Dissecting “Water” by Kanye West

(Before reading this, please listen to “Water” and/or read the lyrics.)

Throughout Kanye West’s discography he has written and produced revolutionary songs—songs that are classics—songs that transcend musical, poetic and conceptual boundaries within or without the context of the album they are a part of. Examples of classic Kanye West songs are “Runaway” (2010)—the ultimate Greek tragedy of Kanye’s fame, aplomb and affluence in which Kanye pleads his lover to run away from him because of his exploitative nature—or “New Slaves” where Kanye makes the stunning and hyperbolic metaphor that slavery still exists in America—those that are enslaved by consumer culture and monolithic political thought.

Like “Runaway” and “New Slaves,” the song “Water” from Kanye West’s latest release is certainly a a classic. It’s a less epic and lyrically elaborate song, but it’s just as eye-opening as his previous classics. In my following analysis, we will deconstruct “Water” down to each of it’s individual molecules.


Table of Contents:

1. Biblical significance

2. Kanye’s vocals embody water

3. Chlorine as a metaphor for materialism

4. Narrative context

5. Music sample

6. “Newborn Daughter” Reference

7. Comparative Literary analysis

8. BONUS: Taoist Philosophy

9. Conclusion



Biblical significance:

Water in the Bible is emblematic of the Holy Spirit. Baptism—the purifying of one’s soul—is an example of this emblem. Baptism is a spiritual rite that symbolizes the turning from the old life of sin to a new life in Jesus Christ. Standing in the water waiting to be baptized represents Jesus dying on the cross and being lowered into the water  symbolizes Jesus’s burial in the tomb. Being raised from the water represents Jesus’s resurrection. Corinthians 2: 11-15 (MSG) illustrates this concept:

“Going under the water was a burial of your old life; coming up out of it was a resurrection, God raising you from the dead as he did Christ. When you were stuck in your old sin-dead life, you were incapable of responding to God. God brought you alive—right along with Christ! Think of it! All sins forgiven, the slate wiped clean, that old arrest warrant canceled and nailed to Christ’s cross.”

Baptism, however, isn’t the only symbol of water that symbolizes purification in the Bible. Rain is frequently used to denote new beginnings, a fresh start and purification of the Earth. Several passages depict this such as Deuteronomy 11: 13-15:

“So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.”

When Joshua and the Israelites crossed Jordan and came into the land of Canaan, they came into a well-watered and fertile land. The land of Canaan had two seasons of rain: the “early rain and the latter rain.” The early rain fell in October and November and was important in preparing the soil for the seed. The latter rain fell around April, and helped the crops come to final harvest. With the passing of time, when the people forgot God, the “early” and “latter” rains were delayed or did not fall. The people came to recognize this as due to their sins. Thus when the rain did not fall they would declare periods of fasting, which sometimes continued for several weeks until the rains came. The promise of the blessing of rain in Deuteronomy was important to the Israelites because of the influence of the Canaanite god Baal—the pagan god who was believed to control the weather and rain. Some Israelites were tempted to worship Baal with the hope of receiving rain. However, the lord made it clear that if they would worship Him—the one and only true God—He would supply abundant rain. Therefore, the spring and fall rains symbolized the the Holy Spirit’s visitations to the earth bestowing health, fertility and prosperity to the Isrealites.

This concept of the “latter rain” is alluded to in the following line in “Water:”

“Clean us like the rain in spring”

The “latter rain” cleansed the Isrealites’ land and was a symbol of God’s grace. Here Kanye is calling on God to not only “clean” him, but “clean” society as a whole (“us”). He is urging God to cleanse the earth of its corruption and decrepitude. This interpretation is supported by the narrative structure of Jesus is King (which I discuss in a previous post)—the second act of the album is centered on Kanye’s desires to spread faith to society. Therefore this line makes sense to be read as Kanye praying to God to save society from becoming immoral and irreligious.

