A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Water in Classical Chinese Religion
Professor John Goulde

The Chinese Written Language

As many of you know, the Chinese written language, like the hieroglyphic script of Egypt is largely, though not exclusively, pictorial. It pictures ideas, objects, activities. Chinese characters, as westerners refer to them, are not phonetic representations of spoken words, but combinations of basic elements that describe what is intended. Chinese written language is able to describe a wealth of ideas and create new words by combining and recombining character elements or radicals. In Chinese there are 231 basic elements or radicals, some of which can stand alone as characters. They include such basic ideas as "metal" "hand" "head" "person" "tree" "rock" "small" large" and of course "water". When combined with other radicals and characters , they can describe multiple aspects of an idea. For example the word for contentment and harmony is represented by two radicals, the radical for "roof" and the radical and character for "woman". ń╠For the Chinese a woman sitting within a house is the symbol of rest and harmony. The word for "warfare" is composed of two radicals for "mouth" indicating several people, the radical for "breast plate" or "shield" - itself derived from an ancient character for tortoise shell, and the radical for "sword". [image]

The character for water , "sui" [image] is composed of three rippled lines indicating flowing water. Please note that "water" in Chinese is always "flowing water" or "moving water". This sense of water as dynamic, moving, plays into other uses of water, as we will see. This same character is also a radical and when combined with other radicals can be used to indicate thousands of ideas which according to the Chinese involve some aspect of water. According to the Murahashi Dictionary that are 1, 103 distinct Chinese compounds (two-character words) in which the one of the characters is water. There are also 1,766 distinct words in which the water radical appears. This means that there are almost three thousand words or expressions which involve water. E.G..the water radical next to the radical and character for wood indicates a bath, the water radical next to a radical and character for wok or cooking dish indicates boiling.


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