes water could be the sole subject of the painting. This is because Chinese art depicts feelings rather than realism. It is often said that the shanshui lives within the painter, as the artist paints, the scenery is poured out as an emotional improvisation. The position of the tree, the composition of the mountain, and the temperament of water can all transmit feelings between the painter and the audience. Interestingly, the human figures that appeared in Chinese paintings are mostly minuscule and anonymous. The implication of such artistic presentation replicates the attitude that the human world is just a tiny fraction of the immense cosmos.
Ancient Chinese architecture has always been a harmonious piece of landscape art. Its aesthetic and engineering value have no predecessors or successors. Hongcun, a village built around the 17th century in mountainous southern Anhui, is a perfect example of the ancient architects working in harmony with nature. Hongcun is manipulated by bionic principles of an ox: the water from the mountain stream winds into the village through the intestine-like irrigation system that passes through every household, and then arrives in the pond, the ‘stomach’ at the center of the village; finally, the stream exits through the ‘belly’, the south lake outside the village. The system provides water for the entire domestic use but also adjusts the temperature of the village throughout the year.
Healing with Water
The ancient Chinese had understood that water is the root of all life, thus all things from which beauty and ugliness, virtue and unworthiness, ignorance and brilliance are born of water. Humans, too, are born of water. ‘The solution for the Sage who would transform the world lies in the water.’ said Guanzhong (720–645 BC), a Chinese philosopher and politician in the Spring and Autumn period, ‘Therefore when water is uncontaminated, men’s hearts are upright. When water is pure, the people’s hearts are at ease’.
Water is like the mirror that reflects the nature of the people who form their lives around the water. It does not take a brilliant mind to see the link between the dammed, polluted river courses and the wellbeing of the people today. As modern humans, we may feel superior walking on the frontline of evolution. We continue discovering new knowledge and inventing new technologies, but on the inside, we are all lost children, failing to remember our ancestors’ story: we all come from the same cosmic fluid.
Being water is to be at peace with where you are in the course of life.
Being water is to be fluid in circumstances involving others.
Being water is to heal life from its roots: water.
Image: artwork and photograph by the author
Book of Water and Earth — Guanzi (7th century BC), Guanzhong
Chapter 8 — Daode Jing (4th century BC), Laozi
The Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue (1997), Sarah Allan
The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China (2016), Philip Ball