Water Blog, Part Three: Li Shizhen on Terrestrial Waters

The first part of my blog on the Therapeutic Use of Water in the Bencao gangmu (click here to read it) contained an introduction and brief survey of the content of the whole text, and the second part (see here) covered the first section of Li Shizhen’s volume on Water: the thirteen entries on “celestial waters” 天水, or in other words, on the various kinds of water that fall from the sky. The following information concerns the second, and considerably bigger section, namely the thirty entries on “terrestrial waters” 地水. As in the previous post on celestial waters, the historical illustrations below come from Vivienne Lo’s wonderful collection of images from the Shiwu bencao (Materia dietetica), a dietetic herbal in four volumes dating from the Ming period (1368-1644) found here (https://wellcomecollection.org/works?query=Vivienne+Lo). For other illustrations relevant to medical history, visit the Wellcome collection here https://wellcomecollection.org/works and type in your search terms.  If you are more interested in my personal thoughts and a less nerdy approach, you might enjoy my personal blog here.

After covering the thirteen types of water that come out of the sky (rain water, downpour water, dew, sweet dew, sweet dew honey, brightness water, winter frost, snow from the dead of winter, hail, summer ice, divine water, half sky river, and leaky roof water; for explanations and details, read my earlier blog post), let us now look at the waters that come from, pool on, or run over the earth. Given that this section is more than twice as long as the section on celestial waters, I will not cover each entry, nor completely translate the ones I do discuss, but pick and choose based on entertainment value, clinical applicability, historical relevance, or my personal whim. If I have omitted a type of water that you urgently need to know about or additional explanations, indications, or attached formulas, post your question as a comment to this blog, and I promise to answer it. I may eventually publish a complete translation in book form….

Terrestrial Waters

Running Water


The explanations found in this entry offer valuable insights into Li Shizhen’s understanding of medicinal efficacy and the way in which a substance is affected by its surroundings. I believe that most of us modern people, used to eating lifeless greenhouse strawberries in February and heavily processed food from distant continents out of plastic containers, cannot even begin to comprehend the reasoning expressed here. It is just one more expression of this notion of “resonance” (ying 應) that strikes me as the foundation of the classical Chinese way of living in harmony with the universe. In the initial general explanation to this section, Li Shizhen himself comments that flowing water refers to rivers, streams, creeks, and brooks, which all share the characteristics of moving on the outside but being still by their inner nature, and of being soft in substance but hard in Qi. He then emphasizes the importance of distinguishing running water from the stopped water of lakes, marshes, ponds, and reservoirs. In addition, the muddy waters in the larger rivers differ from the clear waters in smaller streams. As proof for the importance of these differences, Li reminds us of the drastic difference in the nature and color of fish living in each, in the outcome of tempering swords or dying cloth with each, and in the flavor of rice porridge or tea cooked with each. So how could we not take this into consideration when preparing medicinals!

Known to traditional medical practitioners and contemporary translators by the technical terms “thousand-mile water” 千里水, “east-flowing water” 東流水, and “sweet-billowing water” 甘爛水,” Li claims that these substances are the most efficacious for decocting medicinals and keeping spirits at bay. They are indicated for the Five Taxations and Seven Damages–a common term referring to debilitating conditions of emptiness taxation, with the seven damages explained in the Zhubing yuanhou lun 《諸病源候論》 as food damage, anxiety damage, drinking damage (i.e., due to alcohol), bedchamber damage (i.e., due to sexual intercourse), hunger damage, taxation damage, and damage from taxation of the channel and network vessels and ying wei 營衛 provision and defense Qi damage)–; for kidney vacuity and spleen weakness; for Yang exuberance and Yin vacuity; for inability to close the eyes; as well as for dysentery, vomiting and diarrhea and for threatened bentun Bolting Piglet syndrome after cold damage. Water that is moving countercurrent, on the other hand, is indicated for wind strike, sudden reversal, head wind, malaria, all sorts of throat conditions, and vomiting of phlegm rheum.


