...life can be translucent

Confidence in Change

For some 3,000 years, people have turned to the I Ching, the Book of Changes, to help them uncover the meaning of their experience, to bring their actions into harmony with their underlying purpose, and above all to build a foundation of confident awareness for their choices.

Down the millennia, as the I Ching tradition has grown richer and deeper, the things we consult about may have changed a little, but the moment of consultation is much the same. These are the times when you’re turning in circles, hemmed in and frustrated by all the things you can’t see or don’t understand. You can think it over (and over, and over); you can ‘journal’ it; you can gather opinions.

But how can you have confidence in choosing a way to go, if you can’t quite be sure of seeing where you are?

Only understand where you are now, and you rediscover your power to make changes. This is the heart of I Ching divination. Once you can truly see into the present moment, all its possibilities open out before you – and you are free to create your future.

What is the I Ching?

The I Ching (or Yijing) is an oracle book: it speaks to you. You can call on its help with any question you have: issues with relationships of all kinds, ways to attain your personal goals, the outcomes of different choices for a key decision. It grounds you in present reality, encourages you to grow, and nurtures your self-knowledge. When things aren’t working, it opens up a space for you to get ‘off the ride’, out of the rut, and choose your own direction. And above all, it’s a wide-open, free-flowing channel for truth.

For I Ching Beginners -

How do you want to get started?

There are two different ways most people first meet the I Ching. There’s,

‘I’m fascinated by this ancient book and I want to learn all about it,’

and there’s,

‘I need help now with this thing (so I’ll learn whatever I need to know to get help with The Thing).’

Learning about the I Ching, or learning from the I Ching?

In the end, these two ways aren’t actually different. It isn’t possible to do one without the other, and people end up wanting both: the ‘learn about Yi’ people draw on its help more as their knowledge grows; the ‘learn from Yi’ people find they want to know more, once they’ve got the help they need.

But... they are different at the beginning:

Not a beginner?

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Hello, and thank you for visiting!

I’m Hilary - I work as an I Ching diviner and teacher, and I’m the author of I Ching: Walking your path, creating your future.

I hope you enjoy the site and find what you’re looking for here - do contact me with any comments or questions.

Clarity is my one-woman business providing I Ching courses, readings and community. (You can read more about me, and what I do, here.) It lets me spend my time doing the work I love, using my gifts to help you.

(Thank you.)

Warm wishes,

From the blog

One of the good things about our little rented home has always been the thick shield of trees that stands between us and the road. Great glossy green laurels, disappearing in late spring under huge white blossoms, blanketing the whole house in heavy scent. The slender, fragile-looking deciduous tree with delicate perfumed white flowers later in the year. The little ‘volunteer’ tree that sprang up by itself a few years back and reached about seven feet tall – I have no idea of its name, but its humble, berry-like little green flowers nourished ecstatic hordes of bees this past summer. Soft furry-leaved glaucous bushes. A forsythia by the gate, blazing bright yellow each March. Holly – always stripped of its berries by the birds well before Christmas.

Well, like I said, we rent, and the landlord came round a month or so back to explain that the trees needed cutting back as they were impeding some overhead wires. This had been done before – a few high branches lopped off with a long trimmer. And then yesterday morning a man came round to say he’d be ‘doing your trees’. There were chainsaw noises.

Maybe you can guess how this ends. I went outside a few hours later to find the team of workmen just finishing cutting down the second to last tree. All the rest were already gone.

I asked the men to hold off until the landlord was called to check if he really wanted the last tree cut down, and then I talked to Yi. Not with a very coherent question, as you can maybe imagine – just ‘talk to me about this’.

Yi gave me Hexagram 22, Beauty, with line 5 changing, going to 37, People in the Home.

It’s one of those readings where it was immediately clear that it was speaking to me, and less clear at first what it was saying. There was 37, the home, in the background. There was 22, a hexagram of – amongst other things – the healing power of plants. Also with 22 comes the idea of deliberate communication, making yourself easy to relate to; that was something I very much needed to do when the landlord came round, so I absorbed it as direct advice.

But the moving line?

‘Beauty in a hilltop garden.
A roll of silk: small, so small.
In the end, good fortune.’

Of course I was – and am – simply mourning. But also, for some reason, I found myself saying again and again, I’m sorry, and I couldn’t understand what this was about or where it came from until I absorbed Yi’s words. This was shame.

It wasn’t just that the trees were killed, but that I had a strong connection, a relationship, with these trees; they’d given me shelter and joy for many years – and what could I give them in return? I’ve received so much, but my resources are so small, my power so ludicrously inadequate, that I have nothing to offer; I can’t even stop the chainsaw.

The fan yao, 37.5, fits in here as a background belief –

‘With the king’s presence, there is a home.
Do not worry. Good fortune.’

