The Tao of Water

This post contains some philosophical and cultural views of water and the sea, including a book review.

A book (Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization) that I read a few years ago gave the following description of competing perspectives (dikes vs. drainage ditches) on water resource management in ancient China:

Yu took up his father's task by the different approach of laboriously dredging river channels and digging ditches and canals... to divert excess floodwaters to the sea. ... Confucius hailed him as the ideal of the humble, qualified government official who used his power for the public good, and thus the aspiring role model for China's technocratic elite who governed in support of its emperor.
Water management helped frame the historic Chinese philosophical debate about the right principles for man's governance of himself and his relations to the natural order. The sixth century BC Taoists argued that humble water's yielding, yet relentless flow that wore down all hard and strong obstacles expressed the essence of nature and provided an exemplary model for human conduct. Taoist engineers designed waterworks to allow water to flow away as easily as possible, exploiting the dynamics of the natural ecosystem, just as they urged Chinese leaders to gradually win support for their goals through persuasive dialogue. Their main rivals, the Confucians, on the other hand, advocated a more forceful manipulation of both nature and human society to achieve the public good. They believed rivers had to be forced, through dikes, dams and other obstructive constructions, to do man's bidding as defined by rulers and technocrats. (p.100)

Another book I have (Go: More than a game, by Peter Shotwell—which I found in a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon) connects this account of controlling the flood waters to the game of Go:

The first attempt—blocking the waters by brute force with the building of a dam—resulted in failure when the dam burst.
The second attempt, however, succeeded: a series of drainage ditches were dug in a grid pattern, in much the way a Go board is laid out. (p.134)

As an aside, I came across a couple of videos about the game of Go: one about competitive players and one about AI playing it.

The Taoist perspective mentioned in the opening excerpt is also seen in quotes like the following from the Tao te ching:

The person of higher virtue is like water, benefiting the ten thousand things without struggle. It rests in the lowest places near the Tao.


But, with stillness, muddy waters clear. Can you also act while remaining still?


In this world there is nothing more yielding than water, yet attack it with strength and you cannot conquer it. In all the world, there is no substitute.
The flexible surpasses the inflexible, the soft overcomes the hard. ...

I don't have quotes about water from the Analects of Confucius for comparison, but I will link to a post I wrote and an essay I found about some of his teachings.

The main part of this post will be a review of The Sea: A Cultural History by John Mack. It was suggested by when I got The Sea and Civilization by Lincoln Paine; it covers a lot of similar historical ground but with quite a different approach. Whereas Paine's book was very detail-oriented (down to giving ship dimensions), chronological, and based on primary sources and archaeology of shipwrecks, Mack's book uses literary sources (Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, and Richard Dana appear frequently) and focuses on the experience of being at sea.

John Mack raises some interesting framing questions in the introduction to The Sea: why was Madagascar settled so much later than most other land masses of significance and why was a ship buried on a hill in Sutton Hoo in England? The first question relates to themes of how people get around at sea while the second relates to how people's experience of the sea eventually gets reflected in culture on land.

Here is how John Mack outlines his book:

Each of the chapters tackles a different aspect of the subject of man's engagement with the sea: the extent to which they interconnect culturally (or not); the ways in which the seas are conceptualized; ships and boats as social spaces; the ways in which the seas are navigated and related processes of enskillment; different practices in visualizing the sea; beaches as sites of interaction and the topics of language, gender and material culture in a maritime context. Finally we move back onto land and consider the significance of ships in a terrestrial context looking at the link between ships and churches, and ship-burials. Conceived as a series of themed chapters they none the less overlap and flow into one another – like the salt-water seas themselves.

Basically, each chapter looks at a certain theme related to the experience of being at sea or the wider ways in which that experience has shaped culture. My favourite chapters were the first and third, which were about, respectively, the varying characteristics of different seas, and techniques for navigating before technology enabled knowing your position objectively. Chapter 2 deals with how the sea is conceptualized in different cultures, chapter 4 is about ship-board society, chapter 5 is about how beaches and ports are "in-between" spaces, and chapter 6 is on terrestrial reflections of aspects of maritime life.

The descriptions in the first chapter of characteristics of the most notable seas were enlightening. "The compass and later iron shipping had the effect of rendering all seas the same", but in previous times patterns of winds and currents had large effects on where people could sail. For example, since the Mediterranean only has a few main rivers and lots of evaporation, it has a higher salinity than the Atlantic Ocean. This results in a strong inward surface current at Gibraltar, making it difficult to sail outwards. The Red Sea has a similar feature. The Indian Ocean has the reversing Monsoon winds, which blow from the northeast from November – April and from the southwest from May – September. The Pacific Ocean has circulation cells that rotate in opposite directions north and south of the Equator (clockwise and counterclockwise, respectively), and produce boundary currents like the Humboldt along the western edge of the Americas.

In the third chapter, The Sea has an interesting perspective on traditional navigation, comparing it to a performance in the way that it is done in the moment and is a bit different every time:

Just as two successive performances of a piece of music are different, so no two sea passages between islands are ever the same. Navigation is a complete, embodied, synaesthetic activity.

The book discusses ibn Majid, an Arab navigator who wrote guides to sailing the Indian Ocean in the fifteenth century. In spite of the factual nature of his subject matter, he did much of his writing in poetic verse. Mack draws parallels between the sensory engagement that is stimulated by poetry and the engagement with environment that good traditional navigation requires. Verse also serves a mnemonic function.

Polynesian culture was also well-known for its navigational praxis. A Polynesian navigator named Tupaia, who sailed with Captain Cook, is discussed in The Sea. He made a map of Pacific Islands. The book discusses its differences with European maps, which attempted to locate positions on an objective grid of latitude and longitude whereas traditional Polynesian charts (Tupaia's chart was a hybrid) were more subjective mnemonics for the experience of travelling between pairs of islands.

Something I learned from this book that I found really interesting was about Celtic "Peregrini" monks. They would set out on the North Sea on small boats believing that their destination was in the hands of God:

Some of this voyaging by the [mariner-monks] seems not to have been motivated by informed navigational assessment of the likelihood of finding land and more by a sense of submitting to the will of God.


But the fundamental concept which explained all this was at root theological. The sea, its monsters and its navigators were all God's creation. Thus, if the faithful were able to traverse this unstable world, to calm its water by prayer and establish settlements in such unlikely outposts as the rocks of Skellig Michael far out to sea, it was because it was God's will.

They established monasteries in remote places like Iona, Lindisfarne, Whithorn, and Skellig Michael.

To keep this review from getting too long, I won't say much about the contents of the other chapters. The key topics include social structures and taboos aboard ships, and how maritime symbolism can be seen in some aspects of culture on land (circling back to the ship burials mentioned in the introduction, as well as church architecture). I do, however, want to note some artists that were mentioned. Marine painting was developed in the Netherlands so a number of Dutch artists made the list:

Each chapter begins with a literary quote to set the stage, and this one by Victor Hugo seems like a good one to wrap up this review with:

The sea's forces are mechanisms of infinite power; the ship's mechanisms are forces of limited power. Between these two organisms, one inexhaustible, the other intelligent, takes place the combat that is called navigation.

To wrap up this post, I'll link back to another book review I wrote that gets into imagery of water in the Bible. And finally, here is an apropos verse to tie things together:

All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again. (Eccl. 1:7)