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Melon perspectives

Melon perspectives

I’m experimenting with a different kind of post: taking just one line of the Yi, looking at what the translators and interpreters make of it, and seeing what I can learn from the different perspectives.

Let’s start with the fifth line of Hexagram 44, Coupling – a strange line, in a mysterious hexagram:

‘Using willow to wrap melons.
Containing a thing of beauty,
It is falling from heaven.’

I’ll look at the elements of the line first, and then dive into some commentaries.

The line, one image at a time…

Wrapping melons in willow

There are a couple of different ways to understand this. One is the idea of wrapping a melon for eating in willow leaves while it ripens, to prevent bruising. The more I think about this, the less convincing I find it. All the instructions I can find for melon-growing describe leaving them to ripen on the vine, and resting them on something solid, like a brick, to keep them dry and prevent rot. I suppose you might then wrap the ripe fruit in leaves for storage – but then as Lars Bo Christensen points out, willow leaves are narrow, and a strange choice for wrapping the fruit of a plant that has big, wide leaves itself.

Richard Rutt explains the other understanding: the bottle gourd ‘is bound near the stalk while it is growing, in order to ensure that, when it is dried for use as a flask, it will have a good shape.’ I think this is what’s going on here.

The wrapped melon/ gourd also looks like pregnancy imagery (along with the ‘fish in the wrapper’ in previous lines); the character for ‘wrapping’, bao, shows a foetus in the womb.

Containing a thing of beauty

To ‘contain’ is literally ‘to hold something in the mouth’, and also to contain, restrain or tolerate.

And the ‘thing of beauty’ is zhang, whose dictionary meanings include a chapter of a book, a section of a piece of music, a composition, structure, set of rules or constitution. The old character breaks down into ‘ten’ and ‘sounds’, so maybe ‘musical composition’ is the core idea.
In the Shijing, the Book of Songs, this word means variously the blazon on a flag, finely woven cloth, elegant speech, gold and jade ornaments, ancient statutes, the laws or the personal example given by a great ruler, and the form of the Milky Way in the heavens. I get the impression of a perfectly elegant, distinct shape, whole and complete in itself.

The character zhang with the radical for ‘jade’ means a jade baton (which in itself signified nobility and culture), and there was a custom of holding such a baton in front of your mouth when speaking with the ruler. So some modern translators combine these two characters into ‘hold a jade baton in the mouth’. (Though ‘in the mouth’ and ‘in front of the mouth’ are not the same thing…)

The same hidden/contained zhang appears in 2.3, where it allows constancy, but not for recognition. And the zhang (no longer hidden) is also what’s coming, bringing reward and praise, in 55.5.

Falling from heaven

This is more straightforward, though the word for ‘falling’ does also mean ‘meteorites’; ‘there are meteorites from heaven’ would be a perfectly literal translation.

Zhi gua 50, the Vessel

This is the line that joins Coupling with the Vessel, and I think this should be included in our understanding of the text. For instance… there is a bronze vessel, and there is a more fragile, organic vessel to be shaped with willow twigs. And there is a Vessel representing the new form of government according to the Mandate of Heaven, and there is the zhang (a model, an example, a constitution…) falling from heaven.

Learning from some commentaries

(I’ve looked at lots of commentaries for this, but these are the ones I thought contributed something original.)

The Xiaoxiang

Part of the Yijing, of course, but also the original commentary on the line.

‘Nine at the fifth place contains a thing of beauty: central and correct. Something is falling from heaven: aspiration does not relinquish the mandate.’

The first part of this simply refers to line theory: the fifth place is central, and a yang line in that position is correct. All is in order, the pattern is whole. The second part seems to be about alignment: heaven sends down its mandates, so align your will with that and don’t let it go.

Wilhelm Book I

The translation and commentary:

‘A melon covered with willow leaves.
Hidden lines.
Then it drops down to one from heaven.’

‘The melon, like the fish, is a symbol of the principle of darkness.’ [He means the first, yin line of the hexagram, which he identifies with the threat of the powerful woman.] ‘It is sweet but spoils easily and for this reason is protected with a cover of willow leaves. This is a situation in which a strong, superior, well-poised man tolerates and protects the inferiors in his charge. He has the firm lines of order and beauty within himself but he does not lay stress upon them. He does not bother his subordinates with outward show or tiresome admonitions but leaves them quite free, putting his trust in the transforming power of a strong and upright personality. And behold! Fate is favorable. His inferiors respond to his influence and fall to his disposition like ripe fruit.’