Kanye also alludes to the Bible in the following lines:

“The storm may come
But we’ll get through it because of Your love”

Like rain, storms are a common motif in the Bible. Psalm 107:29 most concisely illustrates the idea of “storm”:

He made the storm be still,
 and the waves of the sea were hushed.”

Storms universally symbolize tumult and conflict in cinema and literature, and this idea is no different in the Bible. God has the power and omnipotence to calm the “storm”—whatever that may mean according to the circumstance—if the individual is willing to receive God’s grace. Kanye’s entire Jesus is King record is a delineation of his acceptance of Jesus Christ as his savior. In this line, he is confident that we as a society will “get through” the tough times because God’s “love” is eternal, universal and infinite; God’s grace transcends our linear conceptions of time and it has the power to listen to the individual and provide hope in times of his or her struggles.

Kanye’s vocals embody water:

In the intro and outro of “Water,” Kanye mumbles the following:

“Well, right
So, so well
Well, right
So, so
High as the sun come out
Tubin’, there
Well, well”

Kanye doesn’t enunciate most of the words in this passage properly (singing or rapping voice). In the first few reads, these lines are utterly mystifying—mostly because there appears to be no lyrical substance in the words; there is no clear structure, metaphor, reference or coherence in this introductory passage. This is where honing into the sound and structure of the intro is crucial to understanding its significance. I will probably commit a massive injustice in attempting this, but I will try anyways; in actuality, this passage sounds like the following to the ears:

“Weyhl, reyh
So, so weyhl
Well, reyh
So, so
Hihh as the suh come ouh
Toohbin’, teyy
Weyhl, weyhl”

Kanye drops the “g” sound and also almost loses the “n” sound in multiple words like “Plainin'” and “Tubin.'” In this entire section, Kanye smoothly slurs the actual sounds of the words into an amorphous flow. This raises the question, what else is amorphous (shapeless/structure-less)? Perhaps the very title and topic of this song? It seems too good to be true. Water has no tangible structure. Water is amorphous because it’s molecular form is fluid, hence it has no specific structure. It just goes with the flow. It wishes, and washes and moves freely—like Kanye’s vocals.

Critics will argue this is me reading too much into the lines, but Kanye alters his voice so obviously and blatantly that one must ponder the significance. Kanye also uses verbs like “tubing” and “moving” which make it obvious he is depicting water. Furthermore, since “Water” is so singularly focused on “water”—and nothing else—it makes sense for Kanye to exploit other elements (beyond the poetics) of the song to embody the purity of water. This idea therefore aligns with the lyric “We are water” on a literal and contextual level; Kanye is literally water in the intro and outro.

For any who are still skeptical of this argument, its worth noting this isn’t the only time Kanye—or any other rapper for that matter—has manipulated the vocals in their music to align with the lyrical themes. For example, on his phantasmagorical posse cut “Monster” (from his 2010 record My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), Kanye manipulates Justin Vernon’s opening vocals to sound like a literal monster. Take a listen (1 sec to 20 sec).

As far as other rappers go, an example that immediately comes to mind is “For Sale? (Interlude),” by Kendrick Lamar, in which Kendrick’s raps carry an incredibly syrupy and dreamy tone of voice (altered via software of course). This is no accident either because the song is partly written from the perspective of “Lucy” — a seductive version of Lucifer who attracts Kendrick into selling his soul to the music industry in exchange for fame, affluence, and social stature. Another example, is “Glitter” by Tyler the Creator from his 2017 flora-themed record Flower Boy. In the chorus of the song, Tyler’s effervescent vocals sound akin to glitter—which makes sense because the song is about Tyler confessing his love for his crush over the phone, making him feel bright and colorful inside, like glitter (“And every time you come around, I feel like glitter”).

