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Stripping Away: a change of perspective

Stripping Away: a change of perspective
This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Hexagram 23

I wrote about how Stripping Away, in its ideal form as depicted by the Image, might be painless – but that’s not how the process starts, and not our dominant experience of it. Hexagram 23 typically shows up as something you have to undergo; it is fruitless to have a direction to go. You don’t plan or explore your way out of this one, or have much of a say in the outcome. (Perhaps it’s one of those situations where you retain only the freedom to choose your response.)

Hexagram 23’s change in perspective – from Stripping Away as pure loss, to the possibility of generosity and tranquility – takes place between lines four and five.

Lines 1-4: Stripping Away as loss

Read through the first four line texts:

‘Stripping away the bed, by way of its supports.
To disregard constancy: pitfall.’

‘Stripping away the bed by way of its frame.
To disregard constancy: pitfall.’

‘Stripping away. No mistake.’

‘Stripping the bed by way of the flesh.

Thus far there is clear pattern: every line begins with ‘stripping’, and all except line 3 then tell you what’s being stripped.

Stephen Field suggests that this is the crisis in the story of Wang Hai (of hexagram 56 fame) and the end of his ill-advised liaison with the local ruler’s wife. Hai was betrayed by his jealous brother Heng, caught by the guards in the wrong bed, and butchered where he lay. These are certainly lines about loss.

Lines 5 and 6: a new perspective

What happens next?

‘String of fish
Through the favour of the palace people.
Nothing that does not bear fruit.’

‘A ripe fruit uneaten.
Noble one gets a cart,
Small people strip their huts.’

Line 5 brings a complete change of perspective: not stripping away, but stringing together; not loss, but a gift.

(It’s far from clear whether the palace people give or receive this favour: even RJ Lynn and Wilhelm differ on this. But at least we can say that gift-giving happens, and palace people are involved – and they are almost certainly women, because not only is ‘palace people’ a traditional expression for ‘palace women’, but ‘favour’ originally implied ‘favoured and favourite concubine’.)

It’s often the case that the Image can be read as commentary on the 5th line of a hexagram. That’s not surprising: the Image authors set out to describe the best response one might choose in the hexagram’s situation; naturally they would have studied the line texts, and line 5 is very often the line of autonomy and choice.

And here, line 5 describes a gift, and the Image –

‘Mountain rests on the earth. Stripping Away.
The heights are generous, and there are tranquil homes below.’

– speaks of the benefits of generosity. The word for ‘generous’ includes the idea of upside-down: the direction is changing; what was above flows down. Line 6 is the summit of the mountain, and line 5 already on its slopes.

Fish are an omen of good fortune, but this is a string of dried fish: good fortune stored up, just like the mountain’s store of mineral riches. The shift of perspective isn’t just from loss to gain but also from immediate experience to the longer term. As we climb higher, we can See Stripping Away as a necessary redistribution, one that also creates relationship.

23.5 changes to Hexagram 20, Seeing. This is Stripping Away seen from a higher and broader perspective, so the whole picture can come into view. There is ‘nothing that does not bear fruit’, even Stripping Away, if you can See it from here.

We’ve had four lines of stripping away and loss; now here are two of reconnection, relationship and coherence. The two lines are traditionally read as connected, with line 5 yin lending support to line 6 yang, as the people support the ruler. An analogy: lines 5 and 6 are like a hand picking an apple. As an apple ripens, a layer of cells in its stem naturally die off, until it falls. So to pick the fruit, you don’t pull at it; you cup it in your hand and lift. If the fruit’s ripe, it will come away from the tree.

The fruit not eaten is a sign that this story isn’t finished – at least, not for the noble one. The small people can see nothing beyond destruction, but a cart is for going somewhere else. There’s potential still unused and possibilities unexplored.

A new perspective on Hai and Heng

So how does this fit with the story of Hai and Heng? Field continues the story fluently through the fifth and sixth lines. After Hai was killed, Heng fled back to his people, telling them only that Hai was murdered and the flocks stolen. The people made him king and sent him to recover the flocks – but instead he ‘stayed and resumed his intemperate lifestyle.’ The people eventually made Hai’s son Wei their king, and it was Wei who finally sacked Yi and recovered the flocks. It’s another story – like Gun and Yu, like the Zhou story itself – in which the son completes the father’s work.

Field sees Heng’s return to favour in Yi in line 5, and the final triumph of Wei in line 6. He points out that the fish is a sexual symbol, so ‘this may be an indication that the consort of Yi is now cavorting with the younger brother, Heng.’ And at line 6, ‘if the fish of line 5 represents Heng, then the uneaten fruit of line 6 must represent the consort of Yi. The nobleman, Shang Jia Wei, would then gain the carriages of war, while the small man, the Chief of Yi, lost his kingdom.’

Yes, but, but… doesn’t this make line 5 sound rather sleazy? Heng isn’t keeping faith with his people, let alone his brother; also, he’s shortly to get his come-uppance at the hands of his nephew. An omen of ‘Nothing that does not bear fruit’ hardly seems to fit this story. But perhaps there is another perspective, besides that of Hang, Heng, Wei and the history of Shang…

Let’s go back to the source of the story in Questions of Heaven. Field translates its opening like this:

‘Danced for him [Hai] the aegis troupe,
Why was he enraptured?
Plump, with no ribs showing,
Why did he get fat?’

So there is a fairly staid story of Hai being corrupted by the good life. But the same passage is translated in Birrell’s Chinese Mythology like this:

‘When he danced with shield and plumes, why did someone desire him?
Why did her smooth flanks and firm flesh grow so plump?’

I’m in no position to say which is a more plausible translation, but I find Birrell’s version more convincing as story-telling.

As Field narrates Hexagram 23, Hai is dismembered in line 4, but the queen has already escaped in line 3. I think of how line 4 is in the outer trigram, but line 3 still on the inside – something hidden, not yet across the threshold into the outside world. What if she were already pregnant with Hai’s child? The fish isn’t only a sexual symbol, after all, but also specifically an omen of fertility – as in Hexagram 44, lines 2 and 4. ‘Nothing that does not bear fruit.’

Hexagram 20 as zhi gua of this line indicates the higher and longer-term perspective; 20.5, its fan yao, reads,

‘Seeing my own life.
The noble one is without mistake.’

Yet what we translate as ‘own life’ here also means ‘birth’ and ‘begetting.’

Just as in Hexagram 44, Coupling (or, in LiSe’s translation, Birth), the fish are followed by the fruit. If we can see the wrapped melon in 44.5 as an image of pregnancy, why not the ‘great fruit’ of 23.6?

I doubt we could ever piece together, from the surviving fragments of this story, what happened to the consort of Yi. But I would like to believe that as the huts of Yi were stripped, she was riding away in a carriage, under the first full moon of spring, with open fields before her.


3 responses to Stripping Away: a change of perspective

  1. […] Your ‘direction to go’ can be whatever plan you have in mind, your purpose or vision or intent, or something as slight as a curiosity to explore in a certain direction. The root of the idea is to travel from the centre to the borders, to explore and sound out the unknown. Stephen Field associates Hexagram 23 with King Hai at Yi – exploring and testing his boundaries in a new culture, something that didn’t work out so well for him. […]

  2. Thanks Hilary!
    Very good read of hexagram 23- one of those hexagrams I considered to be purely negative, even scary. Now I can see how much the situation described by the hexagram can be intriguing.

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