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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?

Welcome - I’m glad you’ve come. Clarity’s here to help you deepen, explore and enjoy your relationship with Yi. You might like...

And so you can get to know some like-minded Yi-enthusiasts and we can keep in touch, do join Clarity

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,
Hilary”

From the blog

Short review

Don’t buy this one. Buy Minford and Redmond instead – or save up for Field, which I feel is worth its somewhat eye-watering price.

Longer review

Here’s the publisher’s blurb for Paul Fendos’ new I Ching:

The Book of Changes: A Modern Adaptation and Interpretation attempts to breathe new life into the Book of Changes by making it relevant to the present time and day. It does so by using archaeological evidence to trace the origins of the Book of Changes, starting with numeric trigrams and hexagrams, making its way up to early divination manuals, and ending with the oldest extant version of the Book of Changes—usually referred to as the ‘received version.’ It also explains the development of the Book of Changes from a divination manual into a philosophical text dealing with change. However, its main focus is on delineating sixty-four patterns of change in the Book of Changes, patterns based on novel metaphorical interpretations of the line texts in the Book of Changes that serve as the foundation for a new handbook on change.’

On the one hand, that first sentence triggers some wheezy old alarm klaxons. Modern adaptation? Breathe new life? Make it relevant? Oh, dear – is this going to be another limp Wilhelm-derivative with all the ancient imagery removed?

But on the other hand, the rest sounds really promising. A version that’s both infused with knowledge of the history and motivated by a desire to make something usable is a rarity; ‘novel metaphorical interpretations’ based on in-depth historical understanding would be wonderful.The author’s bio (Ph.D in Chinese, doctoral dissertation on the Yi, 25 years university teaching ‘Chinese Studies’) suggests that he’s qualified to do this. (The impressive bibliography and footnotes in the book confirm it: he’s well-versed in both recent discoveries and traditional interpretations and seems to have read just about everything.)

I replied to the publisher’s email asking to see a sample of the translation, and in return they sent me a pdf review copy of the whole thing, and I dived in. The book divides into three parts: historical introduction, translation/interpretation, and a method to use the book.

1. Historical introduction

This is the best part of the book. Fendos gives a thorough account of what’s known of the ancient origins of the Yi through to its canonisation as Yijing. There’s a table of source materials, their likely dates and what they consist of, and a timeline of Yi’s development through to Wang Bi that I’m genuinely glad to have. The next chapter continues the story through yin/yang and Five Element theory and the Chinese understanding of harmony with the time, and the distinction between schools of thought in the Chinese tradition.

There are a few eyebrow-raising things, though. He seems to think that the moment when hexagrams were first written with solid/broken lines instead of odd/even numbers is also the moment when they became identified as yang and yin, with all the associated metaphysics. Of the Mawangdui manuscript, he says the lines were written as the numbers 1 and 8, ‘but referred to as 9 or 6’ – as if this were quite inexplicable. And then there’s,

“As is evidenced by the Commentary on the Trigrams section of the Book of Changes, by then Five Phases theory had become part of the basic Yin/Yang correlative structure of the Book of Changes.”

By ‘then’ he means the early Western Han, when the received Yijing text had come together. This is indeed a time when correlative theories were developed, but the only association with Five Phases/Elements in this Wing is that the order in which the trigrams are described follows the generative cycle, with the exception of gen being placed at the end: thunder and wind/wood (both correlated with the ‘wood’ phase), then fire, earth, lake and heaven (both ‘metal’), then water, and finally mountain (earth). This is the closest thing to a reference to the Five Phases anywhere in the Yijing; they’re never mentioned explicitly, even in the Shuogua‘s long lists of trigram’s associations. It seems to me that the most economical explanation for this almost-parallel is that the correlation of 8 trigrams with 5 elements – a thoroughly awkward thing to accomplish – was helped along by the order of the trigrams given in the Wing.

Anyway, Fendos, though he inexplicably includes tables of pre-Han rulers and their Five Phase identities, never actually explains what Five Phase/Element theory is, so this is a bit of a detour. The historical information is good to have; the conclusions he draws from it are occasionally a bit odd.

He goes on to ask the very good question of how best to approach translation and interpretation now, if you actually want to use the book – through the tradition, or through seeking original meanings, or trying to find a middle way? He will try to find the middle way, which seems wise.

Then he talks about the omen elements of line texts, and makes a distinction between recognising them as omens versus understanding them as imagery. As is apparent to anyone who’s consulted Yi as an oracle (I would guess that Fendos hasn’t), this distinction falls apart as soon as an omen becomes part of a divination text. You consult and receive a message about geese in flight, although you haven’t seen any wild geese. How can you possibly engage with this if not as the vehicle of a metaphor – an image for what a flight of geese represents to you?

Onward…

2. Translation and interpretation

There follow the Chinese text and a translation of the Zhouyi line texts, with an interpretation and commentary, for each hexagram.

Yes – just the line texts. He has decided to omit the Judgement texts altogether. Here is the explanation he gives for the omission (in full, to give you a representative sample of his style of writing):

‘Though some have argued their placement near the head of a hexagram suggests a superior position and perhaps older age, hexagram texts generally serve to comment either on a hexagram as a whole or a theme being developed in its constituent line texts, leading to conjecture that they probably were added to what must have been an early version of a Zhouyi-like divination manual when that work was still being compiled from a collection of ad hoc divination texts originally attached to the lines of early numeric gua.’

… so now you know. He also omits the texts for all lines changing in hexagrams 1 and 2.

The translation itself is mostly fine. Perhaps because he omitted the hexagram text, he doesn’t always translate the name of the hexagram, sometimes substituting his own impression of the hexagram’s theme (eg 45 as ‘Anxiety’ and 50 as ‘Political Power’). But the line texts are largely translated in a straightforward, character-by-character way, with anything unusual explained in his commentary and/or footnotes. If he chooses to follow something other than the received text (as in Hexagram 58, which follows the Mawangdui version and becomes ‘Expropriation’), he will acknowledge and explain this, which is helpful.

An unfortunate exception is 6.5, where he’s substituted ‘No good fortune’ for ‘Great good fortune’ (in both Chinese text and translation). He gives no explanation for this, and since the expression ‘no good fortune’ exists nowhere else in the text, this seems a pretty obvious mistake.

I wonder whether it was caused by his guiding principle that the line texts can be read as a single essay on different aspects of a single situation/principle. This isn’t a bad idea, on the whole – it’s certainly better than reading lines in isolation from their hexagram. Thus in Hexagram 3 amidst difficulties you need help, not to marry a bandit (he has wangled the translation of line 3 accordingly) and not to go it alone (line 4) nor attempt too much (5) or you’ll be forced to backtrack (6). In Hexagram 4, you see the progression from allowing the young ignoramus to make his own mistakes at line 1 to giving him responsibility for his own home at line 2. Thus all lines are conveying a variant of the same unexceptionable message, and there’s really no place for a line – like 6.5 – that’s different from the rest.

With the lines amalgamated into a single block, the interpretations become bland. Hexagram 54, for instance (‘Binding Relationships’) becomes a homily on how to behave in a relationship when you are in an inferior position. He goes through the lines in turn, concluding,

‘In fact, the most perfect of unions is not always the one in which you enjoy the highest status or rank (54/5). Not to understand this could well leave one with no real advantage (54/6).’

The moon almost full, the shining silk, the historic moment with its ripples spreading throughout the book, the bitter emptiness of line 6… all reduced to that.

This is frankly baffling: he’s translated the text, he knows the richness of history and culture behind it, and he’s gone to the trouble of researching and writing a book… doesn’t he find any of it even a little bit interesting?

The promised ‘novel metaphorical interpretations’ are largely uncontentious, but similarly unexciting. There are some ideas I haven’t seen before – for instance, that Hexagram 55’s abundance of ‘curtains, banners, screens and canopies’ is sufficient to block out the light, and such abundance ‘is sure to create enmity among others unless one has their trust.’ Most, though, are familiar. A dragon in flight is a creative person seeking recognition. Hexagram 2 is acquiescence. Marriage, he observes in an introductory chapter, could mean ‘asking for a collaborative relationship [help]’; his interpretation of the two marriage-related lines in Hexagram 4 is as follows:

‘True learning begins to occur only when a student is freed from such restraints (4/1), given responsibilities, and allowed to make decisions on his own – as happens when a man takes a wife and starts a family (4/2). Nevertheless, care should be taken to avoid stepping outside the bounds of correct behavior: choosing, for example, a person who will not make a good spouse (4/3).’