Chlorine as a metaphor for materialism

Kanye curiously refers to chlorine in the chorus of “Water” sung by singer Ant Clemons:

“Take the chlorine out our conversation”

Chlorine is a fascinating reference. What is chlorine anyway? It is a chemical. Chlorine is an artificial agent used to clean and purify water; it’s most commonly used to clean the bacteria in swimming pools. However, according to theology, Jesus purifies water-–nothing else. Therefore, chlorine here is a metaphor for the materialism and artificiality in Kanye’s life. As expressed throughout the record, Kanye has been living a secular and irreligious life in the past—to an incredible degree. He has pursued the illusions of fame, affluence and power (similar to Jay Gatz in The Great Gatsby). However, faith and prayer is really what Kanye has been needing this entire time.

It’s also interesting to note that chlorine is extremely harmful—even if ingested in a minuscule quantity. MSDSonline, a website that sells chemical solutions reports the following:

“….a man in Orange County, California died earlier this week while using pool cleaning chemicals at a local apartment complex. There was no indication that he was using the chemicals in exceptionally large quantities.  However, early evidence showed that he may have improperly mixed chlorine with other cleaners, which can produce dangerous reactions. The man was found semi-conscious, surrounded by spilled chemicals which emitted a yellow gas. He had suffered severe chemical burns to his back, face, and lungs……This accident drives home the fact that hazardous chemicals can pose dangers even in small, infrequently-used quantities.”

The misusage and over-usage of chlorine has literally killed people including the man reported above by MDSonline in Orange County, California. This toxic and lethal aspect of chlorine also aligns with the metaphor of chlorine symbolizing fame, materialism, and artificiality in Kanye’s life. If one is over-consumed by or misues fame, one can lose their morality, purity, and even life. On the penultimate track “Lost in the World” from Kanye’s maximalist 2010 opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he raps the following:

“Lost in this plastic life
Let’s break out of this fake-ass party”

Even in 2010, during the aftermath of Kanye’s demise in front of the public eye—after his notorious VMAs incident with Taylor Swift—he acknowledged the artificiality and emptiness of his life. This emptiness was then symbolized by synthetic, man-made “plastic” which Kanye wanted to “break out” from. Fame is meretricious—as F. Scott Fitzgerald taught us through The Great Gatsby—but Kanye pursued fame. His life was chlorinated by fame, hedonism and lust. Now, however, Kanye has turned a new leaf. He’s seen the light of God; he says he’s been radically saved by Jesus Christ. And in “Water” he desperately pleads God to remove the materialism and unnaturalness of his fame-polluted life.

Also, note Kanye’s usage of pronouns in his line about chlorine. He doesn’t say “take the chlorine out of my life” or “take the chlorine in my conversation.” Rather, Kanye uses the determiner “our”:

“Take the chlorine out our conversation”

Like Kanye often does in his music, he uses his own struggles to represent the problems of society at large—since man is a product of his environment. Therefore, “chlorine” is not just a metaphor for the artificiality and toxicity in not Kanye’s life but in society as a whole. Pursuit of materialism and fame is a universal issue society is facing at large. Often in life we don’t attach ourselves to goals but material things and people. Albert Einstein once expressed this sentiment in the following quote:

“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.” 


Narrative Context: 

Following his struggle with faith on “Follow God,” instructing his family to be faithful on “Closed On Sunday,” and depicting his indulgent and materialistic inclinations on “On God” we get the track “Everything We Need.” This is the turning point of the album: it’s the epiphany. The epiphany Kanye has is that he has “everything” he needs. It’s a reflection of gratitude and thankfulness. The song ends with the following line:

“We began after the storm inside
Lay the land (Ah), it’s just the morning light”

Apart from the biblical significance of the storm (Job 28) and God laying the land in Genesis, “Lay the land” and “morning light” denotes re-invigoration, a new beginning, a fresh start. Therefore, it makes complete sense in terms of narrative for the next track— “Water”—to depict Kanye’s rebirth and re-invigoration. Also, on a literal level “water” is what we humans “need” to survive so it is fitting for a song centered on “Everything We Need” to precede something that is essential for terrestrial and ecological survival.