Wilhelm is thinking of the easily-spoiled melon as line 1, and this fifth line as the wise ruler dealing with such things, protecting people who could easily go to the bad. Zhang becomes ‘lines’ – which sounds odd, but imagine a hidden pattern to the ruler’s character, firm and strong. So the ruler’s protection is like the willow wrapping; the ‘hidden lines’ are his inner character; the development of the inferior people is like the melon ripening; what drops down to one from heaven is the positive response of the inferiors.

I like the sense of tolerant protection here, but I find the way he breaks up the line quite awkward and unnatural. The melon is one thing, then the hidden lines are something else, and what falls from heaven is yet a third thing – or perhaps the melon, but that’s also awkward, since melons grow on the ground.

Wilhelm Book III

It’s always interesting to turn to Book III of Wilhelm, where he often ‘shows his workings’ in more detail, with explanations based on component trigrams and line theory. For this line, though, he says,

‘…[The melon] is protected and covered with willow leaves. No forcible interference takes place. The regulative lines of the laws upon which the beauty of life depends are covered over. We entrust the fruit in our care entirely to its own natural development. Then it ripens of its own accord. It falls to our lot. This is not contrived but is decreed by our accepted fate.’

The jarring insistence on ‘inferior’ people is gone; instead, this is just about trusting the process of ripening. There’s no mention of keeping anything sinister in check. The ‘hidden lines’ become the implicit natural laws of growth and development. The fruit need not be people we influence; it could be anything that ‘ripens’ – a creative idea, perhaps, or our own character.

So there’s a clear, distinct idea – ‘entrust the fruit in your care entirely to its own natural development, and it ripens of its own accord.’

(Which is a better fit in readings? This, or the idea of using willow twigs actively to shape the gourd for use?)

Bradford Hatcher

Bradford’s work is available, as always, from hermetica.info. Here’s his original translation and commentary for the line.

‘Wrapping the melons in willows
Restraint is displayed
They will have fallen from heaven.’

‘All of the members come to his meeting, and he acts like a model host, serving his fine food and drink. But all the green melons stay in the cellar, hidden from light and view. Still deeper down, and covered with cobwebs and dust, are many rows of tightly-corked bottles of wine. These melons and wine will one day be sacraments, as though they had fallen from heaven. But heaven is not simply a place, or even all places: it is all times as well, and the way times are strung together. There is much of not yet in heaven, but not much too soon or too late. these melons and wine, given our kind, but reserved, host’s assistance, will fall from the time of just right, when heaven is ready as well. Haste is such a shallow thing, hardly worthy of sacraments. Just like these melons and wine, our very best is sacred, and worthy of our patience.’

As with Wilhelm, these are definitely edible melons, not bottle gourds, but the rest is completely different. Han zhang, ‘contained pattern’ has become containment as a pattern: wrapping the melons is a display of restraint. The line becomes an ode to the kind of patience required to enjoy divine timing.


– at yijing.nl:

‘Melon enwrapped in willow. A hidden creation descended from heaven.
Carry and treat the future heir with respect – Heaven made it. Every creative action or thought should be handled this way. They may look easy but creativity grows only when everything is right: the seed, the soil, the season. It needs the completeness of nature. It can not be summoned when it is absent.’

LiSe picks up directly on the pregnancy imagery of the enwrapped melon. She also reads the line as a whole: the wrapped melon is the hidden beauty which comes down from heaven. I like this – and also I taken her point that what falls from heaven is not something you make happen by your own efforts. (This builds on Wilhelm’s point about trusting natural development – you can’t direct it, so you have to trust it.) You can wrap it, protect it and wait for it – that’s all.

R.J. Lynn

As far as I know, the very first full commentary on the Yijing was written by Wang Bi, and this has been passed on to us in its entirety in Lynn’s superb book. (If you don’t already have this one, I would strongly recommend it.) These are the roots of the tradition Wilhelm also represents, so the interpretations are often similar to his – but not always…

‘With his basket willow and bottle gourd, this one harbors beauty within, so if there is destruction, it will only come from Heaven.’

Wait, what?