That’s all.

Elsewhere, he can see that marriage can be a metaphor for other human relationships, but that’s as far as it goes. There is nothing, for instance, about marriage as a way to forge alliances between clans, or the different kinds of change marriage represents for men and women.

Another effect of reading six lines as a unit: the advice they can offer tends to boil down to, ‘Knowing how to do it right is good, and getting it wrong is not.’ The first two lines of 60, for instance:

‘Knowing the proper limitations of one’s behavior, for example, when to step back from things and withdraw to the privacy of one’s own home (60/1), or when to proactively get involved in the outside world (60/2), is essential to success.’

No doubt. So how are we to know when, or what time it is? A few thousand years ago in China, someone came up with a quite elegant solution to this, but Fendos has a different one:

‘Those general patterns of line text imagery and the situations they represent can be adopted in the real world to deal with circumstances faced there, as a way of both explaining how those situations develop and how best to react to them, with the decision on which set(s) of line texts best fit being intertwined with the personal dynamic of the involved person as well as that person’s subjective understanding of a situation he/she is facing and his/her interpretation of the line texts used to explain it. (All, as Chapter 5 will show, outside of the divination process.)’

3. Method of use

To summarise: the person asking the question, or someone they talk to, chooses a hexagram that best represents how they see their situation. This is the ‘original’ hexagram. (They thus need to be familiar with all 64 to start with.)

An advisor offers a different choice of hexagram. This is a ‘changing’ hexagram and offers an alternative course of action.

Do not misinterpret this to mean we then highlight the line texts that differ between the two hexagrams, thus deriving a clear and specific message. No: we read the whole sad, trite, magnolia-washed interpretation for both.

He gives examples.

A woman wondering whether to leave her marriage ends up being advised that it depends on what’s more important to her, continuity and economic security, or a meaningful relationship. A politician wondering how far to go with negative campaigning thinks he should take a measured approach, and ends up being advised to do more or less that, with the added observation that politics is about power, and if he wins he can use his power to make it up to his opponents.

And so on. The advisor looks through the book for hexagrams that fit their personal opinion, and the resultant advice is soporific.

Summing up…

I think this is the first time I’ve ever published a review that simply says, ‘Don’t buy the book,’ and I did hesitate about this one. But I had sort-of promised it to a friend, and Fendos is a well-established academic so I can’t really do him any personal harm, and I might just save someone the price of the book, which is worth doing.

Mostly, though, I would like to shout from the rooftops that Yi is everything this book is not: rich, complex, beautiful, profound, exquisitely succinct and concentrated, startling, challenging, exciting. I’ll get back to doing that.

I’ve written before about looking at groups of changing lines, and seeing how they point towards their changed hexagram – just as a single line would do. (I’ve just added all those posts to a series, so you can find them all easily.)

Here’s another for the collection: Hexagram 62, Small Exceeding, changing at lines 1 and 6 to Hexagram 30, Clarity.

‘Bird in flight means a pitfall.’

‘Not meeting at all, going past it.
Flying bird leaves.
Pitfall,
Rightly called calamity and blunder.’

The oracle of 62 mentions a bird that calls and flies, leaving the message that it’s more fitting to come down than to go higher, but these are the only two line texts to continue that image and mention a bird’s flight. Both are unfortunate; clearly, the bird would be well-advised to keep its head down.

Why is this Small Exceeding’s Clarity?

Hexagram 30 is the hexagram of lucidity and clear perception – the light of understanding and the capacity of a culture to sustain this (by tending to its cattle). 62, on the other hand, means staying small, attempting only small works, staying close to the ground. Hexagram 61, Inner Truth, impelled you out into the world, carrying what you know to be truth – but now you feel yourself dwarfed by a vast landscape.

Hexagram shapes

The contrast comes into focus when you look at the shapes of the hexagrams.

Hexagram 30 is the trigram li, fire, doubled:

|:||:|

Hexagram 61, Inner Truth can be seen as this same trigram, writ large:

||::|| expanded from  |:|.

But Hexagram 62 is the opposite of this: the expanded trigram kan – water, pits and dangers –

::||:: from  :|:

Li and 61 contain an enclosed space, a place of safety. Kan and 62 reverse the pattern: their central yang line(s) are exposed to the air around them. Hexagram 30 can enjoy clear understanding; it could even develop a framework of learning that encompasses all that can be known. (The Dazhuan says that Fuxi probably got the idea to make snares and nets from Hexagram 30 – and it also says that Fuxi through his observations discovered the eight trigrams.) But in a time of Small Exceeding, when we need to reckon with the vast space beyond that self-contained realm of knowledge, Clarity is no basis for action now. It’s bad luck for the bird to fly.

The bird that should stay low

This all makes sense as far as it goes… but the really striking thing, for me, is that Hexagram 30 also represents the oriole – a bright golden bird. So, just as 38.5 changes to show you which ancestor has good teeth to bite through, it seems that 62.1.6 change to show you which bird should not take flight.

Here is oriolus chinensis, the black-naped oriole, in all its glory:

Perching oriole

If you look at the markings on its head…

…and compare the trigram li …

|:|

(bearing in mind that yang lines represent brightness and yin is dark), it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

As you can see, this is a spectacularly conspicuous bird. Perhaps it might blend in among sunlit leaves, but silhouetted against the sky it would be impossible to miss. Here it is in flight, with its bright body suspended between yin-dark wings…

Oriole in flight

(Original photo by Lip Kee Yap via Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

Hexagram 4 has an exceptionally clear, direct Oracle:

‘Not knowing, creating success.
I do not seek the young ignoramus, the young ignoramus seeks me.
The first consultation speaks clearly.
The second and third pollute the waters,
Polluted, and hence not speaking.
Constancy bears fruit.’

It’s often the one that gives people their first sense that Yi has a voice of its own and is talking to them, personally. And it’s a coherent message: the ignoramus is seeking answers, but asking again and again won’t help.

At least, it’s coherent unless you read, for instance, Rutt’s translation:

‘Offering.
“We do not seek the dodder, the dodder seeks us.”
When the first divination is auspicious,
repeated divinations are confusing, and are not auspicious.
Favourable augury.’

The same in Kunst’s thesis, and in Part II of Minford’s lovely book. As Minford explains (with a nice, long quotation), this idea is drawn from a 1933 essay by Arthur Waley. Legge said that tangmeng was ‘dodder’ (the name of the hexagram is meng); the Han dynasty dictionary/ glossary/ encyclopaedia Erya says that meng is equivalent to ‘dodder’. Waley was quite sure that ‘we do not seek the dodder, the dodder seeks us’ is a spell to ward off harm when you damage the plant.

This all seems pretty unnecessary: the text makes perfect sense as a whole with ‘ignoramus’, whereas plants aren’t known for consulting the oracle themselves. It’s not like other re-readings – for instance, ‘piglet’ for ‘retreat’ in Hexagram 33.6 gives you ‘fat piglet’ instead of ‘fat – er, wait, I mean “enriched” – retreat’. (I’m still sticking with ‘retreat’ as making more sense overall, but I can see the point of the piglet, as it were.) Geoffrey Redmond sees no need for dodder; nor does Harmen. Nor do I, really… and yet…

First, what actually is dodder, and what might it have meant to people?

It’s a wholly parasitic plant: as soon as it germinates, the seedling senses the nearest green plant and grows towards it. (If it doesn’t reach a suitable host plant within a few days, it will die.) It twines around the host plant and sinks rootlets into its stem.

Its own root now dies off, and it grows no leaves of its own – most species of dodder actually produce no chlorophyll – but grows fast, spreading from one host plant to the next. Soon, it forms a tangled mass of fine, twisting stems that covers the host plants. It flowers and sets seed. The seeds aren’t wind-borne, but carried between plants by animals and humans. (Modern farmers are warned of the dangers of carrying dodder seed between fields on their tools and boots.)