Earlier in Jesus is King, various lyrics foreshadowed Kanye’s rebirth in “Water.” On “Selah”—the exposition of the album—Kanye raps the following:

“Everything old shall now become new
The leaves’ll be green, bearing the fruit”

This section of “Selah” directly foreshadows Kanye’s spiritual rebirth depicted on “Water.” In line with the narrative, Kanye has now indeed “become new”—re-energized by God’s grace.

Music sample:

In music, sampling is the reuse of a portion of musical composition (or any sound recording) in another musical composition. Kanye is well-known for his sampling ingenuity on tracks like “Jesus Walks,” “On Sight,” and “Devil in a New Dress.” Kanye employs samples in his work from a wide variety of genres such as blues, jazz, electronic music, classical etc. Often times when Kanye implements samples in his music, they add an extra thematic layer to his compositions. On “Water,” Kanye samples the track “Blow Job” by 70s Canadian electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack. Lyrically, “Blow Job” is centered on the sexual metaphor of “the living part of life is just a blow job.” In this composition, Bruce retrospects to an old time when the world was “righteous” and pure:

“wondered if the time was near
To go back
Go back and let the righteous have my day, and let the sun go all the way”

Bruce juxtaposes the righteousness of the past with the inequity and degradation of the present throughout the brief and taciturn lyrics of the song. This concept culminates in the ending of the song:

“Who did the job? Who dealt the blow?
Who killed the cock? Who spoiled the show?
Who did the job?
Who dealt, the blow?”

In Haack’s view (at least in this specific track), there was a time in the past when man was relatively pure, happy and courageous—but with the unfolding of history, man became corrupted by the world similar to a man engaging in oral sex (wtf?). In other words, the world exploited man for material and temporary satiation and deprived him of his innate purity. This metaphor is incredibly cynical because of its concept of the world decaying over time and losing its moral purity.

Kanye, however uses this explicit sample for its bouncy synthesizers and pensive sonic tone to depict the concept of “Water” as a symbol for rebirth and the Holy Spirit. He plucks the rudimentary chordal structure of the composition while taking away some of the other extra elements. What’s left is a stripped-back, simplistic, refreshing mix—akin to water—which Kanye embellishes with ocean-water sound effects.

This radical transformation of “Blow Job” to “Water” is yet another illustration of Kanye’s recent artistic trend of purifying the profane—or turning the profane into the pure. Haack’s theme of sex on “Blow Job” is transformed to the theme of water. While “Blow Job” sees Haack vocalize his cynicism for the degradation of man, Kanye celebrates God (“Your love’s water”) and sings with divine optimism for the future:

“The storm may come
But we’ll get through it because of Your love”

Interestingly, Kanye not only ‘spiritualizes’ the meaning of other music, but his own as well. In his weekly Sunday Service performances, Kanye removes the explicit lyrics of his previous songs and performs new Gospel renditions. For example, the track “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” from Kanye’s The Life of Pablo (2016) record features crude lyrics such as the following:

“Now, if I fuck this model
And she just bleached her asshole
And I get bleach on my T-shirt
I’ma feel like an asshole”

While this explicit erotic imagery juxtaposed with the sample of Pastor T.L. Barrett’s “Father Stretch My Hands” hymn creates for fascinating literary analysis, Kanye deems it too blasphemous so he performs the Gospel version during his services now. Even tracks with a unique balance of crudeness and spirituality are off-the-table for Ye. He wants to pursue a path of spirituality and glory to god and anything he sees as an obstacle, he will address and correct.

Kanye’s complete transformation of such a profane and pessimistic composition as “Blow Job” to a spiritual embodiment of God’s saving grace represents something much larger than itself: Kanye’s desire to be good and spread faith even where it is most bereft.

