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Rethinking the Well

Lars Bo Christensen has brought out a very interesting new translation of the Zhouyi: Book of Changes – the original core of  the I Ching. I should post a full review one of these days (short version: yes, definitely buy it), but for now I just wanted to share something that’s made me think again about the oracle of Hexagram 48, the Well.

My version from 2010:
‘The Well. Moving the city, not moving the well.
Without loss, without gain,
They come and go, the well wells.
Almost drawn the water, but the rope does not quite reach the water,
Or breaking one’s clay jug,

‘The Well. The town may be changed,
But the well cannot be changed.
It neither decreases nor increases.
They come and go and draw from the well.
If one gets down almost to the water
And the rope does not go all the way,
Or the jug breaks, it brings misfortune.’

Wilhelm says the town may be ‘changed’, but goes on in his commentary to talk about the ancient practice of moving capital cities – an idea that found its way into my translation. And Wilhelm adds an ‘if’ at the end for the unfortunate scenario of the too-short rope and broken jug, so that the meaning-structure of the oracle falls into two parts: ‘Here are some general truths about wells; however, here is what can go wrong.’

Lars’ version is very different:

‘The Well. It is bad if the village is renewed, but the well is not renewed. Without [thinking about] what they can lose or gain, [people just] come and go to the well. But the well can dry up even to the point where you cannot quite [reach down] to draw water from the well, [and prolonged use] will wear out its bucket.’

This isn’t my favourite part of Lars’ book, but – especially in his footnotes – he makes a very interesting challenge to the whole idea of translating gai 改 as ‘moving’ the city. He points out that a quite different phrase is used to mean ‘move the city’ in 42.4. Also, the character appears in 49.4 for ‘changing mandate’ – where you could say it means ‘relocating the mandate’ (from Shang to Zhou), but it’s a bit of a stretch. And 48 overall – line texts, too – is mostly about repairing the well. So he translates it here as ‘renew’.

I went to look this up. Dictionary meanings? Change, amend, transform, modify, correct, put right… – nothing about relocation. In compound words in modern Chinese it also has to do with reforming, improving, rearranging and remaking – also nothing about moving. In the Shijing, the Book of Songs, it appears three times: to mend (a worn coat), the turning of the year, and not-gai meaning ‘unvarying’. Still nothing about relocation. Hmm.

What about the etymology? The phonetic component might be a loom thread or shuttle; the signific is a hand wielding an axe or mattock – a digging tool. The phonetic component apparently had an ancient meaning of ‘unravelling’ – which makes me wonder if it was chosen for this character to suggest ‘unmaking and remaking’. (Nowadays, land-gai means agrarian reform, and gai-group is to reshuffle.)

So there is plenty of evidence to back up Lars’ view that this means not ‘you can move cities but not wells’ (not least, come to think of it, that there is no ‘may’ or ‘cannot’ in the Chinese!) but ‘you’re making repairs to your city, not your well’. What difference does this make to the oracle as a whole?

To begin with, it casts a whole new light on ‘without loss, without gain’. It is actually not convincing to say this means ‘the level of the well water never decreases or increases’: water tables do rise and fall, and human activity has an effect. (Just the other day I read a triumphant story from Tigray, where the fruits of shared labour mean you now have to dig only 10 ft down to find water, when it used to be 50ft.)

Also, the meanings of the words are (sorry, Wilhelm) not just ‘decrease’ and ‘increase’. They’re loss as in mourning for the dead and gain as in getting or achieving, literally a hand grasping money. Sang 喪, losing, appears quite a lot in the Yi, and always with an object, losing something specific: partners, a helper; sheep, a horse, cattle; a ladle, a veil, a hundred thousand coins. Always a clear and unmistakable loss, never just a matter of degree.

‘No loss no gain’ starts to sound to me like inertia – like me sitting at my desk all day and not exercising. There’s no gain and no loss obvious enough to weep over, I just get gradually fatter and stiffer. If the well is falling slowly into disrepair, over the course of years or maybe generations, there is never a day when you wake up and find you have lost your well in the same way you might lose your sheep, and mourn the loss. Rather –

‘We come and go, the well wells.’

I’ve always loved the poetic simplicity of that line: just four characters of Chinese, ‘go come well well’. We have comings and goings, to and fro; the well has no such contrasts, no such running about. For me this creates the same kind of effect as a timelapse video: the well quiet and still, and human feet scurrying to and fro, accelerated to absurdity.

This is still beautiful, still reassuring… but is it also tinged with melancholy? The meaning-structure is no longer ‘on the one hand, here are some beautiful truths about wells; on the other hand, this can go wrong’ but a straightforward, single story of neglect. (Very close in meaning to Lars’ version, in fact…) I’ve always thought it odd that what we generally regard as a ‘good’ hexagram should end its oracle with ‘pitfall’*.

‘The Well. Repairing the city, not repairing the well,
Nothing lost, nothing gained,
We come and go; the well wells.
Almost reaching, and yet the rope not quite drawing water,
Your clay pitcher weakened,

(*Actually, it’s very interesting to look at which hexagrams do mention ‘pitfall’ – misfortune, bad luck – in their oracles. Not 23, not 29, not 36, not 47 – but 6, 8, 19 and 48. And the ones that have ‘pitfall’ as the last word are 8, 19 and 48. They seem to have a common theme: you have something good here, and it’s unfortunate when you mess it up.)


3 thoughts on “Rethinking the Well”

  1. Although I can understand the doubt regarding gai 改 as ‘move’, the Han Shu 漢書 uses the expression 改邑 to refer to the relocation of a city:

    Your subject has heard that in former days Pan Geng moved the city to begin the way of Yin…
    (; see also

    Which shows that in the old days 改邑 meaning ‘to move the city/capital’ was not that odd.

  2. Interesting, thank you! When does the Han Shu date from?

    I’m just about to post a review of Lars’ book with a question about Chinese word order – hope you will comment!

  3. The Han Shu was finished in 111 AD. Mind you, I do believe Lars his translation is better (although I would opt for ‘restore’ instead of ‘renewed’; ‘the well’ might also be ‘the wells’, cities often had more than 1 water source – I remember a quote which said that ‘1 city has 4 wells’). This hexagram stresses the importance of the wells for a city and that proper maintenance of them is essential for the welfare of the citizens.

    About word order: as requested I’ll address that in a comment to your next blog post.

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