Waley observes that parasitic, rootless plants (epiphytes) are regarded as sacred in other cultures – the obvious example is mistletoe. “The epiphyte, then, which has no roots of its own, is mysteriously nurtured by Heaven, and is therefore in touch with the secrets of Heaven. Hence its importance in rites of Divination.” Redmond points to a lack of evidence that dodder had such significance in China – but it is uncanny, the plant without roots that seems to appear from nowhere.

Dodder is highly regarded in Chinese medicine as a treatment for osteoporosis, liver and kidney complaints, and as an aphrodisiac. Perhaps that’s why it’s the first plant the speaker/singer of Ode 48 plans to gather as he thinks of a willing girl:

‘I am going to gather the dodder
In the village of Mei.
Of whom do I think?
Of the lovely Meng Jiang.
She was to wait for me at Sang-Zhong,
But she went all the way to Shang-gong
And came with me to the banks of the Qi.’

Dodder is also a serious threat to farmers. It will spread diseases between plants, sap their strength and greatly reduce crop yields. However, from what I’ve been able to discover, it mostly thrives on leguminous plants, and isn’t a serious problem on grains. The soya crop was under threat, but not the millet.

Here’s how it looks:

Dodder plant

(Richard Sears also says that the original meaning of ‘meng’ was a kind of plant; the character consists of ‘cover’ with an animal beneath it, and the plant radical. A ‘covering plant’.)

Let’s try a thought experiment, and try to substitute ‘dodder’ for ‘ignoramus’ in the line texts, translate the rest accordingly, and see if they hold together.

Line 1:

‘Sending out the ignoramus,
Fruitful to make use of punishing people,
To make use of loosening fetters and manacles.
Going on in that way is shameful.’

Now… the verb here is fa and means literally an arrow fired from the bow, and more generally ‘send out, distribute, expand’. Waley suggested that this referred to pulling the dodder free from its host plant. Perhaps it does. However, spreading, distributing, developing, expanding, arrow-from-a-bow – that sounds more like action of the rapidly-growing plant to me. So let’s try,

‘Spreading dodder
Fruitful to make use of convicts,
To make use of loosening fetters and manacles.
Going on in that way is shameful.’

Maybe we need the convicts’ labour to clear the spreading dodder, and must loosen their shackles enough that they can work. Or maybe the epiphyte is an image for the convicts: each has flourished by parasitising others, but now we can put them to use, and not allow their spread to continue.

Line 2:

‘Bagging dodder, good fortune.
Receiving a wife, good fortune.
The son governs the home.’

Bagged dodder is valuable medicine – not least as an aphrodisiac.

Line 3:

‘Don’t take this woman.
She sees a man of bronze,
And there is no self.
No direction bears fruit.’

There is no meng in this line. Waley suggested this could refer to the bronze colour of the plant and its lack of leaves or roots; I’m not convinced.

Might we see a parasitic tendency in the woman, though?

Line 4:

‘Confining dodder.
Shame.’

The first word here is the name of Hexagram 47 – oppressed, confined, with the character that shows a plant hemmed in by walls. This looks to me like the dodder in full growth, choking and smothering its host plant. You should have tackled it while it was young.

This even fits in with the line pathway, which travels through 64.4 and 63.3 – the lines about the recurrent problem of invasions from Demon Country. Any gardener who ever tried to eradicate bindweed (a relative of dodder) will see the connection.

Line 5:

‘Young dodder.
Good fortune.’

Here’s the same ‘young dodder’ or indeed ‘young ignoramus’ as in the Oracle text. At line 5 it joins with 59, Dispersing, as the energy of the host plant is ‘dispersed’ into the dodder. (The medicinal qualities of dodder also vary depending on its host plant.)

Line 6:

‘Beating the dodder.
Fruitless to act like an outlaw,
Fruitful to resist outlaws.’

Waley saw in this line a parallel to the correct way of gathering mistletoe: it must be knocked down from its host tree, not cut with a knife. The problem with that is that outside the tropics, dodder doesn’t grow on trees like mistletoe, but entwined and rooted into soft plants. I don’t see how you could possibly dislodge it by beating – I imagine you’d just mash up the host plant and dodder together. It’s worth noting that ‘outlaws’ are also those who beat with sticks, etymologically speaking.

