Water Blog, Part Two: Li Shizhen on Celestial Water
The first part of my blog on the Therapeutic Use of Water in the Bencao gangmu (found here) contained an introduction and brief survey of the content of Li Shizhen’s grand opus in general. Now we are finally ready to jump into the blue stuff itself! With the exception of the photograph to the left here, the pictures below come from Vivienne Lo’s wonderful collection of illustrations from Shiwu bencao (Materia dietetica), a dietetic herbal in four volumes dating from the Ming period (1368-1644) found here. For other illustrations, visit the Wellcome collection here and type in your search terms.
The section on Waters is the first of 16 major parts (bu 部) in this text, and the second shortest section, about twice as big as the one on Fires and just a bit shorter than the one on Earths, which are the next two sections in the text. After these three innovative sections, the main body of the Bencao gangmu follows a more traditional format with sections on Metals and Stones, Herbs, Grains, Vegetables, Fruits, Trees, Clothes and Utensils, Bugs, Scaly Creatures, Shelled Creatures, Birds, Quadrupeds, and, last but most definitely not least, Humans. The section on Water is divided into two large categories (lei 類): Celestial Waters 天水 and Terrestrial Waters 地水, which are further subdivided into 13 and 30 “types” (zhong 種) respectively. Because this text is just so much fun to read, I couldn’t help translating or excerpting much of it here. Let us first look at Part One, namely water that comes from Heaven, or in less poetic terms, falls out of the sky:
Celestial Waters 天水
The category of Celestial Waters is comprised of various types of natural precipitation that fall from the sky, from different kinds of rain to dew, hail, snow, frost, condensation gained by exposing a large clam shell or copper and tin vessel to the moon (mingshui 明水 or fangzhushui 方諸水), and even “leaky roof water,” which refers to water that comes dripping through a leaky roof in a rainstorm.
- Rain Water: As a general introduction to Celestial Water in the first entry on “Rain Water” 雨水, Li Shizhen cites a famous Suwen 5 line and relates it to human sweat: “Earth Qi ascending constitutes clouds; Heaven Qi descending constitutes rain. Hence the sweat of humans is named the rain of Heaven and Earth.” 地氣升為雲，天氣降為雨，故人之汗，以天地之雨名之。Classified as salty, balanced (between cold and heat), and non-toxic, rain is then further subdivided into three varieties with different properties:
- Rain at the beginning of spring has the two main indications of being “divinely efficacious” for making babies when husband and wife each drink a cup and then retire to the bedroom, and of being suitable for decocting dispersing medicines and those that supplement the center and boost Qi. Because it is imbued with the uplifting, generative, and effusing Qi of spring, another quote states in the paragraph marked as “Explanations,”, it can be used to decoct medicine for insufficiency of center qi and for failure of clear Qi to ascend. The reason why It was used for fertility in ancient times, this text explains, is because it provides for the initiation and development of the myriad things.
- Rainy season rain is good for washing scabs and making scars disappear. But Li Shizhen comments that this substance comes from warm-damp places in the south and makes people sick.
- Early winter rain is indicated for killing the hundred bugs and is thus an appropriate substance to use for decocting medicinals that kill bugs and disperse accumulations. When the hundred bugs drink this sort of rain, the text explains, they go into hibernation underground until they hear the thunder of the next spring.
2. Downpour Water: This substance is classified as sweet, balanced, and non-toxic. It is indicated for decocting medicines to attune the spleen and stomach and get rid of damp heat. To explain this effect, Li Shizhen quotes the famous hereditary physician Cheng Wuji 成無己 (1063-1156): “The reason why Zhang Zhongjing uses Downpour Water for decocting the ingredients in Mahuang Lianqiao Chixiaodou Tang 麻黃連翹赤小豆湯 to treat cold damage from static heat in the interior with generalized yellowing is that its flavor is thin and it therefore does not assist the damp Qi.”
3. Dew: Being sweet, balanced, and non-toxic, dew is the fluid of Yin Qi. It is the Qi of the night that adheres to things and moistens them. Collected in a bowl in autumn and simmered down to a syrupy consistency, it extends people’s years and alleviates hunger. Because it is “endowed with the Qi of austere killing” (due to its association with the season of autumn), it is suitable for decocting lung-moistening and evil-killing medicinals and for mixing into the various powders for treating scabies, ringworm, bugs, and leprosy. Collected in autumn from the tips of herbs before the sun has started shining on them, it cures the hundred diseases, stops dispersion thirst, and makes the person’s body light and without hunger and the flesh glistening. Collected on the first day of the eighth lunar month, used to grind up ink, and painted on the Taiyang points, it stops headaches. Painting a spot on Gaohuang treats taxation sickness. This is called Heavenly Moxibustion. Dew from on top of the hundred flowers gives the person a beautiful complexion.
