Classics Culture Idioms

The six meanings of water in Chinese culture (水 Shuǐ)3 min read

1 March 2021 3 min read


The six meanings of water in Chinese culture (水 Shuǐ)3 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The meaning of a simple word, water, in Chinese culture is complicated. Drawing on poems, idioms and China’s philosophers, there are at least six meanings:


Lao Zi in the Dao De Jing (6th century BC!) used water to describe people of good character:

上善若水。 水善利万物而不争

(shàng shàn ruò shuǐ, shuǐ shàn lì wàn wù ér bù zhēng)

Which means:

“To attain goodness, [people] should be like water; able to benefit all things without wanting anything in return”


By the 3rd Century BC another Chinese philosopher, Zhuang Zi, used the pureness of water to describe friendship:


(jūn zǐ zhī jiāo dàn rú shuǐ, xiǎo rén zhī jiāo gān ruò lǐ)

Friendship between jūn zi is as pure as water; friendships of lesser men are as sweet as wine


Zhuang Zi also used water (or lack of it) to describe the dependancy of two people on each other, and offered a different and radical solution to managing a relationship:

相濡以沫,不如相忘于江湖 (xiāng rú yǐ mò, bù rú xiāng wàng yú jiāng hú)

Fish are better following their own way in the rivers and lakes, rather than trying to survive depending on each other when the well goes dry

(literally: “two fish surviving on each other’s saliva when the well has dried up”), when you could be enjoying life in freedom of big open lakes and rivers somewhere else.

Despite this, the first part (xiāng rú yǐ mò) is used to describe loving couples that give up everything to support each other through difficulty. The second part (the bit about the rivers and lakes, jiāng hú) has also come to mean something else.


In the centuries after Zhuang Zi, water, or particularly jiāng hú (rivers), came to mean ‘society’ – the real world where people got on with their lives.

This makes sense; life and society in China have for thousands of years gathered around the rivers and lakes of its landscape.

By the 10th Century AD, Song Dynasty statesman and politician, Fan Zhongyan, not only used jiāng hú to describe society, or ‘the people’, but also used it to describe the relationship between the governing and the governed:


(jū miào táng zhī gāo zé yōu qí mín, chǔ jiāng hú zhī yuǎn zé yōu qí jūn)

From the heights of the temple, [the leader] should consider the worries of his people; people of the distant jiāng hú should be mindful of the concerns of their leaders


Still in the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279), water was used to describe strength, in the now well known idiom:

滴水穿石 (dī shuǐ chuān shí)

Drops of water can break through stone [if given long enough].

Insurmountable challenges can be overcome by using ‘soft’ strategies, even if it takes a long time, just as dripping water will eventually break through a rock.


The word to ‘reign’ over, or to ‘govern’ a country, 统治 (tǒng zhì), is made of two parts in Chinese: the first part (tǒng) is the ‘top-down’ emperor bit; the second part (zhì) is the on-the-ground ‘bottom-up’ management of the system.

More specifically, zhì means to organise or to manage, and was originally linked to the management of water: through effective management of water resources, the people are kept happy. The character for zhì even says as much through a combination of its two parts:

治 (zhì) = 氵(water) + 怡 (yí, happiness)

China has for centuries been governed by leaders with the ability to use and control water resources and supply in order to serve the people and maintain social stability.

Today is no different, just on a much grander scale as seen in the Three Gorges Dam:

zhì these days is more commonly associated with ‘governance’, both of a countries (治国) and of companies (治理).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *