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Flowing water and still water
Yu Ming

The property of water is dependent on its source. People knew a lot about water in ancient China. An idiom we often use is “water from the Jing River and the Wei River are completely different.” It is said to be easy to identify the water’s source at the junction of the Jing River and the Wei River. Water from the Jing River is muddy, while water from the Wei River is clear. Although water from the two rivers amalgamate, the boundary between them is quite clear.

People traveling on the Yangtze River will see a separation of color where water from certain lakes merges with that of the Yangtze River. Different waters do not necessarily mix easily.

The book Jingshi Tongyan relates an interesting story about two famous Chinese writers, Wang Anshi and Su Dongpo. Wang Anshi suffered from coryza. Drinking tea steeped with water from the Middle Gorge of the Yangtze River was good for his health. When Wang Anshi heard Su Dongpo was going back to Szechuan to visit his family, he asked Su Dongpo to bring back some of that water. When Su Dongpo returned, he brought Wang Anshi some water. Wang Anshi immediately boiled this water to brew tea. It took a while for the steeping tea to give off its color.

Wang Anshi asked Su Dongpo, “Is this water from the Middle Gorge?” Su Dongpo answered, “Why, yes. Of course it is.”
Wang Anshi smiled and said, “You lied. Obviously it is from the Lower Gorge.”

Su Dongpo was astounded and immediately confessed. “I enjoyed the scenery of Three Gorges so much that I forgot about your request. It was only when I reached the Lower Gorge that I remembered it.” He decided to just get some water there and thought there wouldn’t be any difference.

Wang Anshi said, “In Shansui Jingzhu, careful observations are noted about the properties of water in the Yangtze River. The water in the Upper Gorge flows too fast, and the water in the Lower Gorge flows too slowly. The water in the Middle Gorge flows at a leisurely speed. My disease is due to ‘medium fire’ and I need water from the Middle Gorge to open the bodily channels. Using water from Yangtze River to brew Yangxian tea, the Upper Gorge water imparts a strong taste while the Lower Gorge water makes for a weak taste. The taste of the Middle Gorge water is in between. Today, the color of the tea developed slowly, so I know it is from the Lower Gorge.”

Su Dongpo then stood up from the table and offered a formal apology.

When it comes to brewing tea, the ancients understood the differences between flowing and still water. In the book Cha Jing, the author advocated using water from “the mountains, the middle of rivers and from deep in wells.” In addition, it says that water from mountains has to be flowing slowly, and water from rapids cannot be used. In other words, slowly flowing water will produce a nice tea.

Regarding flowing and still water, Sun Simiao, in his book Qianjin Fang mentioned that flowing water should be used to steam ginseng while still water does not work for this purpose.

Taking medicine correctly is a vital issue and sometimes, apparently trivial things such as the quality of water, have an effect on the medicine’s efficacy. Flowing water and still water should therefore be used for different purposes. In the book Mengxi Bitan, the author mentioned that some fish could only live in still water and they would die if they were transferred to rivers. It also said that a type of carp can live in both flowing and still water, but those that live in flowing water carry white marks on the back and taste delicious while those that live in still water carry black marks on the back and taste awful.

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