Wang Bi’s commentary:

‘The basket willow is such that it is a plant that grows in fertile soil, and the bottle gourd is such that it is tied up and not eaten.’ [Here a footnote glosses this idea, quoting Confucius saying he would not want to be like a bottle gourd, ‘just hung up and not eaten’, i.e. ornamental and empty.] ‘Fifth yin manages to tread the territory of the noble position, but it does not meet with any proper response.’ [Reference to line correspondence: a yang line 5 doesn’t resonate with yang line 2.] ‘This one may have obtained land, but it does not provide him with a living; he may harbor beauty within but never has a chance to let that beauty shine forth. As one here does not meet with any proper response, his orders will never circulate. However, such a one manages to occupy a position that is right for him, embodies hardness and strength, and abides in centrality, so if “this one’s will remains fixed on not giving up his mandate,”‘ [quoting from the Xiaoxiang] ‘he cannot be destroyed. This is why the text says: “If there is destruction, it will only come from Heaven.”‘

How strange. ‘There is falling from heaven’ has become in effect, ‘If there is downfall, it is from heaven.’ And the rich, sweet melon imagery has become something dry and hollow, an image of frustration. There’s beauty within, but it has no influence – which is exactly the opposite of Wilhelm’s interpretation, and really doesn’t resonate for me.

However, Lynn’s book is blessed with copious footnotes, and for this line he includes Cheng Yi’s alternative explanation: in brief, that the key to the hexagram is the idea of meeting, and this line shows the meeting of the lofty willow with the beautiful but lowly melon.

‘Here we have something that is beautiful but abides in a lowly place, and this is an image of the worthy who remains out of the way and leads an insignificant life.’ Willow wrapping melon is an image of a ruler humbly seeking this worthy talent below. ‘One who can humble himself in this way also nourishes virtues of centrality and righteousness within, so he comes of perfect fruition and displays perfect beauty. If the sovereign of men is like this, he will never fail to meet those whom he seeks.’

I admire the way Cheng Yi interprets, using a few very simple facts about the line and its imagery: this hexagram is about meeting; trees are tall whereas melons grow on the ground; the fifth line is the place of the ruler. Then he draws this together into a single picture – more successfully than Wang Bi, I reckon.

Kerson and Rosemary Huang

Wang Bi’s ‘destruction from heaven’ interpretation wasn’t abandoned – in fact, it surfaces in unexpected places. Some modernists read zhang as Shang, the name of the dynasty, and so for instance Kerson and Rosemary Huang have,

‘Wrapping melon with leaves of staple grain:
The downfall of Shang.
It brought wrath from heaven.’

They suggest that wrapping melons in this way must have been sacrilegious… well, I suppose they have to suggest something of the sort to find a connection with the first part of the line…

Margaret Pearson

Margaret Pearson contributed the idea that 44’s powerful woman is a royal bride to be treated with respect. (And if that idea isn’t unambiguously present in the text, nor is the traditional view that she represents a creeping, insidious evil.)

For 44.5, she has:

‘She protects the babe within, just as a gourd is protected by being wrapped in flexible willow twigs. You hold great beauty within you. If you miscarry, this is Heaven’s will.’

Pure, perfectly coherent pregnancy imagery – and Wang Bi’s influence.


Minford’s work is unique in that it offers you two quite different perspectives inside one book: a traditional, ‘wisdom book’ interpretation in the Part I, and a reconstruction of the Bronze Age oracle in Part II.

So the commentary in Part I offers ideas familiar from Wilhelm: protecting the light and restraining the dangerous presence of First Yin; the leader protecting his employees like protecting the gourd with willow leaves. Part II has less explanation and more mystery:

‘A gourd
Is bound
With purple willow.
A Jade Talisman
Is contained.
It drops
From heaven.

A meteorite? A gourd bound into the shape of a bottle gourd, traditional receptacle for things magical or Taoist?’

Wait – so a shaped gourd isn’t just a convenient water bottle, but has magical significance? I hadn’t realised, but my goodness, it makes sense in the context. Must – read – more – books.


One of my favourite books.

‘Bundle the gourd in willow. The pattern holds. Something will fall from heaven.’

‘This omen collects another image that seems to describe metaphorically the consummation of a sexual rendezvous. “Bundle the gourd in willow” literally describes the process by which a gourd is shaped for use as a bottle. The image of the willow tree was also used as a sexual metaphor in lines 28.2 and 28.5. A variation of “the pattern holds” was used in line 2.3 to indicate fertility and ripeness. The counsel, “Something will fall from heaven,” may pertain to anomalies such as rocks falling from the sky, but more likely refers to falling stars.’