… that this should be my place, where I guarantee the safety of those who live here. When it isn’t, and I can’t, I’m ashamed.

Sometimes Yi offers guidance, and sometimes it shows you what’s happening in the world, or what you’ll find if you walk a particular path. And sometimes, as here, it simply helps me to unravel what’s going on in my own psyche. It brings some calm and a sense of perspective – especially when it quietly says,

‘In the end, good fortune.’

The line itself offers no explanation for this promise, but my sense of it has always been that in the long run, deep commitment is more important than inadequate resources.

Here is a picture of volunteer-tree that I took in June this year. (Click for the full-size image.) If you happen to know what it’s called, could you let me know? The bees would appreciate it very much if I could plant a replacement.

(The landlord did agree to leave the last laurel tree.)

Its name (and nature)

Hexagram 55 is unusual in that its name contains two meanings –

The character feng 豐 means abundant, bountiful, plentiful. The ancient character appears to be an elaborated, decorated version of the character for ‘drum’: see Richard Sears’ site –

Sears says the additions to the character are drummers; others say they are grain stalks. (Probably the character was written both ways.) We get the impression of a peak moment and a thundering great celebration.

And… Feng is also the name of a city founded by King Wen as part of his preparations to overthrow the Shang. This would be where they made plans, gathered resources, enlisted allies and watched the skies for signs of the auspicious moment to march out. They would also have been based there when Wen died and Wu succeeded him as king.

SJ Marshall was, as far as I know, the first to point this out and see its relevance to the hexagram, in his seminal book The Mandate of Heaven. He’s generously made the digital version of this available for free – highly recommended.

The details of exactly what happened at Feng – when and how Wu succeeded Wen, and what kind of celestial sign announced the time to march on Shang – are debated, and unknowable. It’s more important to understand that this is where it all happens. As the Zagua says, Abundance means ‘many causes’ or ‘much incident’. All roads lead here; everything led up to this; everything is centred here, ready for you to act. Here and now, this is the crux.

Looking through my own ‘Abundance’ readings, there are several about having to act as the leader in complicated group situation (whether I wanted the role or not). There’s an intriguing one about someone rethinking and rewriting their memories to support a healthier sense of self in the present moment. And there are two about all-in-one organiser apps – the kind where you gather all your emails, projects, to-dos, files and so forth in one place. All the readings have in common that sense of being at the centre, where you connect everything together and make it meaningful.

The Oracle

‘Abundance [Feng], creating success.
The king is present to it.
Do not mourn. A fitting sacrifice at noon.’

As Marshall points out, this recalls the story of Wu, who has no time fully to mourn his father. Full mourning required years, including years in seclusion – not an option for a new military leader at a crucial moment.

The king’s ‘presence’ is part of a phrase also used in 37.5, 45 and 59. For more on the word used, jia , see LiSe and Harmen. (Google translate is quite good with Dutch!) It’s a tricky one, with its core meaning of ‘second skin’ and associations of fantasy and fakery. There’s clearly no deception involved in these phrases in the Yi: ‘the king jia has/there-is a home,’ or ‘the king jia has/there-is the temple.’ Jia seems to be a prerequisite for there to be a real home or temple. Harmen suggests this means the king places himself in the service of the home or the temple. Remembering the ‘second skin’ meaning, I imagine it as the king assuming his role, putting it on like a mantle of responsibility.

The text in Hexagram 55 is different: not ‘the king jia has/there-is [noun]’ but simply ‘the king jia it’. The king is present to it; the king assumes it; the king takes it on. Why no specifics? Perhaps because the king simply needs to be present to everything here and take it all on. Abbreviating the phrase adds to the sense of urgency.

In readings, this seems to call you into the demands of the present moment: be here, inhabit this responsibility, put it on.

Not mourning, bearing up

And also – do not mourn. Looking beyond the Zhou legend to the inner logic of the hexagram, why do we need to be told not to mourn at such a time? I think it’s because of the loss of a former life where you weren’t the one responsible. There’s a very fine line between bearing up under the weight, celebrating the abundance of opportunity to make things happen, and wanting to disappear into the mourning hut or under the duvet and just wait for it all to go away.

That fine line between bearing up, or not, is embodied in the nuclear hexagram: 28, Great Exceeding:

‘Great Exceeding, the ridgepole warps.
Fruitful to have a direction to go.
Creating success.’

Here’s 55’s core awareness of stress, overwhelm, and the imperative to act. A sheltering structure – of childhood, or following, or being protected or told what to do – breaks down, and you’re on your own. (Maybe in your own city, surrounded by your own people – but still on your own.)