If the dodder is growing on your soya plants, then to beat it would certainly be counterproductive. Actually… this reminds me of many experiences of the line describing how people make enemies of themselves and ‘beat themselves up’.

~~~

So… some ridiculous stretching, some ideas that seem as though they might be usable. What to make of this?

I think it comes out rather like Hexagram 33’s piglet. 33, in readings, means ‘Retreat’, not ‘Piglet’ – it has to, to make any sense. That, incidentally, was just as true in 1,000BC as it is now: an oracle that gave readings like…

‘What should we do about the invading foreigners?’
‘Pig!’

‘How about marrying into that clan?’
‘Pig!’

…might not have become so popular…

However, when we remember the fleeing piglet who doesn’t want to be eaten, this colours our sense of what it means to Retreat. Likewise, Hexagram 4 in readings means ‘Ignorance’ not ‘Dodder’, but thinking of the dodder can still colour our sense of what it means to be ignorant: without roots of our own, parasitic, perhaps destructively so – but also growing, potent and maybe magical.

A short story

In typical Yi style, this is a very short story:

‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

‘Subtly penetrating under the bed,
Losing your property and axe.
Constancy, pitfall.’

These are lines 56.4 and 57.6, and they have a direct textual parallel: gaining then losing property and axe (or axe-money). (Ignore the way I translated it with ‘your’ in 57.6 – it’s the same three words, ‘one’s property axe’, in both lines.)

Oddly enough, I only started paying attention to this because it was pointed out by Geoffrey Redmond – the one who maintains that ‘the unit of meaning is the phrase’ in the Zhouyi. He writes of 57.6,

‘This line refers back to the traveler’s money that was lost in the preceding hexagram, 56.4. It is unusual for themes in a hexagram to continue in another one. Most likely, this phrase was simply misplaced from the preceding hexagram.’

So naturally, I assume that the phrase wasn’t misplaced, and see where this takes me.

In the first place, I think this is a story, not just a contrast. To start with, there is no small-scale structural relationship (lines, trigrams) between these two lines to suggest a parallel or contrast; they’re simply adjacent in the Sequence. (And this part of the Sequence contains more than one reflective pattern revolving around themes of history, culture and transmission.)

From 56 to 57, the Xugua (‘Sequence’ Wing) says,

‘The traveller has no place where he is accepted, and so Subtly Penetrating follows. Subtly Penetrating means entering in.’

The traveller at 56.4 has only a temporary shelter; 57.6 is going further and further in.

Simply reading the two lines as a story already casts light on them: my heart is not glad, in 56.4, because I have an inkling of the loss to come. (This is one of those striking, resonant uses of ‘my’ that creates some distance from the protagonist of the line. Perhaps it is the oracle’s heart not glad, or a wiser narrator’s.) And if 56.4 is anticipating, then 57.6 might be remembering – coming from 56.4, it was never entirely, decisively confident of owning property and axe, and goes endlessly digging for certainty.

Line pathways and connections

Let’s keep exploring…

56.4 and the tides of history

56.4 changes to Hexagram 52, Stilling – naturally enough, since this ‘place to stay’ is where the traveller comes to a halt. The name of Hexagram 52 shows a solitary human figure, turning away. This is stilling as a response or reaction to movement, not as a permanent state.

Reading across the paired lines…

‘Feng is flooded with darkness
At midday, seeing a froth of light.
Your right arm broken,
Not a mistake.’

‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

…the traveller’s situation reflects the person stymied by events in 55.3 – in the dark, not seeing where to go, incapacitated. To me, the lines seem to share a sense of helplessness, being overtaken by events. The traveller hasn’t quite been overtaken yet, but there’s an uneasy sense that he will be, soon. It’s his property and place to stay today, but it could be someone else’s tomorrow.

In practice, I usually get 56.4 when there’s a creeping anxiety and a fear of losing ground – as if I might need to run faster to stay in the same place. It’s almost as if having whatever-it-is now creates the possibility of losing it. I might need to pause and ask myself why I’m not more contented.

The inner lines for this pathway – 52.4 and 51.3 – don’t have the same disquiet:

‘Stilling your self,
No mistake.’

‘Shock revives, revives.
Shock moves without blunder.’

In both of these, there’s a sense ‘things are unfolding as they should’. There may be shock, but it’s timely, it’s doing its work; still yourself, no mistake, no need for you to be running about. And in fact, 55.3 has the same insight: ‘Your right arm broken – not a mistake.‘ Events unfold, there’s not a lot you can do about them, and this is all as it should be. 56.4 is the only line in the pathway that hasn’t got this message – perhaps because attaining shelter, property and axe is the full extent of the traveller’s ambitions?

57.6 and the bottomless Well

56.4 changes to 52, whose name in Chinese shows a human figure. 57.6 changes to 48, the Well – something much bigger.

‘The Well. Moving the city, not moving the well.
Without loss, without gain,
They come and go, the well wells.
Almost reaching, but the rope does not yet draw water from the well,
Breaking one’s clay jug,
Pitfall.’

The well requires human effort, but it also dwarfs us. People come and go, but the water is always there, whether you reach it or not. Human efforts, and decisions, and property, are ‘relativised’: even cities are moved, but not wells. The well construction might belong to everyone, but the water table is timeless, and no-one can own it.

57.6 is joined with 48.6/47.1:

‘The well gathers,
Don’t cover it.
There is truth and confidence,
Good fortune from the source.’

‘Buttocks oppressed with a wooden stick,
Entering into a gloomy valley,
For three years, meeting no-one.’

– lines bringing an awareness that the water table might be over your head. ‘Penetrating under the bed’ comes to mean digging endlessly into something bottomless and shapeless. If 56.4 is hanging on by its fingernails to property and self-determination, 57.6 loses its grip and falls into the endless underground waters. You can’t hold onto ‘your stuff’ in the well, because the whole idea of ownership loses its meaning.

For me, 57.6 tends to mean that I’m over-interpreting other people’s behaviour and worrying too much about their opinions. (I also had it once to describe a day when I got somewhat lost on the London Underground – chiefly because I kept asking directions instead of looking at a map.) ‘What will they think of me?’ is certainly a bottomless, endless question; ‘How to please all the people, all the time?’ is another one, and a good place to lose my grip on my own convictions and have them washed away. I think the line has a more general application, though: it’s about anything that relativises you and yours by putting it in a much bigger context. That could be other people’s opinions, or the passage of time, or even the vastness of nature.

The paired line, 58.1, is very much the ‘other side of the coin’:

‘Subtly penetrating under the bed,
Losing your property and axe.
Constancy, pitfall.’

‘Responsive opening: good fortune’

Subtly penetrating under the bed comes (I think) of a desire to be completely aligned, in complete harmony, with no friction or discord. When the same desire for alignment is turned around and directed outward towards someone specific – as in conversation – then it is good. ‘Responsive’ here is the same word that describes the crane’s young in 61.2, who ‘respond in harmony’ to her call. Its meanings include ‘singing in harmony’ and ‘composing a poem in reply’. So this line’s a healthy extrovert, in comparison to 57.6’s neurotic introvert.

Stories we might tell

What stories might we tell around 56.4 and 57.6? As many as there are readings with each line, of course… but one that seems to me to be murmuring along in the background is that of Zhou and Shang. Hai, the original ‘traveller’ of 56, was a Shang ancestor. His descendants would found a great dynasty – but it would only be a temporary shelter, for they were to lose the Mandate and the Zhou would receive it.

The traveller has his place to stay and things he owns, but there’s still an atmosphere of unease. Someone (that mysterious speaker whose heart is not glad) is aware that events move on, and just because you have this now doesn’t mean you will be able to hold onto it forever.

The protagonist of 57.6 is so intent on exploring the depths – of time, or the collective reality, or the riches of nature – that she finds she has nothing of her own. Scaling up and scaling up, she loses herself from view.

This region of the Sequence (49/50, 54.5, 55…) concentrates on Zhou history – not the ins and outs of military strategy, but rather how they received, owned and implemented their Mandate. This little story of lost property might be asking, sotto voce, ‘Oh, so the Mandate is yours, is it? On what scale?’

The broader perspective that makes your personal experience just one part of the whole can be useful: it allows you to create harmonious exchanges, in 58.1. And it can be reassuring, as in 55.3 and 51.3: I may be stuck, but the wheels of history are turning as they should. Or it can be disconcerting: I have this now, but for how long? And ultimately, if you zoom out (or penetrate in) far enough, your experience and ownership disappears altogether. I think of the idea that people ‘own’ ancient woodland, or of ‘owning’ a ‘cello whose lifespan is measured in centuries. It’s laughable, of course – but also essential: someone has to keep the ‘cello safe from the central heating this winter.

sand running through fingers

One of many interesting things I found in Richard J. Smith’s The I Ching: a biography was an account of Zhu Xi’s approach to divination.

Zhu Xi (1120-1200) wrote firmly of Yi’s identity as an oracle, not just a ‘book of wisdom’. In addition to creating the yarrow method we use now, he also prescribed considerable ritual to be used with it. There are ritual ablutions, a dedicated divination room and table that you approach from the east, passing the yarrow stalks through the incense smoke… it’s all a long way away from ‘visit web page, click button’.

What caught my attention most of all was the quasi-prayer to be recited before the reading, especially its last line:

‘Availing of you, great milfoil, with constancy, I, [name], because of [topic], wonder if I may express my doubts and concerns to the spiritual powers. Whether the news is auspicious or inauspicious, involves a gain or a loss, remorse or humiliation, sorrow or anxiety, you alone with your divine intelligence can provide clear information.’

(Emphasis added.) There are echoes of this prayer in an invocation recorded in the 19th century. Prior to consultation, the temple diviner addresses the gods:

‘A man is now present who is harassed with anxieties, and is unable to solve his doubts and perplexities. We can only look to the gods to instruct us as to what is or is not to take place.’

Here is the same core assumption: the querent has a problem that only the oracle can solve. And although I’ve never counselled anyone on the correct placement of an incense burner relative to their yarrow stalks, this is advice I recognise. Yijing divination is for things we cannot know in other, more ‘normal’ ways. If you can learn the answer by…

  • consulting a doctor
  • buying a pregnancy test
  • consulting a lawyer
  • using a search engine
  • making a phone call
  • …and so on…

…then do that. The answer you get this way will be altogether more use: less open to interpretation, more likely to give you peace of mind, easier to act on.

Having said that… yes, I fail to take this advice all the time, too – or at least, I take it with a liberal pinch of interpretation…

For example, a month ago I had a great chunk of enamel fall off a back tooth. After a week or so of treating this with great TLC I was unsure whether the tooth was a) hardening and stabilising or b) decaying – and dealt with my uncertainty by asking Yi what was going on in there.

