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Fathers and sons II: carting corpses

The biggest story arc of the Yijing is the Conquest story: how the Zhou people inherited the mandate of heaven and overthrew the Shang dynasty. It’s a great narrative of Change: the decay of the Shang; the preparations of the good Zhou ruler Wen, making his people worthy of the mandate of heaven; how his son Wu took up the work where Wen left it, accepted the mandate, completed the conquest.

Wu did more than just inherit Wen’s mantle, though. Wen, whose name means ‘Pattern’, was a peacetime ruler, creator of a state so naturally harmonious that allies were drawn to it. Wu’s name means ‘martial’, and he had to lead his people to war. The story as Steve Marshall reconstructed it (and if by some outlandish chance you don’t have a copy of The Mandate of Heaven yet, this post can wait while you go and order it…) has Wen dying at Feng, the garrison city. Wu would have been expected to enter into years of isolated mourning at this stage, but instead he responded to dramatic omens and divinations and came out to launch the final campaign.

And it seems that instead of having his father’s spirit safely housed in an wooden tablet to carry into battle and protect the armies, Wu may actually have taken his father’s corpse. This, Marshall suggests (following Richard Rutt), is what those lines of Hexagram 7 are about:

‘Maybe the army carts a corpse.


‘There is game in the fields.
Harvest from seizing words [probably meaning ‘discussion about seizing it’, I think].
No mistake.
The older son leads the army,
The younger son carts the corpse.
Constancy, pitfall.’

This is a key moment for that theme of fathers and sons, and how the new generation might be challenged to continue or to transform their fathers’ work. But – the Zhou won. So why the bad omens?

From the standpoint of a diviner, this feels intuitively obvious: carting a corpse is like the English idiom, ‘carrying emotional baggage’, but altogether more vivid and more horrible. And in my experience this is the primary meaning in divination: carrying something dead.

That doesn’t answer the basic question, of course. Why would something that worked for Wu come down to us with a negative omen attached?

Marshall quotes a story told in the 1st century AD, that Wu’s divination for the attack was negative, but he rejected the answer and went ahead regardless. Freeman Crouch picks up on this and says of line 3, ‘The oracle was wrong. Sometimes the oracle is wrong. Ultimately, the decision is in your hands.’ (From I Ching: the Chameleon Book.)

That’s certainly one way of looking at it. But it seems a decidedly odd way to compile an oracle, inserting an omen in the hope future diviners will know it’s wrong, like a cryptic ‘out of order’ sign for insiders.

Another possibility is that this negative omen was added to the text later in its development. The word ‘pitfall’ would most likely not have been part of any divination at the time, as it hasn’t been found in any oracle bone divinations.

So maybe… maybe later diviners found that this line was in fact accompanied by misfortune. Maybe this happened some time after Zhou rule began to disintegrate, at a time when people were (maybe) starting to develop an idea of the individual, separate from the social unit. And maybe, in that case, this was also a time to differentiate the present from the past. The Zhou had received the Mandate of Heaven, true, but by the time of the Warring States it was very apparent that they’d lost it again. Some people were saying that new times required new ways of doing things – an idea Wu himself could embody.

Carrying the corpse into battle worked for Wu. But by the time these lines were written, it didn’t work at all. Do you carry the corpse into battle? Will it be a source of inspiration and heavenly protection as it was for Wu – a Pattern King, a model for all your future success? In this new and uncertain world, can the ancients provide the pattern at all?

Or is what you imagine to be your guide and protector really a dead weight?

4 responses to Fathers and sons II: carting corpses

  1. Here’s another way to look at it — perhaps it was unfortunate to cart King Wen’s corpse into battle, perhaps it would have been better to have buried him, perhaps too much importance was attached to taking the actual corpse with them. Perhaps the “misfortune” does not refer to losing the battle but simply to the act of taking the corpse. Perhaps they were going to win whether they took the corpse or not, perhaps taking the corpse was overkill.

    In other words, perhaps the prognostication “disastrous” was not necessarily an answer to whether they would defeat the Shang, but simply a response to taking the corpse. I think there is much to learn from this way of looking, since many who consult the Yi I think assume way too much about what the answer is in reference to. A trivial example: someone asks whether to wear that pink dress to the ball. They get a bad oracle, but then start to think the oracle is saying going to the ball is a bad idea, whereas it was only ever about the pink dress.

    This is a simple example, but a more subtle form of it happens all the time when consulting the Yijing. Most people assume that they are more or less interpreting the oracle correctly, but what I have learnt over the years is that I have a much a greater chance of being right about what the Yi meant 3000 years ago than I have about what it means today.

    That said, in practical divination I find carrying corpses often refers to acting out of guilt rather than because you want to.

    One other point: though ‘wen’ has ‘pattern’ as one of its meanings you really have to take Wen and Wu as a pair. Wu is martial and Wen is civil. ‘Pattern King’ is based on Ritsema’s ‘core-word’ concept, and has been taken a little too far as something having meaning in itself. Though it might give rise to a few interesting thoughts, I don’t think King Wen had stripes.

    Incidentally, I have a few copies of The Mandate of Heaven to sell I’ll probably put on eBay soon.

  2. Hm – thanks. Do you think that ‘Wen’ in the Daxiang of hexagram 9 is a reference to the man himself?

    Let me know when those books are on sale, and I’ll post about it.

  3. I don’t think the reference in the Daxiang text for hexagram 9 is a reference to King Wen, but to general refinement. That said, King Wen is a model of a cultured and refined man, so ‘Wen’s virtue’ and refinement could be regarded as synonymous. But no, it’s not a reference to King Wen in the way Han Feizi writes about him tying his shoelaces. In other words, if Daxiang hexagram 9 refers to King Wen, what does it say about him, and the answer to that is not a lot. Hidden names come into their own when suddenly you have a whole new meaning to look at.

  4. It just occurs to me that sometimes carrying
    a corpse could result in a pitfall – sometimes
    it doesn’t.
    If it might then why do it.

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