You can see from the texts of lines 2, 3 and 4 that Abundance is found in the dark. It’s about what becomes visible when you can’t see – especially, I’ve found, when you can’t see how but can still see why. In line 2, you find the trust to go on despite ‘doubts and anxieties’; in line 3, you realise that despite your incapacity, things are unfolding as they should; in line 4, you even make an ally of the Yi lord.

How did you get here?

From Hexagram 54, the Marrying Maiden. (And as part of some much bigger patterns – see Exploring the Sequence inside the Change Circle library.) The Marrying Maiden experiences a strange mixture of frustration and fulfilment: frustration, because she is married off into a situation she didn’t choose and can’t control; fulfilment, because she might be able to make this her home and attain her highest potential here. In the Zhou story, ‘King Yi marries off his daughters’ to ally Shang with Zhou; King Wu (or possibly Wen) will be born from this union.

Abundance brings a similar mix of experiences. There’s a similar sense of being ‘landed’ in a situation you didn’t ask for – but also the overwhelming knowledge that this is where you belong and where your mandate lies. The Sequence itself says simply,

‘Attaining the place where you belong naturally means greatness, and so Abundance follows.’

Picture it

The step from 54 to 55 is also a single trigram change – from thunder over the lake to thunder arising from light:


In Hexagram 54, you can imagine the thunder’s vibrations rumbling through the lake, circulating in its currents – an acute inner awareness of the changing times. The picture of Hexagram 55 is quite different: fire powering thunder, insight propelling action…

hexagram 55 trigrams in space shuttle launch

You can paint many pictures with these trigrams: the rocket launch, for instance, or lightning followed instantly by thunder when the storm’s right on top of you. This was the most important picture for the Image authors:

‘Thunder and lightning culminate as one. Abundance.
A noble one decides legal proceedings and brings about punishment.’

When you know, you act, and accept the consequences; this is not a hexagram for sitting on the fence and pondering, or keeping your options open. In terms of the simplest trigram associations, zhen above li represents action emerging from vision. In the Zhou legend, this is exactly what happened at Feng: they saw celestial omens, and acted accordingly.

This might remind you of Hexagram 49, where inner fire shines through an outer lake, and the people’s way of life is re-aligned with the stars as the noble one ‘calculates the heavenly signs and clarifies the seasons.’ After all, 55 is only separated from 49 by its fifth line, where ‘a thing of beauty,’ like a new regime and newly harmonious order, is coming.


Do you need to be psychic to read the I Ching?

Well, if you do, I’m in trouble. Yet this is something readers – maybe mostly tarot readers – often claim: that their psychic powers have been apparent from early childhood, and it was always clear that they were destined to become a reader.

Me? Well… when I was four I intended to be an opera singer; when I was 8, I planned to run away and live in the jungle like Tarzan; by the time I left school, my lovely German teacher was predicting I would become either a professor or a prominent barrister. I was too busy stressing myself silly about exams to have much of an opinion, but if I’d had to guess I would have gone for academia. ‘I Ching diviner’ was not on the menu.

But after six years, I got fed up with writing essays about literary criticism instead of literature, heard of the I Ching, stumbled across Legge in the Oxfam bookshop and Ritsema/Karcher in the library, and you know the rest. No special psychic gifts were involved – just a series of coincidences that had me falling into this work by mistake, and then noticing I’d landed somewhere I could do something useful.

…because, as I was saying in my previous post about not being special, this isn’t about who I am, it’s about what the universe is.

This is a universe where oracles work.

My favourite analogy for this is that we live in a dark room with its shutters tightly closed, with blazing bright daylight outside. All we need to do is let the light in. (And incidentally, it doesn’t matter if you do this by operating a well-oiled latch, or tripping over the wastepaper bin in the dark and falling headlong through the shutters – you still get the same light.)

Once you’ve let the light in, the rest is

  1. remembering that oracles work
  2. practice

Remembering it works comes first, because without that, you wouldn’t practise. Instead, you’d find a reading baffling and give up. Here’s the great secret: being confused at first is normal.

Stephen Karcher went so far as to say that you should be confused at first, because all your ideas should have been thrown into disarray. I wouldn’t go that far – sometimes a reading speaks with perfect limpid clarity straight away (funnily enough, this seems to happen especially often for beginners). But a quite normal, natural journey through a reading might begin with something like the first line of Hexagram 30, Clarity:

‘Treading in confusion.
Honour it,
Not a mistake.’

So my path through a reading often looks something like this:

  1. Ask.
  2. Be confused.
  3. Dive headlong into the confusion, unfold it and develop it into questions. (See Yijing Foundations for much more on those questions.)
  4. Expect answers to the questions to arrive

No, I’m not psychic – no more than anyone else is.