My friends enquired why (on earth) I did not go to my dentist, who could obviously answer this question far more straightforwardly. Well… because I had a whole lot of ‘doubts and perplexities’ along the lines of, ‘The dentist will want to drill and refill, but the drilling would damage the tooth’s capacity for self-repair, but that’s only relevant if it even has any chance of repairing itself in its current state, and if it hasn’t then I should get the dentist to re-fill it quick before I lose the whole tooth…’ and so on. Caught in that kind of endless loop, it feels natural to me to ask Yi. However, unless you share my strong fondness for dentinal tubules, my hesitation over seeing a dentist is going to appear quite insane.

A more familiar example would be the wise advice:

‘Never mind asking Yi how he feels about you, talk to him!’

This is generally very good advice indeed, but if someone wants to have an idea what’s going on before taking the plunge into such an excruciatingly difficult conversation, can you blame them?

The basic principle that we should ask Yi only when we cannot resolve our anxieties any other way is a good one; applying some logic and old-fashioned common sense (which, as my mother’s mother told her, isn’t common) to the issue might prevent much confusion, and much wear-and-tear on the yarrow stalks.

But really, this isn’t just about where to find good information: it’s about knowing how best to change our inner state. What can bring you sufficient confidence and peace of mind to move forward, engage with the issue and get on with life? Sometimes that’ll be an expert opinion, and sometimes the kind of change of perspective that only a reading can create.

smoke rising from incense burner

From the I Ching Community

Short review

Don’t buy this one. Buy Minford and Redmond instead – or save up for Field, which I feel is worth its somewhat eye-watering price.

Longer review

Here’s the publisher’s blurb for Paul Fendos’ new I Ching:

The Book of Changes: A Modern Adaptation and Interpretation attempts to breathe new life into the Book of Changes by making it relevant to the present time and day. It does so by using archaeological evidence to trace the origins of the Book of Changes, starting with numeric trigrams and hexagrams, making its way up to early divination manuals, and ending with the oldest extant version of the Book of Changes—usually referred to as the ‘received version.’ It also explains the development of the Book of Changes from a divination manual into a philosophical text dealing with change. However, its main focus is on delineating sixty-four patterns of change in the Book of Changes, patterns based on novel metaphorical interpretations of the line texts in the Book of Changes that serve as the foundation for a new handbook on change.’

On the one hand, that first sentence triggers some wheezy old alarm klaxons. Modern adaptation? Breathe new life? Make it relevant? Oh, dear – is this going to be another limp Wilhelm-derivative with all the ancient imagery removed?

But on the other hand, the rest sounds really promising. A version that’s both infused with knowledge of the history and motivated by a desire to make something usable is a rarity; ‘novel metaphorical interpretations’ based on in-depth historical understanding would be wonderful.The author’s bio (Ph.D in Chinese, doctoral dissertation on the Yi, 25 years university teaching ‘Chinese Studies’) suggests that he’s qualified to do this. (The impressive bibliography and footnotes in the book confirm it: he’s well-versed in both recent discoveries and traditional interpretations and seems to have read just about everything.)

I replied to the publisher’s email asking to see a sample of the translation, and in return they sent me a pdf review copy of the whole thing, and I dived in. The book divides into three parts: historical introduction, translation/interpretation, and a method to use the book.

1. Historical introduction

This is the best part of the book. Fendos gives a thorough account of what’s known of the ancient origins of the Yi through to its canonisation as Yijing. There’s a table of source materials, their likely dates and what they consist of, and a timeline of Yi’s development through to Wang Bi that I’m genuinely glad to have. The next chapter continues the story through yin/yang and Five Element theory and the Chinese understanding of harmony with the time, and the distinction between schools of thought in the Chinese tradition.

There are a few eyebrow-raising things, though. He seems to think that the moment when hexagrams were first written with solid/broken lines instead of odd/even numbers is also the moment when they became identified as yang and yin, with all the associated metaphysics. Of the Mawangdui manuscript, he says the lines were written as the numbers 1 and 8, ‘but referred to as 9 or 6’ – as if this were quite inexplicable. And then there’s,

“As is evidenced by the Commentary on the Trigrams section of the Book of Changes, by then Five Phases theory had become part of the basic Yin/Yang correlative structure of the Book of Changes.”

By ‘then’ he means the early Western Han, when the received Yijing text had come together. This is indeed a time when correlative theories were developed, but the only association with Five Phases/Elements in this Wing is that the order in which the trigrams are described follows the generative cycle, with the exception of gen being placed at the end: thunder and wind/wood (both correlated with the ‘wood’ phase), then fire, earth, lake and heaven (both ‘metal’), then water, and finally mountain (earth). This is the closest thing to a reference to the Five Phases anywhere in the Yijing; they’re never mentioned explicitly, even in the Shuogua‘s long lists of trigram’s associations. It seems to me that the most economical explanation for this almost-parallel is that the correlation of 8 trigrams with 5 elements – a thoroughly awkward thing to accomplish – was helped along by the order of the trigrams given in the Wing.

Anyway, Fendos, though he inexplicably includes tables of pre-Han rulers and their Five Phase identities, never actually explains what Five Phase/Element theory is, so this is a bit of a detour. The historical information is good to have; the conclusions he draws from it are occasionally a bit odd.

He goes on to ask the very good question of how best to approach translation and interpretation now, if you actually want to use the book – through the tradition, or through seeking original meanings, or trying to find a middle way? He will try to find the middle way, which seems wise.

Then he talks about the omen elements of line texts, and makes a distinction between recognising them as omens versus understanding them as imagery. As is apparent to anyone who’s consulted Yi as an oracle (I would guess that Fendos hasn’t), this distinction falls apart as soon as an omen becomes part of a divination text. You consult and receive a message about geese in flight, although you haven’t seen any wild geese. How can you possibly engage with this if not as the vehicle of a metaphor – an image for what a flight of geese represents to you?

Onward…

2. Translation and interpretation

There follow the Chinese text and a translation of the Zhouyi line texts, with an interpretation and commentary, for each hexagram.

Yes – just the line texts. He has decided to omit the Judgement texts altogether. Here is the explanation he gives for the omission (in full, to give you a representative sample of his style of writing):

‘Though some have argued their placement near the head of a hexagram suggests a superior position and perhaps older age, hexagram texts generally serve to comment either on a hexagram as a whole or a theme being developed in its constituent line texts, leading to conjecture that they probably were added to what must have been an early version of a Zhouyi-like divination manual when that work was still being compiled from a collection of ad hoc divination texts originally attached to the lines of early numeric gua.’

… so now you know. He also omits the texts for all lines changing in hexagrams 1 and 2.

The translation itself is mostly fine. Perhaps because he omitted the hexagram text, he doesn’t always translate the name of the hexagram, sometimes substituting his own impression of the hexagram’s theme (eg 45 as ‘Anxiety’ and 50 as ‘Political Power’). But the line texts are largely translated in a straightforward, character-by-character way, with anything unusual explained in his commentary and/or footnotes. If he chooses to follow something other than the received text (as in Hexagram 58, which follows the Mawangdui version and becomes ‘Expropriation’), he will acknowledge and explain this, which is helpful.

An unfortunate exception is 6.5, where he’s substituted ‘No good fortune’ for ‘Great good fortune’ (in both Chinese text and translation). He gives no explanation for this, and since the expression ‘no good fortune’ exists nowhere else in the text, this seems a pretty obvious mistake.

I wonder whether it was caused by his guiding principle that the line texts can be read as a single essay on different aspects of a single situation/principle. This isn’t a bad idea, on the whole – it’s certainly better than reading lines in isolation from their hexagram. Thus in Hexagram 3 amidst difficulties you need help, not to marry a bandit (he has wangled the translation of line 3 accordingly) and not to go it alone (line 4) nor attempt too much (5) or you’ll be forced to backtrack (6). In Hexagram 4, you see the progression from allowing the young ignoramus to make his own mistakes at line 1 to giving him responsibility for his own home at line 2. Thus all lines are conveying a variant of the same unexceptionable message, and there’s really no place for a line – like 6.5 – that’s different from the rest.

With the lines amalgamated into a single block, the interpretations become bland. Hexagram 54, for instance (‘Binding Relationships’) becomes a homily on how to behave in a relationship when you are in an inferior position. He goes through the lines in turn, concluding,

‘In fact, the most perfect of unions is not always the one in which you enjoy the highest status or rank (54/5). Not to understand this could well leave one with no real advantage (54/6).’

The moon almost full, the shining silk, the historic moment with its ripples spreading throughout the book, the bitter emptiness of line 6… all reduced to that.

This is frankly baffling: he’s translated the text, he knows the richness of history and culture behind it, and he’s gone to the trouble of researching and writing a book… doesn’t he find any of it even a little bit interesting?

The promised ‘novel metaphorical interpretations’ are largely uncontentious, but similarly unexciting. There are some ideas I haven’t seen before – for instance, that Hexagram 55’s abundance of ‘curtains, banners, screens and canopies’ is sufficient to block out the light, and such abundance ‘is sure to create enmity among others unless one has their trust.’ Most, though, are familiar. A dragon in flight is a creative person seeking recognition. Hexagram 2 is acquiescence. Marriage, he observes in an introductory chapter, could mean ‘asking for a collaborative relationship [help]’; his interpretation of the two marriage-related lines in Hexagram 4 is as follows:

‘True learning begins to occur only when a student is freed from such restraints (4/1), given responsibilities, and allowed to make decisions on his own – as happens when a man takes a wife and starts a family (4/2). Nevertheless, care should be taken to avoid stepping outside the bounds of correct behavior: choosing, for example, a person who will not make a good spouse (4/3).’

That’s all.

Elsewhere, he can see that marriage can be a metaphor for other human relationships, but that’s as far as it goes. There is nothing, for instance, about marriage as a way to forge alliances between clans, or the different kinds of change marriage represents for men and women.

Another effect of reading six lines as a unit: the advice they can offer tends to boil down to, ‘Knowing how to do it right is good, and getting it wrong is not.’ The first two lines of 60, for instance:

‘Knowing the proper limitations of one’s behavior, for example, when to step back from things and withdraw to the privacy of one’s own home (60/1), or when to proactively get involved in the outside world (60/2), is essential to success.’

No doubt. So how are we to know when, or what time it is? A few thousand years ago in China, someone came up with a quite elegant solution to this, but Fendos has a different one:

‘Those general patterns of line text imagery and the situations they represent can be adopted in the real world to deal with circumstances faced there, as a way of both explaining how those situations develop and how best to react to them, with the decision on which set(s) of line texts best fit being intertwined with the personal dynamic of the involved person as well as that person’s subjective understanding of a situation he/she is facing and his/her interpretation of the line texts used to explain it. (All, as Chapter 5 will show, outside of the divination process.)’

3. Method of use

To summarise: the person asking the question, or someone they talk to, chooses a hexagram that best represents how they see their situation. This is the ‘original’ hexagram. (They thus need to be familiar with all 64 to start with.)

An advisor offers a different choice of hexagram. This is a ‘changing’ hexagram and offers an alternative course of action.

Do not misinterpret this to mean we then highlight the line texts that differ between the two hexagrams, thus deriving a clear and specific message. No: we read the whole sad, trite, magnolia-washed interpretation for both.

He gives examples.

A woman wondering whether to leave her marriage ends up being advised that it depends on what’s more important to her, continuity and economic security, or a meaningful relationship. A politician wondering how far to go with negative campaigning thinks he should take a measured approach, and ends up being advised to do more or less that, with the added observation that politics is about power, and if he wins he can use his power to make it up to his opponents.

And so on. The advisor looks through the book for hexagrams that fit their personal opinion, and the resultant advice is soporific.

Summing up…

I think this is the first time I’ve ever published a review that simply says, ‘Don’t buy the book,’ and I did hesitate about this one. But I had sort-of promised it to a friend, and Fendos is a well-established academic so I can’t really do him any personal harm, and I might just save someone the price of the book, which is worth doing.

Mostly, though, I would like to shout from the rooftops that Yi is everything this book is not: rich, complex, beautiful, profound, exquisitely succinct and concentrated, startling, challenging, exciting. I’ll get back to doing that.

I’ve written before about looking at groups of changing lines, and seeing how they point towards their changed hexagram – just as a single line would do. (I’ve just added all those posts to a series, so you can find them all easily.)

Here’s another for the collection: Hexagram 62, Small Exceeding, changing at lines 1 and 6 to Hexagram 30, Clarity.

‘Bird in flight means a pitfall.’

‘Not meeting at all, going past it.
Flying bird leaves.
Pitfall,
Rightly called calamity and blunder.’

The oracle of 62 mentions a bird that calls and flies, leaving the message that it’s more fitting to come down than to go higher, but these are the only two line texts to continue that image and mention a bird’s flight. Both are unfortunate; clearly, the bird would be well-advised to keep its head down.

Why is this Small Exceeding’s Clarity?

Hexagram 30 is the hexagram of lucidity and clear perception – the light of understanding and the capacity of a culture to sustain this (by tending to its cattle). 62, on the other hand, means staying small, attempting only small works, staying close to the ground. Hexagram 61, Inner Truth, impelled you out into the world, carrying what you know to be truth – but now you feel yourself dwarfed by a vast landscape.

Hexagram shapes

The contrast comes into focus when you look at the shapes of the hexagrams.

Hexagram 30 is the trigram li, fire, doubled:

|:||:|

Hexagram 61, Inner Truth can be seen as this same trigram, writ large:

||::|| expanded from  |:|.

But Hexagram 62 is the opposite of this: the expanded trigram kan – water, pits and dangers –

::||:: from  :|:

Li and 61 contain an enclosed space, a place of safety. Kan and 62 reverse the pattern: their central yang line(s) are exposed to the air around them. Hexagram 30 can enjoy clear understanding; it could even develop a framework of learning that encompasses all that can be known. (The Dazhuan says that Fuxi probably got the idea to make snares and nets from Hexagram 30 – and it also says that Fuxi through his observations discovered the eight trigrams.) But in a time of Small Exceeding, when we need to reckon with the vast space beyond that self-contained realm of knowledge, Clarity is no basis for action now. It’s bad luck for the bird to fly.

The bird that should stay low

This all makes sense as far as it goes… but the really striking thing, for me, is that Hexagram 30 also represents the oriole – a bright golden bird. So, just as 38.5 changes to show you which ancestor has good teeth to bite through, it seems that 62.1.6 change to show you which bird should not take flight.

Here is oriolus chinensis, the black-naped oriole, in all its glory:

Perching oriole

If you look at the markings on its head…

…and compare the trigram li …

|:|

(bearing in mind that yang lines represent brightness and yin is dark), it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

As you can see, this is a spectacularly conspicuous bird. Perhaps it might blend in among sunlit leaves, but silhouetted against the sky it would be impossible to miss. Here it is in flight, with its bright body suspended between yin-dark wings…

Oriole in flight

(Original photo by Lip Kee Yap via Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

Hexagram 4 has an exceptionally clear, direct Oracle:

‘Not knowing, creating success.
I do not seek the young ignoramus, the young ignoramus seeks me.
The first consultation speaks clearly.
The second and third pollute the waters,
Polluted, and hence not speaking.
Constancy bears fruit.’

It’s often the one that gives people their first sense that Yi has a voice of its own and is talking to them, personally. And it’s a coherent message: the ignoramus is seeking answers, but asking again and again won’t help.

At least, it’s coherent unless you read, for instance, Rutt’s translation:

‘Offering.
“We do not seek the dodder, the dodder seeks us.”
When the first divination is auspicious,
repeated divinations are confusing, and are not auspicious.
Favourable augury.’

The same in Kunst’s thesis, and in Part II of Minford’s lovely book. As Minford explains (with a nice, long quotation), this idea is drawn from a 1933 essay by Arthur Waley. Legge said that tangmeng was ‘dodder’ (the name of the hexagram is meng); the Han dynasty dictionary/ glossary/ encyclopaedia Erya says that meng is equivalent to ‘dodder’. Waley was quite sure that ‘we do not seek the dodder, the dodder seeks us’ is a spell to ward off harm when you damage the plant.

This all seems pretty unnecessary: the text makes perfect sense as a whole with ‘ignoramus’, whereas plants aren’t known for consulting the oracle themselves. It’s not like other re-readings – for instance, ‘piglet’ for ‘retreat’ in Hexagram 33.6 gives you ‘fat piglet’ instead of ‘fat – er, wait, I mean “enriched” – retreat’. (I’m still sticking with ‘retreat’ as making more sense overall, but I can see the point of the piglet, as it were.) Geoffrey Redmond sees no need for dodder; nor does Harmen. Nor do I, really… and yet…

First, what actually is dodder, and what might it have meant to people?

It’s a wholly parasitic plant: as soon as it germinates, the seedling senses the nearest green plant and grows towards it. (If it doesn’t reach a suitable host plant within a few days, it will die.) It twines around the host plant and sinks rootlets into its stem.

Its own root now dies off, and it grows no leaves of its own – most species of dodder actually produce no chlorophyll – but grows fast, spreading from one host plant to the next. Soon, it forms a tangled mass of fine, twisting stems that covers the host plants. It flowers and sets seed. The seeds aren’t wind-borne, but carried between plants by animals and humans. (Modern farmers are warned of the dangers of carrying dodder seed between fields on their tools and boots.)

Waley observes that parasitic, rootless plants (epiphytes) are regarded as sacred in other cultures – the obvious example is mistletoe. “The epiphyte, then, which has no roots of its own, is mysteriously nurtured by Heaven, and is therefore in touch with the secrets of Heaven. Hence its importance in rites of Divination.” Redmond points to a lack of evidence that dodder had such significance in China – but it is uncanny, the plant without roots that seems to appear from nowhere.

Dodder is highly regarded in Chinese medicine as a treatment for osteoporosis, liver and kidney complaints, and as an aphrodisiac. Perhaps that’s why it’s the first plant the speaker/singer of Ode 48 plans to gather as he thinks of a willing girl:

‘I am going to gather the dodder
In the village of Mei.
Of whom do I think?
Of the lovely Meng Jiang.
She was to wait for me at Sang-Zhong,
But she went all the way to Shang-gong
And came with me to the banks of the Qi.’

Dodder is also a serious threat to farmers. It will spread diseases between plants, sap their strength and greatly reduce crop yields. However, from what I’ve been able to discover, it mostly thrives on leguminous plants, and isn’t a serious problem on grains. The soya crop was under threat, but not the millet.

Here’s how it looks:

Dodder plant

(Richard Sears also says that the original meaning of ‘meng’ was a kind of plant; the character consists of ‘cover’ with an animal beneath it, and the plant radical. A ‘covering plant’.)

Let’s try a thought experiment, and try to substitute ‘dodder’ for ‘ignoramus’ in the line texts, translate the rest accordingly, and see if they hold together.

Line 1:

‘Sending out the ignoramus,
Fruitful to make use of punishing people,
To make use of loosening fetters and manacles.
Going on in that way is shameful.’

Now… the verb here is fa and means literally an arrow fired from the bow, and more generally ‘send out, distribute, expand’. Waley suggested that this referred to pulling the dodder free from its host plant. Perhaps it does. However, spreading, distributing, developing, expanding, arrow-from-a-bow – that sounds more like action of the rapidly-growing plant to me. So let’s try,

‘Spreading dodder
Fruitful to make use of convicts,
To make use of loosening fetters and manacles.
Going on in that way is shameful.’

Maybe we need the convicts’ labour to clear the spreading dodder, and must loosen their shackles enough that they can work. Or maybe the epiphyte is an image for the convicts: each has flourished by parasitising others, but now we can put them to use, and not allow their spread to continue.

Line 2:

‘Bagging dodder, good fortune.
Receiving a wife, good fortune.
The son governs the home.’

Bagged dodder is valuable medicine – not least as an aphrodisiac.

Line 3:

‘Don’t take this woman.
She sees a man of bronze,
And there is no self.
No direction bears fruit.’

There is no meng in this line. Waley suggested this could refer to the bronze colour of the plant and its lack of leaves or roots; I’m not convinced.

Might we see a parasitic tendency in the woman, though?

Line 4:

‘Confining dodder.
Shame.’

The first word here is the name of Hexagram 47 – oppressed, confined, with the character that shows a plant hemmed in by walls. This looks to me like the dodder in full growth, choking and smothering its host plant. You should have tackled it while it was young.

This even fits in with the line pathway, which travels through 64.4 and 63.3 – the lines about the recurrent problem of invasions from Demon Country. Any gardener who ever tried to eradicate bindweed (a relative of dodder) will see the connection.

Line 5:

‘Young dodder.
Good fortune.’

Here’s the same ‘young dodder’ or indeed ‘young ignoramus’ as in the Oracle text. At line 5 it joins with 59, Dispersing, as the energy of the host plant is ‘dispersed’ into the dodder. (The medicinal qualities of dodder also vary depending on its host plant.)

Line 6:

‘Beating the dodder.
Fruitless to act like an outlaw,
Fruitful to resist outlaws.’

Waley saw in this line a parallel to the correct way of gathering mistletoe: it must be knocked down from its host tree, not cut with a knife. The problem with that is that outside the tropics, dodder doesn’t grow on trees like mistletoe, but entwined and rooted into soft plants. I don’t see how you could possibly dislodge it by beating – I imagine you’d just mash up the host plant and dodder together. It’s worth noting that ‘outlaws’ are also those who beat with sticks, etymologically speaking.

If the dodder is growing on your soya plants, then to beat it would certainly be counterproductive. Actually… this reminds me of many experiences of the line describing how people make enemies of themselves and ‘beat themselves up’.

