A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Water in Classical Chinese Religion
Professor John Goulde

Cosmology and Cosmogony

Scholars of Chinese religion often point out that there are few cosmogonic myths in China. From an early period and at least until the introduction of Indian Buddhism, there appear to be no native Chinese stories about how or why the universe came into being. Chinese seem to have had little interest in the matter. Nevertheless, there are many cosmological myths, myth that explain how the universe and its multiple relations work. These cosmological myths display a peculiarly Chinese flavor. Like much of Chinese thought and literature, cosmological stories are cast in historical terms. While they may at one time have described non-historical beings, gods, spirits, in the versions in which they come down to us they have been euhemerized - i.e. they have been written as though they were biographical stories of great culture heroes. The focus of such stories is to explain what and how China as a society came to be as a product of human effort and to recommend to later generations lessons to be emulated.

One such cosmological myth comes to us from the, as yet undocumented and unverified, Xia Dynasty of the 3rd millenium B.C.E. It describes a cosmic battle between flooding waters and the sky. The sky, conceived of as a dome is separate from the earth. One day ,water emerges from the land and begins to rise up towards the sky. There appears two figures, a father and a son, who attempt to stop the rising water and restore the land. Both father and son are described as being fish-like or dragon-like, complete with scales and fur covering their otherwise human frame. The father fails and so the son , called The Great Yu, works for nine years to contain the water and to dig channels into which the water can flow. This allows the land to reemerge and for society to be established. Great Yu is the culture hero par excellence: as he works to stop the flooding waters, he wears off all the scales and fur on his legs and arms ( often cited as the reason why Chinese have little body hair ) and while he channels the flooding waters he does not stop even to visit his wife and child ( one of the earliest examples of the pursuit of public good over the private good) .

Most modern interpreters of this myth will indicate that this is the archtypical description of the flooding of the Yellow River, a disastrous event that occurs even in the modern period. Yu is credited with being the first inventor of dikes, and his example of unstinting labor, of course, is meant to be learned by every child and ruler of China. For our purposes, though, the story describes the contest between land and water and the sense that the land comes from the water and, if humans are not careful, can return to it. It also describes water as a kind of primeval, mysterious force that needs to be controlled for the sake of the living. The semi-human figures that teach humanity how to control it are themselves watery, fishy or dragon-like in appearance, yet apparently fully human in that they have wives and children of their own.

Another myth comes to us from the Chinese Xang Dynasty, the successor dynasty to the Xia. This is the myth of the Ten Suns. According to this myth the world is composed of nine continents of land arranged in a magic square (3x3) sitting on a great river, called the Yellow Spring. China, variously occupies the center square or the eastern middle square. The earth map is cruciform or cross shaped with four directions and four nadirs. To the east and to the west of the magic square stand two hollow Mulberry Trees. Each tree sits in a pool of water, which flows into or out of the Yellow Spring. In the branches of the Eastern Tree sit ten suns and ten crows. Each day one of the suns bathes in the pool of the Eastern Mulberry tree and then is carried by a black crow across the sky to the west. It settles into the western mulberry tree and then into the pool where it rests and bathes. During the night it flows through the Yellow Spring back to the eastern side. The myth then goes on to tell how the Great Archer shot down nine of the crows and suns to prevent the earth from drying out. On its surface this myth explains why there is no only one sun in the sky. It also modifies the view of the earth presented in the Xia myth by giving precedence to the firey element of the sun. Scholars have demonstrated that the relationship between the Yellow Spring ( often referred to in later tradition as the abode of the dead, the residence of the Yellow Emperor, another culture hero) and the Sky or Tree Dwelling Sun/Crows mirrors the changes wrought by the Xang over the Xia. The Xang emperors are identified with the ten suns and the magic square of the nine earthly continents that regulate time and space while the displaced Xia dynasty is represented by water, a subterranean element that needs to be regulated by the earth and the regular passage of the sun. Though the Xang and later Zhou dynasties continued to develop and rework these cosmological elements and give precedence to the celestial-earthly paradigm, Chinese Taoism continued to mine the mythology of water and populated the Yellow Spring and the eastern and western pools with a variety of transcendent, immortal figures, including mystical dragons, tortoises, fish creatures, the Yellow Emperor, the Queen Mother of the West, the Moon Goddess and even the living dead. More on this when we turn to alchemy.

