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Borders and boundaries

Borders and boundaries

What is Jie 介 ?

The character jie 介 occurs three times in the Yi:


Boundaries of stone,
Not for a whole day.
Constancy, good fortune.’


‘Now advancing, now apprehensive.
Constancy, good fortune.
Accepting this armour blessing from your ancestral mother.’


‘Negotiating opening, not yet at rest.
Containing the affliction brings rejoicing.’

As you can see, I haven’t managed to translate it with the same word each time: no-one does, and there’s a lot of variability in the translations. Even 58.4, which on the face of it seems the simplest, has translations of ‘jie affliction’ varying from ‘ward off harm’ (Lynn) to ‘disease confined’ (Rutt) to ‘great illness’ (Field) to ‘being aided when ill’ (Redmond).


What does it mean?

In the Shijing, the Book of Songs, jie overwhelmingly means ‘confer/ grant/ vouchsafe [a blessing]’. It’s used again and again at the end of songs and hymns to ask the ancestors to bless the ruler, and also used to describe the king conferring authority on a feudal lord.

In the Liji, the Book of Rites, jie means armoured, shelled (as in ‘creatures with shells’), and ‘attendants’ – as far as I can see, it’s only used once as a verb, meaning ‘to present’.

How can one word possibly mean everything from an attendant to a beetle’s carapace to the act of an ancestor granting long life?

In the dictionary, jie is defined as ‘armour, shell’ and ‘be situated between, interpose’. According to Richard Sears, its original meaning is ‘border’ and the original character is thought to show a man in armour protecting the border.

As far as I can see, the meaning stretches from ‘what goes inbetween (you and everything out there)’, including the attendants who flank you, to ‘what covers you (and protects you against everything out there)’ to ‘the act of covering and shielding you’. There’s something comparable in Psalm 28: ‘the Lord is my strength and shield,’ and ‘shield’ there is a word that means both armour, defending a city, and the scaly hide of a crocodile. I get the idea of being clothed in spiritual power or authority.

But what about the use of the word in the Yi, which is neither quite a book of songs and invocations, nor quite a book of prescriptions for correct behaviour?

Jie and kan

Yi, of course, makes its meanings out of structures as well as words. So here are the three structures in which the word jie appears:

changing to


changing to


changing to

As you can see, in each one, the line change creates the trigram kan.

Kan is traditionally said to represent pits and running water. If you consider the yang line to represent what moves and acts, and the yin lines to represent what’s acted on, then it looks like a river flowing between its banks. The river is acting and carving its course… though then again, the banks are also containing and directing the flow of the river. Where the two meet, they are always shaping one another.

And now, thinking of the trigram kan, look at the shape of the ancient character jie:

ancient character jie

The border guard in his armour is represented as a solid human figure clothed in something broken and flexible.

If it’s possible, I would like to learn what the trigrams meant to the people who wrote the Zhouyi – not just what they meant in separate, parallel traditions such as that represented by the Shuogua Wing, but the understanding revealed by the Zhouyi itself. I think this association of jie with kan is a tiny fragment of that understanding.

Jie in the Yi

Once I’d looked at jie, looked at kan, and got very Yeekily excited, I dived into the line texts in more depth. From this, I think I can see…

  • a consistent theme running through the lines (even though the word jie is used in different ways), and
  • that theme expressed in different, evolving ways according to the phase of the Sequence to which each hexagram belongs.

16.2: boundaries of rock

‘Boundaries of stone,
Not for a whole day.
Constancy, good fortune.’

This is one of those lines addressed by the master diviner who speaks in the Dazhuan. This does not take a whole day, he says, because the protagonist ‘knows the seeds’, recognises what is incipient – is quick on the uptake, basically, and so doesn’t have to wait for events to play themselves out.

Wilhelm translates this one as ‘firm as a rock’ (not impressionable); Rutt translates as ‘pilloried on the rock’. Both readings fit quite naturally with this idea of ‘not for a whole day’: it doesn’t take someone who is ‘firm as a rock’ long to understand the seeds; the punishment on the rock doesn’t take a whole day because the person learns their lesson quickly.

What does happen with these rocks? The Chinese has just three words: ‘jie at/to/by/from rock’. Direct translations could be ‘bordered by rocks’, ‘armoured by rocks’ or ‘hemmed in by rocks’. Field even observes the elephant in the name of 16, and thinks the line describes an attempt at containing it.

Is this rock-solid boundary a protective blessing, or is it oppressive? Well… ask a teenager and their parents about boundaries.

Also, consider a third possibility (thanks to LiSe for opening my eyes to this one): that they’re also formative. Boundaries of rock shape you, harden you, keep you safe – but that doesn’t take all day.

Why not? Because this line is 16 changing to 40: Enthusiasm’s Release. Release unties knots, solves problems, sees what can be done and sets out at daybreak. Teenagers see how the world should be different and set out to change it.

For another view of boundaries, consider the paired line, 15.5:

‘Not rich in your neighbour:
Fruitful to use this to invade and conquer.
Nothing that does not bear fruit.’