And… increasingly often, when reading, the part of the reading I feel like dwelling on more than usual, or the illustrative example that pops into my head, turns out to be exactly what resonates with the querent, what was needed to open those shutters for them. I have no sense of tapping into any special knowing; I just don’t forget that oracles work.


psychic with crystal ball

‘See the great person’ (or ‘great people’) is one of the Yijing’s recurrent phrases: in Hexagram 1, lines 2 and 5, in the oracle texts of hexagrams 6, 39, 45, 46 and 57, and in 39, line 6. (There’s also just ‘great person’ – without the advice to see them – in 12.2.5, 47, and 49.5 – but that’s another story.)

‘Great people’ might originally have been those with power, but the key idea in the Yijing seems to be that they have vision – they can see more and further than most. I wrote about ‘seeing the great person’ – its literal meaning, ideas for interpretation and example applications – in the Language of Change Yijing glossary. Here’s an excerpt –

“When you ‘see a great person’, you seek out a source of insight and advice you can use now – and sometimes also direct help, for instance to more important, fulfilling work.

This can mean literally meeting with another person, perhaps someone who’s achieved what you have only imagined: your entry point to a realm where these things are possible. Or you might encounter the great person through a book, a dream, even introspection. Sometimes, ‘seeing the great person’ can mean recognising the quality of greatness in another person – where it may or may not be obvious! – and also seeing that quality in yourself. (You can only recognise greatness because you already know within yourself what it is.)

The key word is see: seeing the great person always means a change in awareness. It lifts the situation to a higher level where more can be seen and done.”

What I’d like to do in this post is to trace the development of this idea through the Sequence, as I did with the noble one some years ago. Here are all the times Yi advises it’s fruitful to see great people:

‘See the dragon in the fields.
Fruitful to see great people.’

‘Dragon flying in heaven.
Fruitful to see great people.’

There is truth and confidence, blocked.
Vigilant and centred, good fortune. Ending, pitfall.
Fruitful to see great people,
Fruitless to cross the great river.’

‘Limping. Fruitful in the southwest,
Not fruitful in the northeast.
Fruitful to see great people.
Constancy, good fortune.’

‘Going on, limping; coming back, maturity.
Good fortune.
Fruitful to see great people.’

‘Gathering, creating success.
The king enters his temple
Fruitful to see great people, creating success.
Constancy bears fruit.
Using great sacrificial animals: good fortune.
Fruitful to have a direction to go.’

‘Pushing upward, creating success from the source.
Make use of seeing great people.
Do not worry.
Set forth to the south, good fortune.’

‘Subtly penetrating, creating small success.
Fruitful to have a direction to go,
Fruitful to see great people.’

From Hexagram 1 all the way to Hexagram 57. What happens along the way?

Prelude: Eye-opening

The idea is introduced in Hexagram 1, line 2, which suggests a parallel between ‘seeing the dragon in the fields’ and seeing great people. See the dragon – see the creative power at work – see how we can go to work now and reap a good harvest later. See the future we can create – or, in the fifth line, see what is possible now, with the dragon in full flight.

Changing these two ‘see the great person’ lines together creates this reading:

changing to

1.2.5 to 30: the two solid lines ‘open’ to yin, revealing the hexagram of light and clear perception at the end of the Upper Canon. Seeing great people carries us directly to Clarity.

Act 1: Look up!

There is truth and confidence, blocked.
Vigilant and centred, good fortune. Ending, pitfall.
Fruitful to see great people,
Fruitless to cross the great river.’

When a reading advises someone that it’s ‘fruitful to see great people’, I will often tell them that they might ‘see’ them outside or inside themselves. With Hexagram 6, though, we’re most likely to need a real, external great person – an arbitration service, a marriage counsellor, or someone who is outside the Argument, has an overview and can mediate. The phrase used is the same one you might interpret elsewhere as ‘see your own higher self’ – it’s just that we humans seem to be less than brilliant at seeing beyond our own perspective when we’re fighting.

‘Limping. Fruitful in the west and south,
Not fruitful in the east and north.
Fruitful to see great people.
Constancy, good fortune.’

Something similar applies with Hexagram 39 – when we’re in that ‘I’m going to get this done if it kills me’ mode, we tend to be quite entrenched. This reminds me of amateur musicians (like me) when the music gets difficult to play: the struggle to get round the notes consumes all our attention, we bury our heads in the part and become oblivious to all else. Lift up your eyes, says Yi, remove your nose from the grindstone for a moment, and see the bigger picture. Follow the conductor. See the potential.

Interlude: Turnaround

There are just three moving lines that speak of ‘seeing great people’: 1.2.5, and 39.6:
‘Going on, limping; coming back, maturity.
Good fortune.
Fruitful to see a great person.’

This change is Limping’s final change of direction: from struggle to 碩, shuo: a broad term for someone with size, mastery, eminence, maturity… the qualities, in fact, of a great person.