4. Sweet Dew: Listed as a separate category, this auspicious substance is also known as “heavenly liquor” or “spirit sauce” and is described as “the essence of divinity, sheen of humane auspiciousness, congealed like lard, and sweet like syrup.” According to one text, it descends onto pine and cypress trees when the king reveres and nurtures the elderly, and onto bamboo and reeds when he reveres the paragons of virtues and treats the masses with magnanimity. According to other sources, it descends when the star Tianru 天乳 (Heaven’s Nipple) shines with bright luster or is found in special locations such as on Mount Kunlun 崑崙. Either way, it is an auspicious omen and is indicated, when eaten, for “moistening the five Zang organs, lengthening years, avoiding hunger, and turning the person into a spirit immortal.”
5. Sweet Dew Honey: This is another rare syrup-like substance. It is a sugary “frost” that is purportedly produced in Arabia in autumn by collecting dew and exposing it to the sun. It is indicated for all sorts of heat in the chest and diaphragm, brightening the eyes, and quenching thirst.
6. Brightness Water: An alchemical substance with different explanations in various textual sources, it is a fluid of a Yin essence that is gained by exposing a mineral, a large clamshell, or a metal (copper or tin) object to the moon. It brightens the eyes, settles the heart, gets rid of vexing heat in small children, and quenches thirst.
7. Winter Frost: Being “congealed dew when Yin is exuberant,” it kills things, as opposed to dew, which moistens and thereby enriches things. Sweet, cold, and non-toxic, you can consume it to resolve the heat from liquor, cold damage nasal congestion, and generalized heat and a red face after drinking.
8. Snow from the Dead of Winter: Related to the fact that snow is cleansing, this substance “washes away miasms, epidemics, bugs, and locusts.” It is indicated for resolving all poisons and treating medical conditions like seasonal warm epidemics, small children’s heat seizures with manic crying, adult people stirring due to cinnabar and mineral [poisoning], fulminant heat after drinking alcohol, and jaundice. It can also be used to prepare tea or cook porridge to resolve heat and stop thirst. It treats all the diseases mentioned above because it is the water of great cold.
9. Hail is the Qi of Yin and Yang struggling with each other and therefore categorized as poisonous. Alternately, it is described as Yin wrapped around Yang, as opposed to sleet, which is Yang wrapped around Yin. Eating it will make you sick.
10. Summer Ice: Li Shizhen explains that ice (bing 冰) is the essence of Taiyin and, as the extreme state of water, resembles earth in that the transformation of softness becomes hardness, which is a case of the extremes of things changing entirely into their opposites. Hence the Chinese character for ice consists of water plus two ice crystals. It is indicated for getting rid of heat vexation, for effusing heat and swelling from “stones” in the breast, and for resolving vexing thirst, summer-heat toxin, yang poison in cold damage, and heat stroke, which you treat by placing a piece of ice on the center of the chest. It also resolves alcohol poisoning. In the Explanation section of the entry on Summer Ice, we find the stern warning that eating ice in the abundant heat of summer is the opposite of the season and not recommended because heat and cold strike each other as they enter the abdomen, causing all sorts of illness. Li Zhizhen offers a story about Song emperor Huizong eating too much ice and contracting spleen disease that numerous physicians were unable to cure as a warning example. Finally, Yang Jie cured the condition by giving Da Lizhong Wan, which he prepared by decocting the ingredients with ice, to treat the source of the illness by using the cause of the illness.
11. Divine Water: This ingredient is collected by catching the drops trickling out of the center of a bamboo pole cut quickly when it rains at noon on the fifth day of the fifth month. Citing no secondary source, Li Shizhen states that it treats masses in the heart and abdomen and worm disease and should be taken by mixing it with otter liver into pills. Alternatively, you can drink it to clear heat, transform phlegm, settle fright, and calm the spirit.
12. Half Sky River: According to a citation from the illustrious alchemist and commentator on the Shennong bencao jing Tao Hongjing, this substance, which is also called “upper pool water,” refers to water found on top of bamboo fences or in tree hollows. Li Shizhen then cites a story that Bian Que gained his X-ray vision, allowing him to see patients’ internal organs after drinking this substance. It is indicated for ghost infixation, mania, malign poisons, Gu toxin, killing spectral entities, and insanity, and should be drunk in secret, without telling others about it.
13. Leaky Roof Water: Even though this substance is classified as toxic and inedible, it is suitable for washing out dog bites, spreading on warts, and for rubbing on cinnabar toxin.
The third part of this blog on Water will cover the second half of Li Zhizhen’s information, on Terrestrial Waters 地水.