In the following “Elaboration” section of the entry on Running Water, Li Shizhen quotes various authorities to make sense of the above indications: Thousand-Mile Water and East-Flowing Water flush out and rinse away evil and filth and hence are good for restraining and exorcising spirits and ghosts. According to our friend Sun Simiao, river water has journeyed far from its spring and thus homes to the sea with the force of its current instead of flowing upward. Thus it is perfect for treating conditions like headache by inducing a downward movement. “Sweet-Billowing Water” is explained as water that has been whipped up a thousand times with a ladle until it appears frothy. This process changes the nature of the water from being salty and heavy to being sweet and light. As a result, it no longer assists the kidney Qi but instead boosts the spleen and stomach. Water that moves in the direction of the current flows downward by its nature and therefore treats patterns in the Lower Jiao and lumbus and knees, while also promoting defecation and urination. Rapidly flowing water with its fierce urgency and downward pull can treat conditions like stopped urination and defecation or wind Bi syndrome. Water that is moving countercurrent, such as in eddies, is by its nature upward-moving contrary to its regular flow and is therefore indicated for promoting the ejection of phlegm rheum. As the greatest proof for the efficacy of running water, Li cites a story about Zhang Congzheng 張從正 successfully treating a patient suffering from urinary block that other practitioners were unable to cure. After decocting the same medicinals in urgently flowing water from long rivers, one drink restored urination!

Well and Spring Water, Well Blossom Water, and Freshly Drawn Water

As anybody who works with historical formulas knows and as Li Shizhen demonstrates with the 29 new and old formulas he has attached to this topic, well and spring waters are important ingredients for a wide range of conditions. Indications range from cleaning dog and insect bites or infected wounds with it, to inducing vomiting and diarrhea to treat arsenic poisoning by drinking freshly drawn well water; consuming large amounts of plain water to counteract alcohol poisoning or sudden retching from taking excessive doses of medicine; drinking a bowl of water with honey mixed in for heart oppression with sweating and loss of consciousness; using the first water drawn from a well at dawn to treat bad breath by holding it in the mouth and then spitting it out in the outhouse or to induce childbirth by having the woman drink it; and making newborn babies cry out by sprinkling them with cold water. 

The information in the introduction to Well and Spring Water and the two following entries on Well Blossom Water 井華水 and Freshly Drawn Water 新汲水 explains the reasoning behind these usages: First off, Li cites Wang Ying 汪穎, author of  the Shiwu bencao 《食物本草》 (“Materia Dietetia”), as his authority: “Freshly drawn well water treats illness and benefits people, and the first water drawn at dawn, called Well Blossom Water,  is extremely broad in its applications and different from all other water. Well water that comes from far away in the earth’s veins is best; water that has seeped in from nearby rivers and lakes is second. Water in the cities that is close to ditches and canals and has sewage mixed in forms must be boiled vigorously….” Li Shizhen continues: All water under heaven functions identically in extinguishing fire and irrigating withered plants. And yet, its nature is transformed by the earth and its material quality changed by things, until it is no longer identical. For example, brocade is brilliant in color when washed in Sichuan water; spring water from the mountains in Shanxi cure abscesses because of the alum; and bathing in the sulfurous hot springs in the foothills of Western China cures pestilence. 

Even the water coming out of a single well is different in effect and must be chosen carefully: For example, Well Blossom Water, drawn at dawn, is indicated for alcohol-induced heat dysentery while Freshly Drawn Water is indicated for heat dysentery and strangury, and red and inhibited urination. Well Blossom Water is used for treating bleeding in the extremities and all orifices due to extreme fright, for settling the heart and calming the spirit, for fermenting alcohol and vinegar to avoid spoilage, and for decocting Yin-supplementing medicinals and for medicinals for phlegm, fire, Qi, and blood. Freshly Drawn Water, on the other hand, dispels evil and attunes the center, brings down heat Qi, disperses welling abscesses, and resolves various toxins.