With this line, Limping joins with 53, Gradual Development – a hexagram of integration and homecoming. It seems that now the one limping has turned around and is moving towards the vision of great people. Perhaps, with this new alignment, more of that dragon’s potential could be realised.

Act II: Alignment

The three remaining moments to ‘see great people’ are quite different from 6 and 39. Then, you needed to see the great person to change your angle of view altogether – to lift your eyes up and see beyond a narrow preoccupation. Simply put, someone who manages to see great people will probably not keep on Arguing, or Limping, as before.

But now…

‘Gathering, creating success.
The king enters his temple
Fruitful to see great people, creating success.
Constancy bears fruit.
Using great sacrificial animals: good fortune.
Fruitful to have a direction to go.’

…we can imagine the great people are present at the Gathering, with the king in his temple and the great sacrificial animals. (Wu Jing Nuan thinks the great people you need to see are probably diviners.)

Or you are facing south, aspiring onward and upward, and can make use of the great people to support your progress:

‘Pushing upward, creating success from the source.
Make use of seeing great people.
Do not worry.
Set forth to the south, good fortune.’

And perhaps, with Subtly Penetrating, you can fully internalise the great person along with your direction to go. (In readings, I think this is the opposite extreme to Hexagram 6 – when you might think first of an inner sense of the great person, and only then of an external mentor.)

‘Subtly penetrating, creating small success.
Fruitful to have a direction to go,
Fruitful to see the great person.’

In 45 and 57, ‘seeing great people’ is now joined with ‘having a direction to go’, while in 46 it goes with ‘setting out to the south’. Seeing great people now can lend direction and wisdom to your own undertaking. It’s not an alternative to your preoccupations, but something that works with them – not drawing your attention elsewhere, but illuminating your work and its purposes.

Misty path up a mountain



I’m experimenting with a different kind of post: taking just one line of the Yi, looking at what the translators and interpreters make of it, and seeing what I can learn from the different perspectives.

Let’s start with the fifth line of Hexagram 44, Coupling – a strange line, in a mysterious hexagram:

‘Using willow to wrap melons.
Containing a thing of beauty,
It is falling from heaven.’

I’ll look at the elements of the line first, and then dive into some commentaries.

The line, one image at a time…

Wrapping melons in willow

There are a couple of different ways to understand this. One is the idea of wrapping a melon for eating in willow leaves while it ripens, to prevent bruising. The more I think about this, the less convincing I find it. All the instructions I can find for melon-growing describe leaving them to ripen on the vine, and resting them on something solid, like a brick, to keep them dry and prevent rot. I suppose you might then wrap the ripe fruit in leaves for storage – but then as Lars Bo Christensen points out, willow leaves are narrow, and a strange choice for wrapping the fruit of a plant that has big, wide leaves itself.

Richard Rutt explains the other understanding: the bottle gourd ‘is bound near the stalk while it is growing, in order to ensure that, when it is dried for use as a flask, it will have a good shape.’ I think this is what’s going on here.

The wrapped melon/ gourd also looks like pregnancy imagery (along with the ‘fish in the wrapper’ in previous lines); the character for ‘wrapping’, bao, shows a foetus in the womb.

Containing a thing of beauty

To ‘contain’ is literally ‘to hold something in the mouth’, and also to contain, restrain or tolerate.

And the ‘thing of beauty’ is zhang, whose dictionary meanings include a chapter of a book, a section of a piece of music, a composition, structure, set of rules or constitution. The old character breaks down into ‘ten’ and ‘sounds’, so maybe ‘musical composition’ is the core idea.
In the Shijing, the Book of Songs, this word means variously the blazon on a flag, finely woven cloth, elegant speech, gold and jade ornaments, ancient statutes, the laws or the personal example given by a great ruler, and the form of the Milky Way in the heavens. I get the impression of a perfectly elegant, distinct shape, whole and complete in itself.

The character zhang with the radical for ‘jade’ means a jade baton (which in itself signified nobility and culture), and there was a custom of holding such a baton in front of your mouth when speaking with the ruler. So some modern translators combine these two characters into ‘hold a jade baton in the mouth’. (Though ‘in the mouth’ and ‘in front of the mouth’ are not the same thing…)

The same hidden/contained zhang appears in 2.3, where it allows constancy, but not for recognition. And the zhang (no longer hidden) is also what’s coming, bringing reward and praise, in 55.5.

Falling from heaven

This is more straightforward, though the word for ‘falling’ does also mean ‘meteorites’; ‘there are meteorites from heaven’ would be a perfectly literal translation.

Zhi gua 50, the Vessel

This is the line that joins Coupling with the Vessel, and I think this should be included in our understanding of the text. For instance… there is a bronze vessel, and there is a more fragile, organic vessel to be shaped with willow twigs. And there is a Vessel representing the new form of government according to the Mandate of Heaven, and there is the zhang (a model, an example, a constitution…) falling from heaven.

