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Strength in the axle straps of a great chariot

While researching for the ‘journeys’ session I came across this page of research results of Anthony Barbieri-Low. Scroll down to the last one on the page, and you’ll find a beautifully clear reconstruction of a Shang chariot. A little below this there is a link to an animation of the reconstruction, with the ‘camera’ slowly panning round to view the construction from all angles.

Some lines of the Yijing use very specific chariot imagery: the struts come loose, or the axle strap is loose, or the strength to break through a hedge is in the axle strap. Maybe it’s my hopelessly feminine brain, but before looking at this reconstruction I’d never had a very clear mental image of what an ‘axle strap’ (or ‘axle bearing’, ‘axle mount’ etc) actually was, or what function it served. Of course the basic meaning of these lines is still available, just from English idiom like ‘the wheels came off’. But when you look at the underside of this chariot, it’s clear there’s more significance to it than that.

The wheels look to be fixed to the axle, which rotates. And all that connects the revolving axle to the body of the vehicle are four leather straps. (Well, they wouldn’t have got far if they’d bolted the axle solidly to the chassis…) Those straps have to survive the constant friction and withstand stress in all directions as the hard wheels bounce over uneven terrain – and all with maybe three men riding in the thing. You can imagine the effect if one of the straps snapped while the horses were at full gallop.

So I have a new respect for axle straps: out of sight, holding things together with an elastic, flexible strength. Whereas wheel struts might give way because they can’t withstand the weight the vehicle’s loaded with (Hexagram 9, line 3), axle straps must be put under most strain when you’re moving and changing direction.

I also find it easier to understand how the second line of Hexagram 26, Great Taming, can be advice:
‘A cart: loosen the axle straps.’
It would fit with the hexagram’s overarching theme of skillfully nurturing and using power. To preserve the elasticity of the leather, loosen the straps when the cart is at rest; don’t keep things in a constant state of high tension. This is speculative, of course, but I’ve seen a couple of readings recently where this was the meaning that leapt off the page.

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