The “Elaboration” section (fa ming 發明) on Well and Spring Water provides fascinating background for Li Shizhen’s thinking, mostly supported by other textual authorities: Always use freshly drawn clear spring water when using water to treat illness, and avoid stagnant, muddy, warm water. Freshly Drawn Water and Well Blossom Water contain the One Genuine Qi of Heaven 天一真氣 floating on the water’s surface and are therefore used to decoct Yin-supplementing medicinals and to prepare alchemical substances. They are equal in their quality and flavor to snow water. Wells and springs are the veins of the earth 地脈, and the blood in human veins resembles this. So you must use deep water from dense earth, from distant sources and of pure quality. Humans are produced from the earth and their natural endowments are mutually linked with and affected by the Qi of the mountains and rivers. Thus their beauty or ugliness, longevity or premature death are all mutually affected. Metals and stones, herbs and trees, all adapt to the inherent nature of the water and soil, so how could this not be true for humans, as the most divine of the ten thousand things, as well? Each region and soil create humans of its type: Mountain Qi means more males and Marsh Qi more females; water Qi more muteness and wind Qi more deafness; forest Qi more infirmity and tree Qi more hunchback; Qi below cliffs means more swelling, stone Qi more strength, and Qi in dangerous and obstructed places more goiters; summerheat Qi means shorter life and winter-cold Qi means longer life; valley Qi more bi Impediment Syndrome and hill Qi more mania; and so on and on.


After all this evidence to show the intimate relationship between humans and their environment and the resulting importance of choosing water for medicinal uses carefully, Li Shizhen abruptly changes the topic to discuss hydrotherapy. He tells the following story: A woman had been suffering for years from a chronic illness identified as an “influx of cold and heat” 寒熱注病. At the height of winter, the famous Han dynasty physician Hua Tuo instructed her to sit in a stone trough, and at dawn began a treatment of pouring cold water over her, stating that this treatment must be repeated a hundred times. After receiving seventy cold showers in this manner, the woman was shivering and close to death. The person pouring the water was scared and wanted to stop, but Hua Tuo would not permit this. When she had received eighty pourings, the hot Qi finally exited with great noise from the top of her head in a cloud of steam two to three feet high. When she had received the full treatment of a hundred pourings, Hua Tuo made her lie down on a warm bed over a burning fire, covered with a thick quilt. After a good long while, cold sweat came out, and she was dusted with powder and was cured.

In a similar story, a general had taken too many preparations of “Five Stone Powder” 五石散, an addictive and toxic mind-altering mineral-based drug popular in medieval China that purportedly consisted of five minerals like fluorite, quartz, red clay, stalactite, and sulfur. As a result, he was suffering from cold, forcing him to wear warm clothing even in summer. Diagnosing this condition as “latent heat,” the physician Xu Sibo 徐嗣伯 insisted that it could only be treated by effusing it through hydrotherapy in winter. So he waited until a time of abundant snow and ice at the height of winter and then made the general sit naked on a stone. He had a total of twenty bushels of freshly drawn cold water poured over his head until his patient’s mouth clenched shut and his Qi expired. The general’s relatives wailed and cried, asking the doctor to stop, but he seized and struck the person who had criticized him. After he had used a hundred bushels of water, the general began being able to move, with a great display of Qi on his back. After a while, he sat up, complained of unbearable heat, and begged for a cold beverage. The physician gave him a pint of water to drink, and his illness was cured. Thereafter he often felt hot, only wore thin clothing in winter, and was generally stout and strong. 

Li Shizhen explains that both of these treatments are cases of latent fire, which was effused by dousing the patient with cold water at dawn around the time of the solstice, when Yang Qi is inside but just starting to break out. Breaking the fire by cold causes it to be stimulated and released through the sweat.

Miscellaneous Other Waters

 Pig trough and urine ditch water

Pig trough and urine ditch water

In the following entries, Li Shizhen covers a range of waters to be found on the earth, from waters drawn during specific seasons to water from special springs, caves, seawater, or springs in cliffs. Lastly, he discusses various poisonous waters and their medical applications. Without going into details here, it makes sense, as Li states, that the specific Qi in each of the 24 seasonal nodes 節氣 affects the quality of the water drawn at this time. In a universe where everything is related to everything else and where Heaven and Earth resonate with each other, not only the time of day when the water is collected but also the time of year affects its Qi and therefore its potential effect as a medicinal. Thus, water drawn on the first day of spring or during the “tomb-sweeping” (Qingming) festival two weeks after the spring equinox is indicated for all sorts of wind conditions, for the spleen and stomach, for deficiency, and for alchemical preparations and medicinal liquors. Water drawn in the seasonal nodes of winter is best for supplementing the five Zang organs and treating phlegm fire, accumulations, and worms and toxins. Drinking just one cup of water drawn before noon on the first day of autumn can treat malaria and dysentery and the “hundred diseases in both old and young people.”