Learning from some commentaries

(I’ve looked at lots of commentaries for this, but these are the ones I thought contributed something original.)

The Xiaoxiang

Part of the Yijing, of course, but also the original commentary on the line.

‘Nine at the fifth place contains a thing of beauty: central and correct. Something is falling from heaven: aspiration does not relinquish the mandate.’

The first part of this simply refers to line theory: the fifth place is central, and a yang line in that position is correct. All is in order, the pattern is whole. The second part seems to be about alignment: heaven sends down its mandates, so align your will with that and don’t let it go.

Wilhelm Book I

The translation and commentary:

‘A melon covered with willow leaves.
Hidden lines.
Then it drops down to one from heaven.’

‘The melon, like the fish, is a symbol of the principle of darkness.’ [He means the first, yin line of the hexagram, which he identifies with the threat of the powerful woman.] ‘It is sweet but spoils easily and for this reason is protected with a cover of willow leaves. This is a situation in which a strong, superior, well-poised man tolerates and protects the inferiors in his charge. He has the firm lines of order and beauty within himself but he does not lay stress upon them. He does not bother his subordinates with outward show or tiresome admonitions but leaves them quite free, putting his trust in the transforming power of a strong and upright personality. And behold! Fate is favorable. His inferiors respond to his influence and fall to his disposition like ripe fruit.’

Wilhelm is thinking of the easily-spoiled melon as line 1, and this fifth line as the wise ruler dealing with such things, protecting people who could easily go to the bad. Zhang becomes ‘lines’ – which sounds odd, but imagine a hidden pattern to the ruler’s character, firm and strong. So the ruler’s protection is like the willow wrapping; the ‘hidden lines’ are his inner character; the development of the inferior people is like the melon ripening; what drops down to one from heaven is the positive response of the inferiors.

I like the sense of tolerant protection here, but I find the way he breaks up the line quite awkward and unnatural. The melon is one thing, then the hidden lines are something else, and what falls from heaven is yet a third thing – or perhaps the melon, but that’s also awkward, since melons grow on the ground.

Wilhelm Book III

It’s always interesting to turn to Book III of Wilhelm, where he often ‘shows his workings’ in more detail, with explanations based on component trigrams and line theory. For this line, though, he says,

‘…[The melon] is protected and covered with willow leaves. No forcible interference takes place. The regulative lines of the laws upon which the beauty of life depends are covered over. We entrust the fruit in our care entirely to its own natural development. Then it ripens of its own accord. It falls to our lot. This is not contrived but is decreed by our accepted fate.’

The jarring insistence on ‘inferior’ people is gone; instead, this is just about trusting the process of ripening. There’s no mention of keeping anything sinister in check. The ‘hidden lines’ become the implicit natural laws of growth and development. The fruit need not be people we influence; it could be anything that ‘ripens’ – a creative idea, perhaps, or our own character.

So there’s a clear, distinct idea – ‘entrust the fruit in your care entirely to its own natural development, and it ripens of its own accord.’

(Which is a better fit in readings? This, or the idea of using willow twigs actively to shape the gourd for use?)

Bradford Hatcher

Bradford’s work is available, as always, from hermetica.info. Here’s his original translation and commentary for the line.

‘Wrapping the melons in willows
Restraint is displayed
They will have fallen from heaven.’

‘All of the members come to his meeting, and he acts like a model host, serving his fine food and drink. But all the green melons stay in the cellar, hidden from light and view. Still deeper down, and covered with cobwebs and dust, are many rows of tightly-corked bottles of wine. These melons and wine will one day be sacraments, as though they had fallen from heaven. But heaven is not simply a place, or even all places: it is all times as well, and the way times are strung together. There is much of not yet in heaven, but not much too soon or too late. these melons and wine, given our kind, but reserved, host’s assistance, will fall from the time of just right, when heaven is ready as well. Haste is such a shallow thing, hardly worthy of sacraments. Just like these melons and wine, our very best is sacred, and worthy of our patience.’

As with Wilhelm, these are definitely edible melons, not bottle gourds, but the rest is completely different. Han zhang, ‘contained pattern’ has become containment as a pattern: wrapping the melons is a display of restraint. The line becomes an ode to the kind of patience required to enjoy divine timing.


– at yijing.nl:

‘Melon enwrapped in willow. A hidden creation descended from heaven.
Carry and treat the future heir with respect – Heaven made it. Every creative action or thought should be handled this way. They may look easy but creativity grows only when everything is right: the seed, the soil, the season. It needs the completeness of nature. It can not be summoned when it is absent.’