~~~

So… some ridiculous stretching, some ideas that seem as though they might be usable. What to make of this?

I think it comes out rather like Hexagram 33’s piglet. 33, in readings, means ‘Retreat’, not ‘Piglet’ – it has to, to make any sense. That, incidentally, was just as true in 1,000BC as it is now: an oracle that gave readings like…

‘What should we do about the invading foreigners?’
‘Pig!’

‘How about marrying into that clan?’
‘Pig!’

…might not have become so popular…

However, when we remember the fleeing piglet who doesn’t want to be eaten, this colours our sense of what it means to Retreat. Likewise, Hexagram 4 in readings means ‘Ignorance’ not ‘Dodder’, but thinking of the dodder can still colour our sense of what it means to be ignorant: without roots of our own, parasitic, perhaps destructively so – but also growing, potent and maybe magical.

A short story

In typical Yi style, this is a very short story:

‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

‘Subtly penetrating under the bed,
Losing your property and axe.
Constancy, pitfall.’

These are lines 56.4 and 57.6, and they have a direct textual parallel: gaining then losing property and axe (or axe-money). (Ignore the way I translated it with ‘your’ in 57.6 – it’s the same three words, ‘one’s property axe’, in both lines.)

Oddly enough, I only started paying attention to this because it was pointed out by Geoffrey Redmond – the one who maintains that ‘the unit of meaning is the phrase’ in the Zhouyi. He writes of 57.6,

‘This line refers back to the traveler’s money that was lost in the preceding hexagram, 56.4. It is unusual for themes in a hexagram to continue in another one. Most likely, this phrase was simply misplaced from the preceding hexagram.’

So naturally, I assume that the phrase wasn’t misplaced, and see where this takes me.

In the first place, I think this is a story, not just a contrast. To start with, there is no small-scale structural relationship (lines, trigrams) between these two lines to suggest a parallel or contrast; they’re simply adjacent in the Sequence. (And this part of the Sequence contains more than one reflective pattern revolving around themes of history, culture and transmission.)

From 56 to 57, the Xugua (‘Sequence’ Wing) says,

‘The traveller has no place where he is accepted, and so Subtly Penetrating follows. Subtly Penetrating means entering in.’

The traveller at 56.4 has only a temporary shelter; 57.6 is going further and further in.

Simply reading the two lines as a story already casts light on them: my heart is not glad, in 56.4, because I have an inkling of the loss to come. (This is one of those striking, resonant uses of ‘my’ that creates some distance from the protagonist of the line. Perhaps it is the oracle’s heart not glad, or a wiser narrator’s.) And if 56.4 is anticipating, then 57.6 might be remembering – coming from 56.4, it was never entirely, decisively confident of owning property and axe, and goes endlessly digging for certainty.

Line pathways and connections

Let’s keep exploring…

56.4 and the tides of history

56.4 changes to Hexagram 52, Stilling – naturally enough, since this ‘place to stay’ is where the traveller comes to a halt. The name of Hexagram 52 shows a solitary human figure, turning away. This is stilling as a response or reaction to movement, not as a permanent state.

Reading across the paired lines…

‘Feng is flooded with darkness
At midday, seeing a froth of light.
Your right arm broken,
Not a mistake.’

‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

…the traveller’s situation reflects the person stymied by events in 55.3 – in the dark, not seeing where to go, incapacitated. To me, the lines seem to share a sense of helplessness, being overtaken by events. The traveller hasn’t quite been overtaken yet, but there’s an uneasy sense that he will be, soon. It’s his property and place to stay today, but it could be someone else’s tomorrow.

In practice, I usually get 56.4 when there’s a creeping anxiety and a fear of losing ground – as if I might need to run faster to stay in the same place. It’s almost as if having whatever-it-is now creates the possibility of losing it. I might need to pause and ask myself why I’m not more contented.

The inner lines for this pathway – 52.4 and 51.3 – don’t have the same disquiet:

‘Stilling your self,
No mistake.’

