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Water embodies Chinese philosophy of life

LIU YANQING | 2018-06-28
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Water is an important element in traditonal Chinese painting. (NIPIC)


This character refers to water. Water is not only crucial to life and the earth, but also a great influence on culture. By closely observing it, ancient Chinese people derived moral guidance from water.


Most early civilizations were built along rivers or major bodies of water. Water was the lifeblood of early civilization. Without it, humanity would not have flourished the way  it has. Ancient Chinese people worshiped water as an intelligent, guiding power in the universe. When people began to question themselves: “Where do we come from?” they  started to explore the nature of water. In ancient China, water that was seen, consumed and used in daily life also shaped their philosophy.


Origin of Life
Ancient Chinese believed that water was the origin of life, providing energy to all creatures, just like blood delivering nutrients and oxygen in the body. This view has roots in matriarchal clan society, in which females held leadership roles and raised offspring. According to the Classic of Mountains and seas, an encyclopedia of prehistoric China, “the Kingdom of Nüzi (female) lies north of the kingdom of Wuxian. Two women live with water surrounding them. Some people say that they live together inside the same door.” Jin Dynasty scholar Guo Pu (276-324) said that there was a pond full of yellow water in the Kingdom of Nüzi, and women would get pregnant if they took a bath in this pond. In this myth, water played the role of males in the reproduction of the human race.

Another work holding a similar view is the Guanzi, a collection of writings  by the followers of Guanzi (?-645 BCE), a famous statesman and strategist of the Spring and Autumn Period. The Guanzi indicated that human beings came into being in the form of water first, when the vitality of both the males and females were combined together. Furthermore, it claimed that water not only created life, but was the foundation of everything in the world. The quality of all people, kind or devilish, sensible or unworthy, was affected by water.


Source of Diversity
Since people drink water from different areas, some believed that water had a profound impact on one’s appearance as well as his or her personality. This thought can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn of Lü Buwei, a collection of writings written by the guests of Lü Buwei (292-235), who was the prime minister of the state of Qin. The work states that “if the water of an area is sweet, the local people are normally good-looking; if the water of an area is pungent, it is common for the local people to have sores or muscle spasms; if the water of an area is bitter, it is common for the local people to be pigeon-chested or humpbacked.” The work attributed various appearances to the quality of water. Then, the Guanzi took this relationship to the next level, considering water to be the decisive factor in local traits, “Waters of the state of Qi are turbulent, so people of that state are rapacious, impertinent and intrepid. Waters of the state of Chu are soft and clear, so people of that state are nimble and decisive …… Waters of the state of Song are light, but powerful and clear, so people of that state are simple, easy-going and disinterested. ”

It reflects the deeper exploration on the relationship between human and water in ancient China, thus comes the common saying “each place has its streams in from all over the country.”


Ancient Chinese philosophers believed that water represented the best of human nature. They derived moral guidance from water. One of its most notable characteristics is fluidity. Rushing water is neither subdued nor exhausted. In Chinese culture, it symbolizes vitality. The Spring and Autumn of Lü Buwei said, “flowing water will not become rancid and the rotational door-hinge will not develop moths if it is in use constantly. In this respect, both the body and this vitality are somewhat the same. If the body is motionless, vitality will become stagnant. When the vitality is stagnant, it will become blocked.” The implication herein emphasizes that everything can only survive through continuous movement and development.

Writing in the eponymous work Mencius, one of the important classics of the Confucian School, the Chinese philosopher Mencius (372-289 BCE) said, “water from an abundant source rolls on day and night without stop, surging forward only after filling up all the holes in its way, and then going on to the sea.” The Song philosopher and commentator Zhu Xi (1130-1200) went further in his work, the Four Book, which is now considered a classic in the Confucian canon. Mencius suggested that humans should shore up areas of weakness like water filling up all the holes in its way, thereby retaining vigor and making ceaseless progress. Similarly, Confucius believed that the wise man delighted in water because the flowing water encouraged people to keep learning and striving.


“The water that flows in a river always stays low. It does not seek attention nor recognition, but its modest contribution is what sustained life on earth.” Taoists value  water as the best example of virtue they want to see in themselves. They compare water to the highest good, which benefits all creatures, yet it itself does not scramble. Writing in the Dao De Jing (Tao-te Ching), which is the first book with comprehensive philosophical system in the history of Chinese philosophy, Laozi (Lao Tzu)(581-500 BCE) encouraged people to stay humble and generous, like water content with the places that all men disdain, nurturing everything and living with them harmoniously. 

The Guanzi also said, “everyone wants to achieve a higher position, but water is the only thing that flows to lower-lying places spontaneously. That is the humbleness of it. Humbleness is the residence of Tao and is the most powerful weapon of a sovereign. And that is the main character of water.” Sometimes Chasing fame and fortune is accompanied with suffering, hence ancient Chinese philosophers advised people to learn from water. Instead of fighting against a rock in its way, it gently flows around. People should adapt to change and remain flexible, stay grounded and help others. 

Ancient Chinese thought that commoners were quite similar to flowing water. They lived and multiplied vibrantly. In contrast to the upper class, they stayed in humble positions. Therefore, it offered a hint on how to rule a country, such as the well-known saying goes, “water serves to support a boat, but it is also used to capsize it.” It means that common people can support someone as a ruler and also overthrow him.


The famous Chinese character dictionary Shuowen Jiezi interprets the Chinese character shui, which refers to water, as a measure or standard due to its level surface. According to the Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu), “peaceful waters have a clear and level surface, which gives an image of the beards and brows and offers a measure for the master carpenters.” Nowadays, some Chinese terms containing the character shui usually mean a standard or level. 

Gradually, water embodies the attributes of fairness and justice. The well-known Confucian scholar Xunzi said, “led to an empty place, it (water) is sure to make itself level; in this it resembles the law.”


Before bronze mirror was invented, the best way to see oneself was on the surface of water. As the masterpiece the Zhuangzi goes, “men do not use running water as a mirror, they only use still water. Only things that are still in themselves can still other things.” Another important quality can be inferred from the comments by Cheng Xuanying (608-669), a famous Taoist in the Tang Dynasty. Cheng mentioned that still water had to be clear enough to serve as a mirror.

Despite admiring water’s clarity, ancient Chinese understood that absolute purity did not actually exist, and the diversity of the world came from the mixture of purity and dirty things. The Mencius said that clear water could wash cap strings while muddy water could wash feet. The different uses of water are actually determined by the water itself.


Liu Yanqing is from Shaanxi Normal University

(edited by REN GUANHONG)