LiSe picks up directly on the pregnancy imagery of the enwrapped melon. She also reads the line as a whole: the wrapped melon is the hidden beauty which comes down from heaven. I like this – and also I taken her point that what falls from heaven is not something you make happen by your own efforts. (This builds on Wilhelm’s point about trusting natural development – you can’t direct it, so you have to trust it.) You can wrap it, protect it and wait for it – that’s all.

R.J. Lynn

As far as I know, the very first full commentary on the Yijing was written by Wang Bi, and this has been passed on to us in its entirety in Lynn’s superb book. (If you don’t already have this one, I would strongly recommend it.) These are the roots of the tradition Wilhelm also represents, so the interpretations are often similar to his – but not always…

‘With his basket willow and bottle gourd, this one harbors beauty within, so if there is destruction, it will only come from Heaven.’

Wait, what?

Wang Bi’s commentary:

‘The basket willow is such that it is a plant that grows in fertile soil, and the bottle gourd is such that it is tied up and not eaten.’ [Here a footnote glosses this idea, quoting Confucius saying he would not want to be like a bottle gourd, ‘just hung up and not eaten’, i.e. ornamental and empty.] ‘Fifth yin manages to tread the territory of the noble position, but it does not meet with any proper response.’ [Reference to line correspondence: a yang line 5 doesn’t resonate with yang line 2.] ‘This one may have obtained land, but it does not provide him with a living; he may harbor beauty within but never has a chance to let that beauty shine forth. As one here does not meet with any proper response, his orders will never circulate. However, such a one manages to occupy a position that is right for him, embodies hardness and strength, and abides in centrality, so if “this one’s will remains fixed on not giving up his mandate,”‘ [quoting from the Xiaoxiang] ‘he cannot be destroyed. This is why the text says: “If there is destruction, it will only come from Heaven.”‘

How strange. ‘There is falling from heaven’ has become in effect, ‘If there is downfall, it is from heaven.’ And the rich, sweet melon imagery has become something dry and hollow, an image of frustration. There’s beauty within, but it has no influence – which is exactly the opposite of Wilhelm’s interpretation, and really doesn’t resonate for me.

However, Lynn’s book is blessed with copious footnotes, and for this line he includes Cheng Yi’s alternative explanation: in brief, that the key to the hexagram is the idea of meeting, and this line shows the meeting of the lofty willow with the beautiful but lowly melon.

‘Here we have something that is beautiful but abides in a lowly place, and this is an image of the worthy who remains out of the way and leads an insignificant life.’ Willow wrapping melon is an image of a ruler humbly seeking this worthy talent below. ‘One who can humble himself in this way also nourishes virtues of centrality and righteousness within, so he comes of perfect fruition and displays perfect beauty. If the sovereign of men is like this, he will never fail to meet those whom he seeks.’

I admire the way Cheng Yi interprets, using a few very simple facts about the line and its imagery: this hexagram is about meeting; trees are tall whereas melons grow on the ground; the fifth line is the place of the ruler. Then he draws this together into a single picture – more successfully than Wang Bi, I reckon.

Kerson and Rosemary Huang

Wang Bi’s ‘destruction from heaven’ interpretation wasn’t abandoned – in fact, it surfaces in unexpected places. Some modernists read zhang as Shang, the name of the dynasty, and so for instance Kerson and Rosemary Huang have,

‘Wrapping melon with leaves of staple grain:
The downfall of Shang.
It brought wrath from heaven.’

They suggest that wrapping melons in this way must have been sacrilegious… well, I suppose they have to suggest something of the sort to find a connection with the first part of the line…

Margaret Pearson

Margaret Pearson contributed the idea that 44’s powerful woman is a royal bride to be treated with respect. (And if that idea isn’t unambiguously present in the text, nor is the traditional view that she represents a creeping, insidious evil.)

For 44.5, she has:

‘She protects the babe within, just as a gourd is protected by being wrapped in flexible willow twigs. You hold great beauty within you. If you miscarry, this is Heaven’s will.’

Pure, perfectly coherent pregnancy imagery – and Wang Bi’s influence.


Minford’s work is unique in that it offers you two quite different perspectives inside one book: a traditional, ‘wisdom book’ interpretation in the Part I, and a reconstruction of the Bronze Age oracle in Part II.

So the commentary in Part I offers ideas familiar from Wilhelm: protecting the light and restraining the dangerous presence of First Yin; the leader protecting his employees like protecting the gourd with willow leaves. Part II has less explanation and more mystery:

‘A gourd
Is bound
With purple willow.
A Jade Talisman
Is contained.
It drops
From heaven.

A meteorite? A gourd bound into the shape of a bottle gourd, traditional receptacle for things magical or Taoist?’

Wait – so a shaped gourd isn’t just a convenient water bottle, but has magical significance? I hadn’t realised, but my goodness, it makes sense in the context. Must – read – more – books.


