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What’s wrong with carting corpses, anyway?

What’s wrong with carting corpses, anyway?
This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Two-line relationships


Two lines in Hexagram 7, the Army, talk about carting corpses:

line 3:

‘Perhaps the army carts corpses.

and line 5:

‘The fields have game
Fruitful to speak of capture:
No mistake.
When the elder son leads the army,
And younger son carts corpses:
Constancy, pitfall.’

The core meaning is surely intuitively obvious: an army with cartloads of corpses is not doing well. It’s like a much grimmer version of ‘having baggage’ – and in readings, that understanding works well.

Not so simple

But then Steve Marshall brought out The Mandate of Heaven, with its fascinating insights into the allusions to Zhou history in the text of the oracle. He pointed out that the word ‘shi’, corpse, could be singular as well as plural, and so this looked like a reference to the story of King Wu taking his father’s corpse with him in a war chariot when he set out against the Shang.

The enigmatic ‘Questions of Heaven’ poem is the earliest source for the story:

‘Wu rose up and slaughtered Chou [the last Shang king].
What need had he to worry?
He bore a body into battle.
What need had he for haste?’

(‘Shi’ can be translated equally well as ‘corpse’ or the ‘spirit tablet’ that would house Wen’s spirit, but Marshall follows those who read this as the more outrageous action of taking the body itself.)

The idea is that, before the prescribed three years of mourning for his father were completed, Wu received clear omens that it was time to march on Shang – and so he had to set out, taking the desiccated, unburied corpse in its chariot to lend Wen’s spiritual authority to the campaign. The ‘sons’ of line 5 are Wen’s sons, Wu and probably the Duke of Zhou. Despite this egregious breach of filial piety, their campaign was successful.

So since the Zhou triumphed, and this is the oracle of the Zhou for whom this was an unambiguously Good Thing, why the bad omens?

Explaining the omens

Marshall himself referred to a (later) tradition that there were bad omens for this campaign from both tortoise and yarrow omens, but a bold general threw away the yarrow stalks and stomped on the tortoise shells, saying, ‘What do withered bones and dead plants know about good luck or bad luck!’ They marched on, and won anyway.

This, though, leaves us with an almighty puzzle about the lines. When we consult Yi and it says,

‘Perhaps the army carts corpses.

– are we supposed to spot the historical reference and not take the omen too seriously? Did we consult the oracle just so it could remind us that oracles sometimes get it wrong? (‘Don’t believe me; I’m a liar.’) The irony seems a bit much. (And the idea of stomping on the sacred tortoise, which comes from a 1st century AD source, seems anachronistic.)

Stephen Karcher incorporated many of Marshall’s discoveries in his Total I Ching, and his solution to this conundrum is simply to add text of his own, ‘borrowed’ from Hexagram 55:

“The Legions are carting the corpse.
‘Perhaps stay in mourning?’ Trap! The Way closes.”

So the bad omen becomes associated instead with not marching out with the corpse, ‘carrying your inspiration with you’. (Though he also incorporates the traditional understanding, and encourages you to be rid of old, dead ideas.)

I puzzled over this one when working on my own book, and settled on the idea that just because exceptional measures worked then, in the Golden Age, it doesn’t mean they’ll work now. I found an elegant literary parallel at work: carting the corpse is like carting a precedent of great emotional significance to you, and not a good idea.

‘The corpses used to be filled with vitality, but now they’re just dead weight. The mindset, strategy or emotion that used to be an inspiring source of strength is now a lifeless husk.’ (As you can probably tell, I also had in mind the fan yao, 46.3, with its once-lively empty city.) I found this refinement of the original ‘gruesome baggage’ idea also worked well in readings, so I’ve got quite attached to it.

Perhaps it is simple, after all

But then came Stephen Field’s Duke of Zhou Changes, in which he says that the occasion on which Wu carted the corpse into battle was the first of two marches on the Shang, one from which he turned back because of bad omens.

Marshall knew of this story and didn’t find it credible – but since then, David Pankenier has correlated it very exactly to astronomical signs.

In this version of Zhou history, Wu marched east to the Fords of Meng in 1048BC, only two years after his father’s death. He followed the path of Jupiter, as it moved east across the night sky. But then Jupiter suddenly paused and went retrograde, and when they arrived at the Fords they were met by atrocious weather and bad omens from both tortoise and yarrow. Wu rejected the urging of his bellicose generals and retreated back to the Zhou homeland. Two years later, there were spectacularly favourable celestial omens, similar to those that first gave his father Wen Heaven’s Mandate, and he marched out and conquered.


So perhaps those cryptic lines in ‘Questions of Heaven’ are suggesting that Wu didn’t need to be in such a hurry, after all? And two-part structure of 7.5 makes more sense:

‘The fields have game
Fruitful to speak of capture:
No mistake.
When the elder son leads the army,
And younger son carts the corpse:
Constancy, pitfall.’

On the one hand, talking about the prospect of a successful campaign is no mistake. On the other hand, carrying your idea through with constancy, actually marching out with the corpse, is a bad idea.

I started realising just how beautifully this version of Zhou history resonates with the Yijing text when looking at the Sequence, and specifically the set of 10 hexagrams that revolve around the axis of hexagrams 11 and 12. More on that in ‘Exploring the Sequence’ inside Change Circle; for now, suffice to say that the oracle of Hexagram 12,

‘Blocking it, non-people.
Noble one’s constancy bears no fruit.
Great goes, small comes.’

looks to me more than anything like the terrible experience of marching all the way to the Fords with the best of intentions, only to find that stars and natural omens and both oracles are all against you, so there’s nothing for it but to turn back.

Also, perhaps this is relevant to lines 6.2 (zhi 12) and 6.4?

One more hint

More and more, I’m finding Yi has a lot of answers hidden in plain sight. In this case, 7.3.5 changes to Hexagram 48, the Well:

‘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,

This is a beautiful hexagram, but also highly unusual in having an omen of misfortune in its main oracle text. It specifically describes the misfortune of almost making it, but not quite. 48 is not quite 49: we need better preparations, a fully-lined well, a longer rope and a new jug before the Revolution.

3 responses to What’s wrong with carting corpses, anyway?

  1. I usually got 7.3 as a clear warning not to share authority, i.e. to keep my decision power centralised.
    I think the pitfall in 7.3 results directly from there being “too many leaders”: there’s the prince, the oracle, the corpse and the generals, all in leadership role, all conflicted.

    7.6 is similiar. It advises not to dissolve the central power already achieved.

    • Hi – thanks for the thought, interesting! Perhaps we can also lose authority by thinking half about what works now and half about what we’re ‘meant to do’ according to precedent?

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