Following this section are a number of entries of water from special springs. For example, water from springs in mountains that contain jade will make the body hair black and increase longevity, just as the vegetation in these mountains is luxurious because it is exposed to this treasure. Water from caves with stalactites is greatly beneficial. It is concentrated and heavier than normal water. Consuming this water will make the person fat and healthy and stave off aging, just like the effect of consuming stalactites (shizhongru 石鐘乳) directly. Concerning hotspring water, the sulfur deep down makes the water hot and causes it to have a foul-smelling odor. Sulfur is indicated for all sorts of sores, so this water has the same effect. Bathing in it causes the Qi of sulfur to enter the skin. Arsenic hotsprings, however, are poisonous to bathe in. In general, bathing in hotsprings is indicated for spasms and contractions in sinews and bones due to wind, for bi Impediment in the flesh and skin, paralyzed limbs, lack of eyebrows and hair on the head, for scabies and for problems in the skin, joints, and bones. When done with the bath, one is greatly deficient and fatigued and can take medicine in accordance with the condition or supplement and nourish health with food and drink. Healthy people should not lightly enter hotsprings.


Next there is a fascinating line that might actually refer to the phenomenon of bioluminescence, which I myself got to experience last summer while swimming under a new moon in the Puget Sound: The entry for “Jade-green Sea Water” 碧海水 explains that when one stirs the water while moving in the sea at night and there are fiery stars, this is saltwater. Because its color is jade-green, it is called “jade-green sea.” Reinforcing my own love of the sea and practice of immersing myself in it almost daily, Li Shizhen comments: “The sea is the meeting of the hundred rivers. Heaven and Earth and the four directions are all connected with each other by the waters of the sea, with Earth in its center.” Bathing in it gets rid of wind-related itchy and scabby skin conditions. 

 dish washing water

dish washing water

Let me finish this blog with a few curiosities: Water from old burial mounds is toxic and will the person if drunk, but can treat all sorts of sores by washing them in it. Water in earthen grain jars from old tombs is good for treating ghost Qi, being struck by malignity, and demonic infixation, for heart and abdominal pain, nightmares of ghosts and spirits, and for killing roundworm. In the interest of scientific objectivity, Li notes that rinsing the eyes with it will cause one to see ghosts, but that he has not personally tried this. It is, however, divinely effective for treating hiccup. Drinking one bowl of pig trough water may be disgusting but will treat gu poisoning! It can also be used for washing out snake bites. For serious cases of dispersion thirst, you can make a patient drink a small bowl of city latrine water, but do not let them know (for obvious reasons). Lastly, this volume concludes with some general rules that are good to know: Water houses the palaces of dragons, and you must be cautious not to offend them. Washing the face with old cooking liquid, as I have personally done in the steppes of Mongolia when fresh water was too precious a commodity to waste on bathing, will cause one to lose color. Washing the head with cold or hot water creates wind in the head, which is particularly dangerous for women. Here I may add that this warning is still heeded by traditionally minded women in Asia and elsewhere who avoid swimming in cold water or washing their hair during menstruation and the postpartum recovery period. Bathing in cold water after a seasonal disease injures the pericardium, bathing in it in exuberant summer-heat causes cold damage. Entering cold water after sweating causes bi Impediment Syndrome in the bones. Bathing after childbirth causes convulsions and often death. Drinking cold water when intoxicated causes tremor in the hands. Drinking tea after drinking alcohol causes liquor aggregations. Drinking water and then going right to sleep causes water aggregations. Finally, when walking long distances in the summer months, do not immerse the feet in cold water, and when walking far in the winter months, do not immerse them in hot water. So much for dipping your feet in an icy mountain stream or cool ocean while playing at the beach this month…