Why look for the stories behind the hexagrams?
To start with something uncontentious: the people who wrote the Yi had wisdom and intelligence (as well as mind-boggling genius), and were well-informed, and had good reasons for their choices. One of the things they appear to have been well-informed about is their culture’s myth, legend and recent history – and this awareness is infused throughout the Yi, from little passing historical allusions (the ‘neighbour in the East’ of 63.5 being the Shang, for instance) to huge mythical and legendary narratives pregnant with significance.
Of course, we are a few thousand years too late to share this awareness, but every glimpse we can get opens up new meanings – and, most importantly for me, is wonderfully helpful in divination. It means the diviner isn’t limited to reading and interpreting the text, but can tell the story behind it.
Stories are a big part of how we think, especially how we think about and understand ourselves. They work in a quite different way – on a quite different level of awareness – from concepts:
‘You are hiding away for fear of getting hurt.’
‘Let me think about this. Yes, that could be right.’
‘You are like Prince Ji, who lived under a corrupt regime with a murderous tyrant; he concealed his insight by pretending to be insane.’
The story gives us a new way to see the situation, to understand and experience it. This is not at all the same thing as merely getting a new idea about it. Concepts give us something new to think about; stories give us a new way to think, and that transforms our experience. There’s a reason why religions spring from stories not rulebooks, and why wise teachers tell parables.
How to recognise an intrinsic story?
Connecting a story with a hexagram, or using a hexagram’s unfolding line texts to tell a story, is easy. Recognising an original reference that’s truly part of the Yi, and hence part of the answer it’s giving you, is not. How to recognise the intrinsic stories and tell them apart from the noise of random association?
I can think of three criteria to look for:
- A clear reference in the text: is it really there?
- Resonance with the message and theme of the text: does it fit?
- Experience in readings: how does this work, in practice, as a story-to-think-with?
1. A clear reference in the text
This is a big one. There has to be something in the words of the text that refers clearly to this story – as 36.5 identifies Prince Ji by name. Without this… well, the hexagrams are all broad and general enough to lend themselves to the telling of a whole host of stories, and many translators simply assert that this hexagram is about such-and-such a story with, frankly, no supporting evidence worth mentioning.
Two who do this constantly: Alfred Huang, in The Complete I Ching, and Joseph Yu in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the I Ching. Thus Hexagram 28…
Huang: ‘This gua tells us that after the Zhou dynasty was established, its territory was greatly expanded, and administrative work was extensive.’
Yu: ‘This hexagram describes how the Duke of Zhou handled the rebellion led by his brothers, the Three Monitors.’
Hexagram 47 for Huang is about an expedition led by Wen; for Yu, it’s about the Duke of Zhou & his troops being trapped by rebel tribes.
…and so on. Both are honourable representatives of Chinese tradition, yet they almost never agree on their choice of historical reference – which is telling.
It’s not a bad thing that they associate hexagrams with history. Hexagrams are well-adapted as tools for telling stories, and telling stories with hexagrams – whether personal anecdotes, fiction, myth or legend – is an excellent way to relate to them more deeply. A brilliant example of this: Will Buckingham’s Sixty-Four Chance Pieces – a short story for every hexagram, based on its imagery and language and atmosphere and tradition, capturing something of its essence. Imagination-food, inspiration for readings, new ways of seeing, sources of synchronicity, and simply beautifully written stories. Enjoy (in the UK, too).
Hexagram stories can be brilliant – including as a way into a reading. Commentators asserting without evidence that this is the story (/history) of the hexagram – not so brilliant, especially not as a basis for a reading. You can’t say, ‘Yi says your situation is like this one…’ and make this the foundation of your understanding – not when Yi says nothing of the kind.
(For a well-grounded work associating hexagrams with Zhou history – one that’s helpful and thought-provoking in divination – I’d recommend Freeman Crouch’s Chameleon Book (which you can find at Google books as well as Amazon) It still isn’t gospel, though!)
2) Resonance with the message and theme of the text
This might be even more significant than #1. A reference that isn’t in harmony with the basic message of the reading is nothing but an academic curiosity – interesting, of course, but not something that will help anyone. It also raises questions about its validity. This book was written as an oracle; each hexagram and line has a message to convey. Usually there are many layers of text, structural connection and allusion combining to convey it. If a reference is clearly present, then it’s worth spending time trying to understand why it is part of the oracle – how it fits, what it adds. But if it doesn’t resonate with the overall meaning… then I would consider that to be evidence that it isn’t real.