“Newborn Daughter” Reference:

“Water” is a pretty straightforward and concise track in terms of lyrics. However, the one line—“Like a newborn daughter”—took me several listens to fully comprehend. In the context of the chorus (sung by Ant Clemons) this line reads as the following:

“We are water
Pure as water
Like a newborn daughter”

Both the usage of “newborn” and “daughter” are worth examining. First, being “pure as water” like a “newborn” child scientifically makes sense. Children have a higher percentage of body mass that is water (approx. 75%) than adults (approx. 60%). The more we age, the more water we lose and the more we deteriorate physiologically. Once we have 50% body water, we die. This is significant because it aligns with the idea that children are innocent and pure, and with time, lose their innocence and purity. Also, in the womb, a fetus is surrounded and cushioned by a fluid-filled membranous sac (called the “amniotic sac”). Typically, at the beginning of or during labor these membranes rupture—colloquially known as “water breaking.” Newborn infants therefore are directly and exclusively associated with “water” in ways adults are not. This scientific truth is mirrored by the motif of children symbolizing water-like purity.  in literature and art.

On a much more interesting (and relevant) note, Kanye’s specific reference to a “newborn daughter” is incredibly peculiar. A much more basic and comprehensible word to use would have been “son”—which would’ve been an apt allusion to Jesus’s birth and his 5 month old son. Rather he uses “daughter” specifically: we are water “like a newborn daughter.” So why did he use “daughter” specifically? Did he simply use “daughter” because it rhymes with the “water?” I suppose that could’ve played some role in his conceptualization of the lyrics. However, this “daughter” reference means something much more profound about Kanye than meets the ear. Kanye, of course has four children—two of which are daughters: North and Chicago West (6 and 1 years old, respectively). To make sense of Kanye’s reference to “daughter,” lets turn to the last time he referenced his daughter(s) in his previous work. On 2018’s “Violent Crimes Kanye (brilliantly) raps the following in the first verse:

“Niggas is savage, niggas is monsters
Niggas is pimps, niggas is players
‘Til niggas have daughters, now they precautious
Father, forgive me, I’m scared of the karma
‘Cause now I see women as somethin’ to nurture
Not somethin’ to conquer” (lines 1-6)

“And I am a nigga, I know what they want
I pray that you don’t get it all at once
Curves under your dress, I know it’s pervs all on the net
All in the comments, you wanna vomit
That’s your baby, you love her to death” (lines 19-23)

Kanye truly fears about his daughter’s future and gradual loss of innocence. Working in an industry where lasciviousness, hedonism, and nihilism are glorified, having a daughter would surely transform his perspective on femininity and womanhood. Formerly being one of these soulless “monsters” addicted to pornography,  sending photos of his penis to other women, and viewing women as something to “conquer,” Kanye is aware of how lust exclusively bankrupts the male mind—more so than it does the female mind. Kanye is also certainly not the only veteran MC vocally fearing their daughters’ inevitable loss of innocence because of their blasphemous past. On the title-track of Jay-Z’s confessional 4:44 album he raps the following:

“And if my children knew
I don’t even know what I would do
If they ain’t look at me the same
I would prob’ly die with all the shame
“You did what with who?”
What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soulmate?
“You risked that for Blue?”
If I wasn’t a superhero in your face
My heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes
And the mask goes away and Santa Claus is fake
And you go online and see
For Blue’s tooth, the tooth fairy didn’t pay”

Jay-Z loathes the day when he will have to explain his “mistakes”—his history of infidelity with his wife Beyoncé—to his two daughters and son. Indeed, then the mask of innocence will fade and his children will realize that “Santa Claus is fake” (such a clever line). While I did discuss the literary significance of “Water” as a whole in the separate section below, this overprotective paternal sentiment is reminiscent of Irish poet W. B Yeats’s famous poem “A Prayer for My Daughter” in which he poetizes the following:

“May she be granted beauty and yet not.”

