The person who emailed me this question found the expression ‘superior man’ quite off-putting. I can see why: arranging half of humanity into superiors and inferiors, inviting the reader to identify not just as a good person but as someone better than the rest… none of this feels sympathetic to me, either.
And, I would argue, it’s not quite what the Yijing says.
*pause for translation*
‘Superior man’ is how the Wilhelm/Baynes I Ching translates junzi 君子. Bradford Hatcher’s translation is more direct: ‘noble young one’. Zi means ‘child’ (and is gender neutral); jun breaks down into ‘voice’ and ‘governing, controlling’, and means a sovereign or noble – someone with authority over others.
Undoubtedly, the junzi makes a perfect screen onto which we can project our own ideas: for Wilhelm, superiors and inferiors (‘inferior men’ is his translation for xiao ren, ‘small people’); for Karcher, mostly individual choices in the moment (for me, too); for Carol Anthony, the ‘true self’ as opposed to the ‘ego’.
Varieties of ‘noble one’
In the Yijing itself, there are actually two distinct versions of the junzi: the one in the original Zhouyi text, and the one in the Daxiang, the Image, who epitomises the best response to the energies of the component trigrams. Here he is in the Image of Hexagram 33, Retreat, setting boundaries with mountain, inspiring respect with heaven:
‘Below heaven is the mountain: Retreat.
A noble one keeps small people at a distance,
Not with hatred, but through respect.’
Almost all the Image texts feature this noble one, with just a handful of exceptions. I believe she’s a development, and perhaps a simplification, of the noble one in the Zhouyi.
Here’s the Zhouyi’s noble one, in 33.4:
Noble one, good fortune.
Small people, blocked.’
I think it’s important to understand that this junzi is not just a cipher to represent the best response; he has his own story arc and evolves through the Sequence of hexagrams.
Let’s see how he gets on in a time of Retreat…
The noble one’s retreat
The story so far
By the time they reach Retreat, noble young ones have learned that their vast creative drive (1.3) is in need of guidance (2.0, 3.3) and is better not just given free rein (9.6). Besides, sometimes circumstances are such that no amount of the noble one’s constancy can accomplish anything (12.0) – though when circumstances do align, it’s important to commit yourself, be true and complete the work at hand (13.0, 220.127.116.11).
Now the focus shifts to vision and insight – and this is where the junzi is first contrasted with small people, in questions of insight. If a noble one can see differently (18.104.22.168), they’ll have a different interpretation of the situation, and a fresh response (23.6).
What happens next, in 33.4?
Noble one, good fortune.
Small people, blocked.’
This particular retreat is 好 hao, ‘good’, which also means ‘to love’. The character originally shows a woman and child – the same ‘child’ character as the zi in junzi. So there’s something like a paradox in this line: retreat means moving away, but hao means ultimate closeness.
Hexagram 33 line 4 changes to 53, Gradual Development – the hexagram for the woman’s marriage. This is how Retreat can accomplish Gradual Development – integrate, marry, come home, create connection and belonging – by retreating towards connection.
In practice, in readings, this is typically retreat from a position you are holding. It’s often a retreat from argument towards friendship, sometimes a retreat towards connection with yourself.
Small people, though, are ‘blocked’. That’s the same word as the name of Hexagram 12, Blocked, the hexagram where ‘noble one’s constancy bears no fruit.’ Back then, the circumstances simply meant the noble one couldn’t win – but here, it’s more a matter of perspective and approach.
…with its paired line, 34.3
The paired line, 34.3 – which is in essence the same line, seen from the opposite perspective…
– further explains the contrast between noble one and small people:
‘Small people use vigour,
Noble one uses a net.
The ram butts a hedge,
Entangles his horns.’
(This is one of those line pairs you can read fluently, straight through, as a single story.)
When you’re Blocked, your best efforts will get you nowhere – which is exactly the experience of the ram in the hedge: ‘using vigour’, like the small people, only to find the hedge is more vigorous than he is.
And that, I think, is also the small person’s experience of ‘loving retreat’. They can see only two possibilities: either you win through, or else you’re blocked, you retreat, you failed. The noble one can see other interpretations, and hence find other approaches, like the net.
It’s worth noticing that 34.3 doesn’t explicitly identify the small people with the ram. However, I do think it’s implicit. The net is an adaptive strategy: something to be positioned in the right time and the right place. That contrasts with constancy – sticking loyally to the one thing you know – which is dangerous here. And also, the hedge works very much like a net.
As 33.4 changes to 53, so 34.3 points you to Hexagram 54, the Marrying Maiden. That’s the marriage of a girl in a weak position, someone who has no control over her situation. It’s the perfect backdrop for the moment when the ram first discovers that he’s not the strongest force after all. The noble one, aware by now that she must adapt her creative energy to the circumstances, will use the net with that in mind.
To soak in more of the atmosphere, it helps to visit the last two lines in this ‘pathway’: 53.4 and 54.3, which point back towards 33 and 34 respectively:
‘Wild geese gradually progress to the trees.
Maybe find a flat branch.
‘Marrying maiden waiting,
Turns it round and marries as second wife.’
Neither of these is about an ideal situation; both are about seeing the possibilities in something that’s awkward and imperfect – but still enough for now, ‘not a mistake’. The noble one has the insight to recognise that this isn’t the same as being blocked.
So who is the junzi?
Someone with great creative drive, who learns to combine insight with imagination to see beyond the obvious. From here on, through 36.1, 40.5, 43.3 and 49.6, she needs to deal with more difficulty and awkwardness. Though sometimes at odds with the prevailing climate, she’ll navigate increasingly by inner guidance and become steadily more influential.
For more on the noble one, and how to apply the concept in readings, see the Language of Change Yijing glossary – available for free inside the Resonance Journal.