An example of a reference that doesn’t seem to fit the message: those lines in hexagram 7 that talk about ‘carrying the corpse’. Wu is said, in one version of the conquest story, to have carried his father’s corpse into battle rather than delay the conquest for the required three years of mourning. This is a fairly clear textual reference to the Yi’s central story – but what are we to make of it in readings? Wu was criticised for his choice, true, but he triumphed in battle and founded a great dynasty – and yet ‘carrying the corpse’ is, in both 7.3 and 7.5, ill-omened. So what’s happening here?
In fact, I think the authors were using this story subtly to make a point about something that used to be full of vitality and meaning, but has now become dead weight. Human bodies can do that, and so too can legendary stories. But if someone’s received 7.3, simply saying, ‘You are like King Wu marching out to conquer the Shang and found a great dynasty…’ is not going to help; 7.3 is not the way to conquer or found anything. The historical reference is just one part of how the reading works and speaks to you.
Which brings me to the third important quality of a good identification:
3) Experience in readings
A good reference will work as part of the oracle: it will transform your perception.
There’s a fine example of this in the Sorrells’ The I Ching Made Easy, in their sample reading for Hexagram 36. They describe a woman who was being abused by her husband, but made to feel as if she were the one with something wrong with her. “When the caller heard the title of the hexagram and the story of Prince Chi, who had to pretend to be insane in order to survive, she burst into tears.”
You can recognise that as an oracle at work.
An example: Hexagram 55 and the city of Feng
A less widely-known reference that has the same power: Hexagram 55 as the city of Feng. This was, as far as I know, first identified by SJ Marshall in his Mandate of Heaven in 2001, and it isn’t nearly as well-known as it should be.
The story is of King Wu, the ‘martial king’ of the Zhou: how at the garrison city of Feng, with his father Wen recently dead, he had to assume the military and spiritual leadership and determine whether he yet had Heaven’s Mandate to march on the Shang – or whether he should retreat into the three years of mourning required by tradition. He looked to the skies and received portents that justified his decision to march out. (Marshall thought the lines described a total solar eclipse, but in fact they speak of reading patterns of sunspots.)
Textual fit? Yes. The name of the hexagram is the name of the garrison city Feng; the oracle speaks of ‘not mourning’ and line 6 refers to the mourning hut. Also, the personal name of King Wu, Fa, is at line 2, and in a context that makes sense in translation – ‘to have truth and confidence like Fa is good fortune.’ (Which is important, as Chinese has plenty of multi-purpose words, so just because a character is also a proper noun doesn’t necessarily mean any reference is intended.)
Thematic fit? Absolutely. The theme of the hexagram is such Abundance as to become overwhelming; the Image speaks of the importance of swift decision, like thunder and lightning coming together; the Sequence is from Hexagram 54, the story of someone who is ‘landed’ in a new (and more adult) role without having any choice in the matter; the nuclear hexagram is 28, speaking of such overwhelming pressure that something must be done. Everything resonates with the story.
Usefulness in readings? Yes – unfailingly – the story of overwhelming pressure and unsought responsibility speaks to people who receive Hexagram 55. (It’s also surprisingly often true that a literal bereavement has brought that responsibility.)
This doesn’t mean that Hexagram 36 is about Jizi or Hexagram 55 is named after the city. Finding a reference doesn’t mean you know ‘what it’s about’ and can say, “Feng here means the name of the citadel, not ‘abundance’ after all.” It’s better to think of it as word-play – part of Yi’s fabric of meaning, with its grand abundance of allusions, nudges and reminders. You can’t say ‘this is about that’ any more than you would say that since ‘crossing the great river’ refers to the Zhou crossing into Shang territory, it has nothing to do with how dangerous river-crossing was in general, or about brides crossing rivers to their husbands or young men swimming across to their young women. Yi is not much like a history book, and much more like poetry. It has layers.
Stephen Field’s new book
…The Duke of Zhou Changes, is what prompted this post. I will try to give it a full review soon! It’s a treasure trove for these ‘stories to think in’: more and more accurate information about the ones I knew already (including Wu at Feng), and whole new possible connections to explore. Here it is at Amazon UK and US.