Yeats wants his daughter to be beautiful, but perhaps desirably in the visceral or spiritual sense. He is well aware of what outstanding attractiveness can entail for women in society and he cynically wishes his daughter not to have such beauty. This sentiment may be construed as patriarchal or misogynistic by some, but it perfectly illustrates the overprotective nature of fathers. Across literature and cinema, no matter how abusive, exploitative, or anti-woman fathers have been, they are frequently shown to have a soft-spot for their daughters which provides for an interesting dispositional juxtaposition.

In Kanye’s case, his daughters mean much more—not only does he have a ‘soft-spot’ for them, they seem to have inspired his spiritual transformation (hence, his desires to be “pure as water like a newborn daughter”). This is not an over-reach of an inference—Kanye now has even expressed his discontent with his daughters wearing make-up and crop tops. As a Christian, as a husband and as a father, Kanye has departed from the stereotypical conventions of mainstream Rap music which glorify sexual promiscuity and the objectification of women (to some debatable degree). This departure has inspired creations like “Water,” in which Kanye undergoes re-birth and finds his moral purity from within—moral purity like that of a “newborn daughter” indeed.

Comparative Literary Analysis

In various films and novels, forms of water such as streams, rivers, lakes, snow and waterfalls symbolize purity and the “cleansing of one’s sins.” The novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley illustrates the typical usage of this symbol in literature. When Victor—the protagonist of the novel—experiences his innocent cousin Justine (a play on words of “Justice”) get wrongfully convicted and executed for a crime he is in fact responsible for, he seeks repose in nature. He travels to the Chamounix valley (in France) and finds solace in his surroundings:

“the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence” (Frankenstein, Chapter 9)

Water here symbolizes tranquility, clear-thinking and empowerment. But most importantly, water here represents the washing away of Victor’s sins and the “Omnipotence” of god. Shelley’s diction here is spot-on as always and the description of this scene is vivid and evocative: the river is “raging” among the “rocks” and the waterfalls are “dashing.” The forms of water—the river and waterfalls—manifesting in this picturesque nature scene reminds Victor of the power and omnipotence of god. This is exactly the inspiration and divinity Kanye draws from water in this composition. In the second verse, he sings of the omnipotence and power of god:

“Jesus, flow through us
Jesus, heal the bruises
Jesus, clean the music
Jesus, please use us
Jesus, please help
Jesus, please heal
Jesus, please forgive
Jesus, please reveal
Jesus, give us strength”

(lines 1-9)

“Jesus is our safe
Jesus is our rock

(lines 13-15)

There is also a subtle transition from Kanye’s desperate pleas to Jesus to “please” help him to his assertion that Jesus “is” his saving grace and cleansing spirit. A literary work that also centers on H2O—like “Water”—is 18th century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem “Spirit Song Over The Waters.” Here is the opening verse of Goethe’s composition:

“THE soul of man
Resembleth water:
From heaven it cometh,
To heaven it soareth.
And then again
To earth descendeth,
Changing ever.”

This poem is about the resemblance of water with the soul of man. Goethe uses water as a vehicle to describe the fluidity of water. Like Kanye’s song, Goethe’s composition works on both a scientific and theological level. Scientifically, Goethe is depicting the cycle of rain: rain evaporates from the surface of the earth, rises into the atmosphere, cools and condenses into rain or snow in clouds, and falls again to the surface as precipitation—hence water “cometh” from he sky and then “soareth” into the atmosphere “And then again descendeth” since it is a cycle.

On a biblical—and more meaningful—level, Goethe is of course referring to the theological motif of rain falling from heaven as a symbol for the Holy Spirit’s visitation to earth. This motif is widely used in the Bible. Deuteronomy 11: 13-15, which I referred to previously, is significant here as well:

“So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.”

