A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Professor John Goulde


The purpose of this honors seminar is to examine the many ways that water functions in the experience of humankind. In most human cultures water has been variously used as a simile for the passage of time and change, or as a metaphor of higher realities such as the favor of the gods or the nurturing power of the sky. Everywhere it has been understood as a substance and a tool that can bring about greater and purer states of existence and remove what has soiled the quality of life. In also has been understood around the globe as a primary element and building block of sentient life (plants, animals, and humans).

Today it is my task to examine how Chinese thinkers and religious teachers have understood water. I will do so by examining four different aspects of Chinese culture:

  1. Language, especially the written language
  2. Cosmogonic and cosmological myths especially as they relate to the Chinese understanding of the world
  3. the Chinese practice of geomancy, otherwise known as the art of feng-xue [image] the art of wind and water,
  4. the role of water in the Chinese Taoist quest for perfection or immortality through the practice of alchemy.

All four areas, of course overlap, cosmogonic and comsological understandings of the nature of water are assumed in both feng-xue and alchemy and expressed in the vocabulary of the Chinese language.

Preliminaries: Geographical Considerations

For reasons that will become clear in a few minutes, the Chinese have experienced and understood water as one of the most basic values in human existence. Chinese fascination with water, the role they assign to water in their cosmology, and Chinese use of water for religious purposes, is to be explained, in part by the exigencies of Chinese geography. A quick examination of the topography of China indicates that 90 per cent of China is covered by mountains. Most are uninhabitable, all are unusual as sites for human habitation. As a result, Chinese have historically been crowded into river valleys and coastal regions, as well as the plains formed by river deltas. Chinese society and culture exist within the landscape of Chinese topography, a topography of mountains and rivers. This is reflected in the Chinese word for landscape or geographical setting, xan-xue [image] "mountains and water" and is also reflected in one of the most well known dictums of Confucius, " The man of learning and refinement takes pleasure in mountains and water (rivers)" [image]


H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College