One of my favourite books.

‘Bundle the gourd in willow. The pattern holds. Something will fall from heaven.’

‘This omen collects another image that seems to describe metaphorically the consummation of a sexual rendezvous. “Bundle the gourd in willow” literally describes the process by which a gourd is shaped for use as a bottle. The image of the willow tree was also used as a sexual metaphor in lines 28.2 and 28.5. A variation of “the pattern holds” was used in line 2.3 to indicate fertility and ripeness. The counsel, “Something will fall from heaven,” may pertain to anomalies such as rocks falling from the sky, but more likely refers to falling stars.’

The ‘willow’ in 28.2.5 is a different character, which I imagine must mean a different plant. Also, I’d say that while it’s obviously associated with sex, it’s more specifically a symbol of rejuvenation, turning back the clock and cheating old age.

However, I do like the suggestion that we should consider ‘falling from heaven’ as literal before it’s symbolic. Signs from heaven could well be meteorites (Alfred Huang’s translation) or falling stars. And what would those mean?

Karcher, Total I Ching 

Stephen Karcher does his best to weave together wisdom tradition and Bronze Age mystery:

‘Coupling. The Royal Bride.
Willow wrapping the melons, jade talisman in the mouth.
Held in this containing beauty,
It tumbles down from Heaven.’

As you see, he takes a ‘so good I’ll translate it twice’ approach. Han zhang becomes both ‘jade talisman in the mouth’ and ‘held in this containing beauty.’ What strikes me, though, is that he seems to suggest a poetic parallelism between wrapping the melon and hiding the jade. That seems right to me.

His commentary –

‘This is a beautiful inspiration, the Coupling of King and Queen, literally made in Heaven. What you do now will add elegance and beauty to life. It inaugurates a wonderful new time.’

– closely follows Wu Jing Nuan: ‘This line indicates a wondrous, creative time when heaven and man are joined spontaneously in beauty and elegance.’

Alas, neither of them can tell me what a jade talisman in the mouth might mean here – and han does mean ‘held in the mouth’ not ‘in front of the mouth’, so this seems important. I’ve heard of jade used in burials because of its imperishability, but that really doesn’t seem to fit with this line.


(for completeness…)

‘Using willow to wrap melons.
Containing a thing of beauty,
It comes falling from its source in heaven.’

‘What you have here comes falling into your lap ‘out of the blue’. It is a beginning to receive and nurture with care, as people would wrap a melon to protect it against bruising as it ripens.

This is the beginning of an incubation period, like a pregnancy, and the final shape of this ‘thing of beauty’ is still hidden away, growing and transforming – perhaps into a whole new pattern to live by. It may not be anything you had planned for, and you may or may not have a place for it. Much depends on the quality of your availability, and whether you will create space for a relationship with this unexpected, maybe unasked-for gift in its entirety.’


What have I gleaned from these explorations?

Well… mostly I feel as though I’m at the beginning of a whole new cycle of checking ideas against reading experience to find what holds.

I like the idea of zhang as a hidden pattern of character, from Wilhelm. (And if this is, as he says, about influence, then that would make the Image something of a commentary on the fifth line – which it often is.)

I appreciate the lessons, from LiSe and Wilhelm and Bradford, about natural growth and timing and its hidden laws. Also the importance of care and protection, from LiSe and Margaret Pearson.

The fluent simplicity of Cheng Yi’s interpretation grabbed me, too. I must look out for examples of something worthy-but-hidden.

From the ‘modernists’, I’ve gleaned more questions than answers.

If the first image is not an edible crop but a gourd to be shaped into a useful vessel, what does that mean? (With apologies to Wang Bi and Confucius, I can’t take seriously the idea that this is the image of something useless.) No-one seems to have attempted to describe this yet.

I think I can see the idea: the future shape of the gourd-vessel is hidden, contained, like the future constitution. The great disruptive power of heaven finds its own way to expression (perhaps as the coming heir). You work with it, align yourself with its energy if you can, but you don’t grow it. It ‘ripens of its own accord.’ 

But there is so much more to learn! Does the idea of shaping something for use work in readings? How do you go about shaping a bottle gourd by binding it with willow, anyway? What is the symbolic or magical power of such a gourd, and – a whole other, and probably unanswerable, question – what was its symbolic power in Zhou times?

And come to that… if there is a ‘jade talisman held in the mouth’ in the line, who would have one? When, and why? (As I said, the burial custom really doesn’t fit here – or not unless the line is describing the whole cycle of life as what ‘falls to us from heaven’…) And if there were meteorites or meteors, what did such an omen represent?

(In other words, the main thing I’ve learned is how much I have to learn. This is, on the whole, not especially surprising. Maybe gourds are bigger on the inside?)

calabash plant and gourd


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