‘Shock revives, revives.
Shock moves without blunder.’

In both of these, there’s a sense ‘things are unfolding as they should’. There may be shock, but it’s timely, it’s doing its work; still yourself, no mistake, no need for you to be running about. And in fact, 55.3 has the same insight: ‘Your right arm broken – not a mistake.‘ Events unfold, there’s not a lot you can do about them, and this is all as it should be. 56.4 is the only line in the pathway that hasn’t got this message – perhaps because attaining shelter, property and axe is the full extent of the traveller’s ambitions?

57.6 and the bottomless Well

56.4 changes to 52, whose name in Chinese shows a human figure. 57.6 changes to 48, the Well – something much bigger.

‘The Well. Moving the city, not moving the well.
Without loss, without gain,
They come and go, the well wells.
Almost reaching, but the rope does not yet draw water from the well,
Breaking one’s clay jug,
Pitfall.’

The well requires human effort, but it also dwarfs us. People come and go, but the water is always there, whether you reach it or not. Human efforts, and decisions, and property, are ‘relativised’: even cities are moved, but not wells. The well construction might belong to everyone, but the water table is timeless, and no-one can own it.

57.6 is joined with 48.6/47.1:

‘The well gathers,
Don’t cover it.
There is truth and confidence,
Good fortune from the source.’

‘Buttocks oppressed with a wooden stick,
Entering into a gloomy valley,
For three years, meeting no-one.’

– lines bringing an awareness that the water table might be over your head. ‘Penetrating under the bed’ comes to mean digging endlessly into something bottomless and shapeless. If 56.4 is hanging on by its fingernails to property and self-determination, 57.6 loses its grip and falls into the endless underground waters. You can’t hold onto ‘your stuff’ in the well, because the whole idea of ownership loses its meaning.

For me, 57.6 tends to mean that I’m over-interpreting other people’s behaviour and worrying too much about their opinions. (I also had it once to describe a day when I got somewhat lost on the London Underground – chiefly because I kept asking directions instead of looking at a map.) ‘What will they think of me?’ is certainly a bottomless, endless question; ‘How to please all the people, all the time?’ is another one, and a good place to lose my grip on my own convictions and have them washed away. I think the line has a more general application, though: it’s about anything that relativises you and yours by putting it in a much bigger context. That could be other people’s opinions, or the passage of time, or even the vastness of nature.

The paired line, 58.1, is very much the ‘other side of the coin’:

‘Subtly penetrating under the bed,
Losing your property and axe.
Constancy, pitfall.’

‘Responsive opening: good fortune’

Subtly penetrating under the bed comes (I think) of a desire to be completely aligned, in complete harmony, with no friction or discord. When the same desire for alignment is turned around and directed outward towards someone specific – as in conversation – then it is good. ‘Responsive’ here is the same word that describes the crane’s young in 61.2, who ‘respond in harmony’ to her call. Its meanings include ‘singing in harmony’ and ‘composing a poem in reply’. So this line’s a healthy extrovert, in comparison to 57.6’s neurotic introvert.

Stories we might tell

What stories might we tell around 56.4 and 57.6? As many as there are readings with each line, of course… but one that seems to me to be murmuring along in the background is that of Zhou and Shang. Hai, the original ‘traveller’ of 56, was a Shang ancestor. His descendants would found a great dynasty – but it would only be a temporary shelter, for they were to lose the Mandate and the Zhou would receive it.

The traveller has his place to stay and things he owns, but there’s still an atmosphere of unease. Someone (that mysterious speaker whose heart is not glad) is aware that events move on, and just because you have this now doesn’t mean you will be able to hold onto it forever.

The protagonist of 57.6 is so intent on exploring the depths – of time, or the collective reality, or the riches of nature – that she finds she has nothing of her own. Scaling up and scaling up, she loses herself from view.

This region of the Sequence (49/50, 54.5, 55…) concentrates on Zhou history – not the ins and outs of military strategy, but rather how they received, owned and implemented their Mandate. This little story of lost property might be asking, sotto voce, ‘Oh, so the Mandate is yours, is it? On what scale?’

The broader perspective that makes your personal experience just one part of the whole can be useful: it allows you to create harmonious exchanges, in 58.1. And it can be reassuring, as in 55.3 and 51.3: I may be stuck, but the wheels of history are turning as they should. Or it can be disconcerting: I have this now, but for how long? And ultimately, if you zoom out (or penetrate in) far enough, your experience and ownership disappears altogether. I think of the idea that people ‘own’ ancient woodland, or of ‘owning’ a ‘cello whose lifespan is measured in centuries. It’s laughable, of course – but also essential: someone has to keep the ‘cello safe from the central heating this winter.

sand running through fingers

One of many interesting things I found in Richard J. Smith’s The I Ching: a biography was an account of Zhu Xi’s approach to divination.

Zhu Xi (1120-1200) wrote firmly of Yi’s identity as an oracle, not just a ‘book of wisdom’. In addition to creating the yarrow method we use now, he also prescribed considerable ritual to be used with it. There are ritual ablutions, a dedicated divination room and table that you approach from the east, passing the yarrow stalks through the incense smoke… it’s all a long way away from ‘visit web page, click button’.

What caught my attention most of all was the quasi-prayer to be recited before the reading, especially its last line:

‘Availing of you, great milfoil, with constancy, I, [name], because of [topic], wonder if I may express my doubts and concerns to the spiritual powers. Whether the news is auspicious or inauspicious, involves a gain or a loss, remorse or humiliation, sorrow or anxiety, you alone with your divine intelligence can provide clear information.’

(Emphasis added.) There are echoes of this prayer in an invocation recorded in the 19th century. Prior to consultation, the temple diviner addresses the gods:

‘A man is now present who is harassed with anxieties, and is unable to solve his doubts and perplexities. We can only look to the gods to instruct us as to what is or is not to take place.’

Here is the same core assumption: the querent has a problem that only the oracle can solve. And although I’ve never counselled anyone on the correct placement of an incense burner relative to their yarrow stalks, this is advice I recognise. Yijing divination is for things we cannot know in other, more ‘normal’ ways. If you can learn the answer by…

  • consulting a doctor
  • buying a pregnancy test
  • consulting a lawyer
  • using a search engine
  • making a phone call
  • …and so on…

…then do that. The answer you get this way will be altogether more use: less open to interpretation, more likely to give you peace of mind, easier to act on.

Having said that… yes, I fail to take this advice all the time, too – or at least, I take it with a liberal pinch of interpretation…

For example, a month ago I had a great chunk of enamel fall off a back tooth. After a week or so of treating this with great TLC I was unsure whether the tooth was a) hardening and stabilising or b) decaying – and dealt with my uncertainty by asking Yi what was going on in there.

My friends enquired why (on earth) I did not go to my dentist, who could obviously answer this question far more straightforwardly. Well… because I had a whole lot of ‘doubts and perplexities’ along the lines of, ‘The dentist will want to drill and refill, but the drilling would damage the tooth’s capacity for self-repair, but that’s only relevant if it even has any chance of repairing itself in its current state, and if it hasn’t then I should get the dentist to re-fill it quick before I lose the whole tooth…’ and so on. Caught in that kind of endless loop, it feels natural to me to ask Yi. However, unless you share my strong fondness for dentinal tubules, my hesitation over seeing a dentist is going to appear quite insane.

A more familiar example would be the wise advice:

‘Never mind asking Yi how he feels about you, talk to him!’

This is generally very good advice indeed, but if someone wants to have an idea what’s going on before taking the plunge into such an excruciatingly difficult conversation, can you blame them?

The basic principle that we should ask Yi only when we cannot resolve our anxieties any other way is a good one; applying some logic and old-fashioned common sense (which, as my mother’s mother told her, isn’t common) to the issue might prevent much confusion, and much wear-and-tear on the yarrow stalks.

But really, this isn’t just about where to find good information: it’s about knowing how best to change our inner state. What can bring you sufficient confidence and peace of mind to move forward, engage with the issue and get on with life? Sometimes that’ll be an expert opinion, and sometimes the kind of change of perspective that only a reading can create.

smoke rising from incense burner

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