You have neighbours because there is a boundary between your land and theirs. Such a boundary is essential – but not impregnable. There may come a moment when you can no longer live within them. What persists when boundaries crumble is constancy: persisting loyally in what you know to be true. Inner security – like the teenager who knows that the world must change – is stronger than rock.

35.2: mantled in blessing

‘Now advancing, now apprehensive.
Constancy, good fortune.
Accept this jie blessing from your ancestral mother.’

This line sounds closest to the use of jie in the Book of Songs: an ancestor confers a blessing. ‘Accept this conferred blessing’, maybe ‘or ‘accept this protective blessing’ – or both.

I find it intriguing that it says ‘accept this blessing,’ though. (I failed to notice this in my book.) After Christmas dinner, when we settle down to open presents, if I say, ‘Take this one,’ it’s because I’m already handing you a parcel. Couldn’t it be the same in the line, with ‘this’ referring to a blessing you can already see?

…in other words, might the apprehension itself be the conferred armour-blessing?

Think of the nature of this line’s anxiety. It’s where 35, Advancing, meets 64, Not Yet Across: making progress, but not yet arrived. What if you can’t make it across? Apprehension marks the boundary where your plans and intention meet your circumstances – and you created this boundary, this line of tension, by making progress. To be apprehensive because you are making progress might be described as a blessing in itself.

Boundaries, here, draw a line between you, with your resolve, on the inside, and the circumstances you’re worried about, on the outside. ‘Constancy is good fortune’ because inner resolve is stronger and more real. (Constancy means good fortune in both 16.2 and 35.2, and also in the fan yao of each line, 40.2 and 64.2.)

This protective mantle of apprehension shields and strengthens you; it makes you acutely aware of where the edges are, what’s part of you and what isn’t. (For more on this idea, in association with kan, see the Tuanzhuan on Hexagram 29.) So this, like the banks of the river, and like the rock boundary of 16.2, has a shaping and defining effect.

58.4: contain the infection

‘Negotiating opening, not yet at rest.
Containing the affliction brings rejoicing.’

Jie clearly means something different here: it’s containing the affliction, not conferring it. Still, the idea is very similar to 35.2: jie wraps round the anxiety or disease, setting a boundary, defining its edges. Rutt cites Arthur Waley, who thought jie in these lines could describe a kind of magical practice of containment.

This is 58 changing to 60: Opening’s Measure and Limiting. Hexagram 60 draws lines, subdivides things, breaks them into segments like the bamboo stem. The line seems to show two ways ‘Opening with Measure’ could go: an anxious desire to nail everything down and set comprehensive terms (as I think also happens in 61.6 zhi 60), or breaking things down into manageable portions. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof; cross that bridge when you come to it; eat the elephant one bite at a time.

The negotiations are ongoing, there’s no peace settlement yet – and the important thing seems to be to let them stay open and a work in progress, and not be in too much of a hurry. (The paired line, 57.3, is part of the same idea.) The jie boundary still draws a line between an inner state (affliction, illness, stress, feverishness…) and the outer world, but now I think it’s there to protect the outer world. The negotiations need to be insulated from any contagion.

Summing up…

Change Circle members who’ve read the Sequence book will be familiar with the idea that the final part of the Sequence belongs to elders, storytellers and those who make history. Boundaries shape – but can’t hold – the young ones; they become a gift of awareness and protection for the adventurous adult; they keep fretful individuals out of the way of the flow of history.

And one more thing,

A word from the Department of Wild Speculation

As Field points out, the word translated ‘Negotiating’ in 58.4 is actually the name of the Shang dynasty. His translation begins, ‘There is negotiation with Shang, but no reconciliation as yet.’

Also, the final two words of the line, ‘having rejoicing’, are a phrase meaning ‘expecting a child’. ‘Nine at fourth’s rejoicing,’ says the xiaoxiang, ‘has celebrations.’

It would make particularly good sense to protect a pregnant woman from infectious disease.

The business with Zhou and Shang was only ultimately resolved when Wu, son of Wen and (almost certainly) a Shang mother, came to power. 57/58 – again, see the Sequence book – is the axis of a ‘history-making’ decade of hexagrams, looking backward to the second wife in 54 and forward into the ‘sweet measures’ of Zhou rule, and linked via 57.5’s line pathway to the ‘small child’ of 17.2 – the ‘small child’ being the name Wu gave himself in speeches.

So… perhaps we might need to keep the feverish contagion at a safe distance, in 58.4, and allow the negotiations to be unresolved, while we wait for Wu’s birth.

Field sees in 35.2 a specific reference to Kang, a younger brother of Wu, being granted the fiefdom of Wei with its relocated Shang nobles because of his Shang mother.

The exact number and birth order of King Wen’s sons isn’t clear, but S.J. Marshall says that Wu is Wen’s second son of ten, and Kang his ninth. In that sense, both are middle sons  – like kan.

tortoise on a wall

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