Would You Like a Cup of Boiled Water?
By SEBASTIEN ROUSSILLAT
Chinese people discovered long ago that 水(shuǐ ), water is the source of all life. Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) pharmacologist Li Shizhen (1518-1593) said in his masterpiece Compendium of Materia Medica: 水是万化之源 (shuǐ shì wàn huà zhī yuán, “Water is the source of everything.” About 2,500 years ago, the sage Lao Zi said 上善若水 (shàng shàn ruò shuǐ), “The highest good is like water,” to describe the most elevated character, because “水善利万物而不争” (shuǐ shàn lì wàn wù ér bù zhēng), “Water benefits everything without evoking conflict or resistance.” It’s easy to observe that Chinese people have a special affinity with water. Chinese culture also endows water with spirituality. The Chinese character 水 (shuǐ) represents flowing water, and is generally transmuted into the radical 氵when incorporated into other Chinese characters.
China is also famous for its tea. Chinese tea drinkers consequently have high demands for the 水质 (shuǐ zhì) quality of water in which to brew tea. Tang Dynasty (618-907) tea expert Lu Yu (733-804) wrote a chapter on water in his book, The Classic of Tea. He classified water under different levels: “As for the quality of tea water, 山水 (shān shuǐ), mountain spring water is the best. Next is the 江水 (jiāng shuǐ), river water, and 井水 ( jǐng shuǐ), well water ranks bottom.” Nowadays, they need not trouble themselves with water, because it’s easy to buy 瓶装水 (píng zhuāng shuǐ) bottled water or to use 过滤 (guò lǜ), filtered 自来水 (zì lái shuǐ ) tap water to make tea. Chinese people drink only boiled water. It’s interesting that they always tell you to “多喝水” (duō hē shuǐ), “drink more water” when you get sick. Although not considered holy, it seems that water in China can cure all kinds of disease.
There are countless rivers, lakes and seas in China, which can be also expressed as 江河湖海(jiāng hé hú hǎi), rivers, lakes and seas. There are numerous words for “river” alone: 江 (jiāng), “river” as in 长江 (Cháng jiāng), the “Yangtze River “; 河(hé), “river” as in 黄河 (Huáng hé), “Yellow River”; and 川 (chuān), “river”. 川 (chuān), “river” is the most interesting among these expressions. It is a hieroglyph that represents water flowing between two riverbanks.
In Chinese, 河山 (hé shān), “river and mountain” usually means “country.” If you want to express “很好的国家” (hěn hǎo de guó jiā), a marvelous nation, you can say “大好河山” (dà hǎo hé shān), a magnificent country. If you want to describe beautiful scenery, you can say “山清水秀” (shān qīng shuǐ xiù), beautiful scenery.
Chinese people have been plagued by floods and droughts since ancient times, when the Yellow River would often divert and burst its banks, and floods from the Yangtze River would frequently inundate nearby areas. The Chinese ancient mythological story, 大禹治水 (Dà Yǔ zhì shuǐ), Yu the Great Harnesses the Flood, illustrates the history of the Chinese people’s struggle against 洪灾 (hóng zāi), disastrous floods. Their descendants have upheld this traditional spirit by 改河道 (gǎi hé dào), changing the watercourse, 建堤坝 (jiàn dī bà), building dams, and 挖运河 (wā yùn hé) digging canals. Chinese were the first in the world to build dams. Construction of the 都江堰 (Dū jiāng yàn), Dujiang Weirs in Sichuan Province first began 2,200 years ago. They also dug the world’s longest canal – 大运河 (Dà yùn hé), the Grand Canal, 1,400 years ago, and in 2006 China built the world’s largest dam – 三峡大坝 (Sān xiá dà bà), the Three Gorges Dam. The Three Gorges Hydropower Station has since become the world’s largest hydropower station.
Controlling floods is an eternal theme running through the long history of China. One of the best-known Chinese lakes – 西湖(Xī hú), West Lake, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, also has a 堤坝 (dī bà) dam to prevent floods and piled-mud. China has numerous lakes in addition to the West Lake, such as Wuxi’s Taihu Lake and the Qinghai Lake in Qinghai Province. The literal meaning of the Qinghai Lake is very interesting – “cyan-blue-sea lake.” Even more interesting is that many lakes in Beijing are called “sea,” namely “什刹海” (Shí chà hǎi), “Shi Cha Lake,” “北海” (Běi hǎi), “North Lake”, and “中南海 “( Zhōng nán hǎi), “Middle and South Lake.” It is said that the Mongolian ruler of the Yuan Dynasty never saw the ocean before coming to Beijing. The moment he saw the capital’s lakes, he considered them as seas. Since then, lakes in Beijing have been referred to as “seas.”
Lakes are often mentioned in Chinese poetry. Many poems describe romantic scenes such as enjoying the glorious full moon by a lakeside on a peaceful evening. 平湖秋月 (Píng Hú Qiū Yuè), Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake, is also the title of one of the most famous pieces of Chinese classical music.
China’s mainland has a coastline 海岸线 (hǎi àn xiàn) of more than 18,000 kilometers, ranking fourth longest worldwide. Seas occupy the east of China. The Chinese cultural connotation of the term 大海 (dà hǎi), “sea,” is lenient and tolerant, and Chinese people use the phrase 海纳百川 (hǎi nà bǎi chuān), meaning be tolerant to diversity, to express “brainstorming.” Boundary is another definition of “sea.” Therefore, many Chinese characters referring to foreign matters contain the word “sea.” For example, 海外 (hǎi wài) meaning overseas, and 洋人 (yáng rén), foreigner. “Sea” also means 无边无际 (wú biān wú jì), boundless, or 汪洋大海 (wāng yáng dà hǎi), a vast ocean. The Chinese equivalent of French slang expression “Trying to find a needle in a haystack” is 大海捞针 (dà hǎi lāo zhēn), “Finding a needle in the vast sea.” It is definitely much harder than sorting through a bundle of hay, and you could 呛水 (qiāng shuǐ ), drown while looking for it. So, be careful!