The ‘willow’ in 28.2.5 is a different character, which I imagine must mean a different plant. Also, I’d say that while it’s obviously associated with sex, it’s more specifically a symbol of rejuvenation, turning back the clock and cheating old age.

However, I do like the suggestion that we should consider ‘falling from heaven’ as literal before it’s symbolic. Signs from heaven could well be meteorites (Alfred Huang’s translation) or falling stars. And what would those mean?

Karcher, Total I Ching 

Stephen Karcher does his best to weave together wisdom tradition and Bronze Age mystery:

‘Coupling. The Royal Bride.
Willow wrapping the melons, jade talisman in the mouth.
Held in this containing beauty,
It tumbles down from Heaven.’

As you see, he takes a ‘so good I’ll translate it twice’ approach. Han zhang becomes both ‘jade talisman in the mouth’ and ‘held in this containing beauty.’ What strikes me, though, is that he seems to suggest a poetic parallelism between wrapping the melon and hiding the jade. That seems right to me.

His commentary –

‘This is a beautiful inspiration, the Coupling of King and Queen, literally made in Heaven. What you do now will add elegance and beauty to life. It inaugurates a wonderful new time.’

– closely follows Wu Jing Nuan: ‘This line indicates a wondrous, creative time when heaven and man are joined spontaneously in beauty and elegance.’

Alas, neither of them can tell me what a jade talisman in the mouth might mean here – and han does mean ‘held in the mouth’ not ‘in front of the mouth’, so this seems important. I’ve heard of jade used in burials because of its imperishability, but that really doesn’t seem to fit with this line.


(for completeness…)

‘Using willow to wrap melons.
Containing a thing of beauty,
It comes falling from its source in heaven.’

‘What you have here comes falling into your lap ‘out of the blue’. It is a beginning to receive and nurture with care, as people would wrap a melon to protect it against bruising as it ripens.

This is the beginning of an incubation period, like a pregnancy, and the final shape of this ‘thing of beauty’ is still hidden away, growing and transforming – perhaps into a whole new pattern to live by. It may not be anything you had planned for, and you may or may not have a place for it. Much depends on the quality of your availability, and whether you will create space for a relationship with this unexpected, maybe unasked-for gift in its entirety.’


What have I gleaned from these explorations?

Well… mostly I feel as though I’m at the beginning of a whole new cycle of checking ideas against reading experience to find what holds.

I like the idea of zhang as a hidden pattern of character, from Wilhelm. (And if this is, as he says, about influence, then that would make the Image something of a commentary on the fifth line – which it often is.)

I appreciate the lessons, from LiSe and Wilhelm and Bradford, about natural growth and timing and its hidden laws. Also the importance of care and protection, from LiSe and Margaret Pearson.

The fluent simplicity of Cheng Yi’s interpretation grabbed me, too. I must look out for examples of something worthy-but-hidden.

From the ‘modernists’, I’ve gleaned more questions than answers.

If the first image is not an edible crop but a gourd to be shaped into a useful vessel, what does that mean? (With apologies to Wang Bi and Confucius, I can’t take seriously the idea that this is the image of something useless.) No-one seems to have attempted to describe this yet.

I think I can see the idea: the future shape of the gourd-vessel is hidden, contained, like the future constitution. The great disruptive power of heaven finds its own way to expression (perhaps as the coming heir). You work with it, align yourself with its energy if you can, but you don’t grow it. It ‘ripens of its own accord.’ 

But there is so much more to learn! Does the idea of shaping something for use work in readings? How do you go about shaping a bottle gourd by binding it with willow, anyway? What is the symbolic or magical power of such a gourd, and – a whole other, and probably unanswerable, question – what was its symbolic power in Zhou times?

And come to that… if there is a ‘jade talisman held in the mouth’ in the line, who would have one? When, and why? (As I said, the burial custom really doesn’t fit here – or not unless the line is describing the whole cycle of life as what ‘falls to us from heaven’…) And if there were meteorites or meteors, what did such an omen represent?

(In other words, the main thing I’ve learned is how much I have to learn. This is, on the whole, not especially surprising. Maybe gourds are bigger on the inside?)

calabash plant and gourd

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