Finally the last cosmological contribution of the Chinese in regard to the meaning and value of water is found in the Han dynasty system of cosmological correspondences. This system was built up from disparate traditions that had developed in China over centuries, including notions of yin and yang energy, numerology, divination, the five phases of energy transformation, and systems of classification that connected colors, musical tones, tutelary spirits of the four directions, flavors, and the planets and stars with the magical square of the earth. The system states that the universe is composed of dynamic energy that operates in two modes, yin and yang. These two modes interact to produce five types of basic energy: fire, water, earth, wood, and metal. These five modal configurations of energy combine and recombine to produce the "ten thousand things" that constitute the universe. Change in the universe occurs by the addition or subtraction, the nourishing or expenditure of differing modes of energy. Fire kindled in wood expends yang energy and reduces wood to a combination of predominately yin energies in the form of earth or ash and water. Wood added to earth expends earth's yin energies to create plants which are primarily yang and are nourished by the yang sun. As plants mature they produce water which helps to replenish earth. The purpose of this system of correspondences, then, was to allow Chinese to characterize the forms and relations of all forms or substances in the universe and to predict the outcomes of interactions between forms or describe and understand the nature of change. Because humans can manipulate the universe by expending or nourishing forms they should understand what the results will be of their manipulation. For the Chinese, thus, orderly natural change was knowable, good, and predictable. Disruptive and unnatural change upset the equilibrium of the universe and called for intervention on the part of humans. For example, the appearance of frost in summer clearly indicated that time and space, the orderly progression of the seasons, had been disrupted. Government intervention was needed to address these signs and to prevent further disruption to the cosmic and therefore social and political realms and government might therefore determine that the presence of greed and corruption in its own administration had caused the frost. Government would offset the harm done to crops by releasing stores of grain, reforming the law, or declaring a remission of taxes. History itself was subjected to analysis in terms of this system of correspondences and the rise and fall of ruling house, like the rise and fall of yin and yang energy could be predicted.

Also this system of correspondences became the basis for regulating the microcosm of the human body through medicine. Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, acupressure, and moxabustion all were based on the understanding of the body as smaller version of the universe. The rules and principles of energy exchange and conversion, energy depletion and nourishment, and the need for establishing equilibrium within the body through the regulation of water ( fluids ) and fire ( heat ) were the same as those in larger universe. Good health and long life were considered the normal state of the body when in a state of equilibrium. Disease, shortened life span, excesses of heat and cold, all came about because humans depleted or overnourished one or another energy mode. Intellect, awareness, virtue, stupidity, lack of awareness, and vice were the agents of equilibrium and disorder. Chinese medicine thus developed a form of holistic healing and health management that corresponded to the way that Chinese saw the natural, physical universe.

Another development of the Chinese in regard to water was the art of wind and water, fengxue, or geomancy. This practice was based on the pan-Chinese assumption that the earth is filled with energy and that there are certain sites on the face of the earth that are especially filled with energy and are ideal for human habitation. Fengxue was used traditionally to locate energy-filled sites for cities, marketplaces, temples, shrines, houses, and most importantly, the graves of the dead. The typical site was one in which the yang energy of the sun ( fire ) and the yin energy of flowing water was in abundance. The site was oriented towards the south with water flowing in the south, forming a natural protecting barrior of the spot chosen for building. To the north and west there should be mountains that protect the site from yin forces and keep energy enclosed. The east also had to have mountains, but smaller than those in the west and north. In such sites it was believed prosperity, good fortune, disease and accident free existence was possible.

While fengxue sites are important for the living, greater importance is given to the use such sites for the care of the dead. The souls of dead needed to be fed and nourished so that they could be settled among the dead and not haunt the living. They also had to be given energy so that they could persist among the dead and enjoy heightened social rank in a society of spirits, gods, souls that paralleled that of the living. The more energy that descendents could channel to the dead in the form of feeding rituals and gravesite energy, the more powerful they became (sometimes even becoming gods) and thus they could manipulate to the benefit of their descendents the powers of the universe. Confucianized justification of fengzue posited a cause effect relationship between dead and living. Descendents who provided continuing care of ancestors could expect from their practice of filial piety and respect good fortune, long life, and the assurance that they, in turn would be well cared for by their own later descendents. The yin soul of the dead associated with the bones interred within the earth became a conduit for channeling energy to the yang soul associated with the sky. Yin and yang energies from ritual feeding, yin earth, yang sunlight, and yin water added to the power and cohesiveness of the yang soul and in time, usually after six generations, could pass on to the highest realms of the universe and no longer needed either remembrance or and care.

Of special note is the role of earth and water - primary forms of yin energy. Since yin is conserving energy, it is not expansive or wasting, it carries within itself the potency of yang. Conserved and unexpended yang energy (sometimes referred to as "new yang") is the primary ingredient of longevity. In other word, the more yin that is accumulated, the less yang energy is lost through activity. Taoist treatises often point to the danger of too much yang which can readily expend itself and devotees are advised to increase their yin and thus conserve yang. The result is longer life.


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