However, Goethe’s poem goes beyond the biblical and scientific understandings of rain. Goethe compares the fluidity of rain to the soul of humanity. According to the Bible of course, God is the creator of all life so man—like water—descends from heaven as Goethe asserts. And once man dies, he indeed “soareth” to heaven. God has repeated this cycle since Adam and Eve: he creates life, life eventually expires and dies, and he creates life again. As water goes through its cycle—“Changing” and repeating—so does the finite soul of man. We are born as babies—going back to Kanye’s “newborn daughter” reference— but we inevitably die too and our soul returns to god in heaven (or hell).

Indeed Goethe’s metaphor is virtually identical to that of Kanye’s (“we are water”). As illustrated by Kanye West, Mary Shelley, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe water is used as a symbol for divine inspiration and God’s grace.

Bonus — Taoist philosophy:

I could write several other tangential pieces about “Water,” but this connection with Bruce Lee’s Taoist water metaphor struck me as particularly fascinating because of Lee asserting water can “crash” which Kanye verbatim does in his song. Also, Kanye has referred to Bruce Lee a few times in his tweets in the past. For example, after watching Zoolander 2, in a series of tweets he praised Will Ferrell for his brilliant performance and compared him to Bruce Lee:

That showed how sharp and Bruce Lee status he is.

— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 27, 2016

Regardless, let’s get into the topic of discussion. Bruce Lee once famously said the following in the video below:



(skip to 0:50)

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” – Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee was an iconic Renaissance man known for his talents in martial arts, acting, film-making and—to a lesser but more intellectual extent—philosophizing. He once uttered the strange metaphor “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water” on an episode of the 1971 American crime drama series Longstreet. This series was written by renowned screenwriter and one of Lee’s former Kung Fu students Stirling Silliphant. Silliphant sought for a way to re-integrate Lee in the acting business after the failure of of Lee’s previous series The Green Hornet, which was cancelled in 1967. While Lee was technically acting, his role was designed to mirror his own life and he openly stated he played himself in the series.

Okay, back to his water metaphor: what does it mean? This metaphor originates from Taoist philosophy, specifically the book Tao Te Ching written by ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (500 BC). Lao Tzu asserts the following about water:

Nothing is weaker than water,
But when it attacks something hard
Or resistant, then nothing withstands it,
And nothing will alter its way.

To best understand this verse, let’s turn to Lee’s interpretation. Quoting Lao Tzu, Lee states the following:

“The natural phenomenon which the gung fu man sees as being the closest resemblance to wu wei [the principle of spontaneous action governed by the mind and not the senses] is water:

Nothing is weaker than water,
But when it attacks something hard
Or resistant, then nothing withstands it,
And nothing will alter its way.


The above passages from the Tao Te Ching illustrate to us the nature of water: Water is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded; sever it, yet it is not divided. It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen it crystallizes into a mighty rock. First it is turbulent like Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day. So is the principle of wu wei:

The rivers and seas are lords of a hundred valleys. This is because their strength is in lowliness; they are kings of them all. So it is that the perfect master wishing to lead them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, men do not feel him to be an injury. And since he will not strive, none strive with him.”

In Lee’s (and Taoism’s) view “water” represents freedom and resilience. Water doesn’t resist; water molds. No matter how you strike, “sever” it or”stab” it, it is unaffected. Water also adapts to different situations as Lee outlines—it crystallizes in subzero conditions, it sits still in a pond and it has the power to become torrential in a storm.


After all this talking of water, I think I need to drink a glass!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

The Thousand-Year View

Time-tested ideas for modern times

Eric Linus Kaplan

I'm a writer for Warner Bros. Television. Currently writing for Young Sheldon. I'm known for "The Big Bang Theory", Futurama, Flight of the Conchords, and Malcom in the Middle. I published a book of philosophy called "Does Santa Exist: A Philosophical Investigation".  I am investigating comedy and philosophy, and sometimes doing some comedy, and some fantasy.

Professor David Faris

Roosevelt University

Disquiet Thoughts

I write when I'm inspired. Follow my inspiration.

Kyle’s Blog

-a blog by kyle

%d bloggers like this: