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The ‘character’ hexagrams

The ‘character’ hexagrams
This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The 'character' hexagrams

In Part II, chapter 7 of the Great Treatise (Dazhuan), nine hexagrams are singled out. The authors of the Yi, it says, knew sorrow and disasters (or, specifically, they worried about disasters), and therefore… and it goes on to list the qualities of these nine hexagrams.

You can read the whole passage here, in Legge’s translation.

As you can almost see there, each of the three parts follows its own formula. The first follows the pattern, [hexagram name] de‘s [quality]. The second, [hexagram], [x] and also [y] – often with a marked contrast between x and y that creates something close to a paradox, or maybe a riddle. And the third says [hexagram] 以 [action]. 以, yi, is a tricky one: ‘using for’ or ‘so as to’. Legge has it as ‘the use of [hexagram] appears in…’ while Lynn translates each one as ‘provides the means to’.

The nine hexagrams

The nine hexagrams listed – the same hexagrams in the same order in each of the three sections – are

  • 10, Treading
  • 15, Integrity
  • 24, Returning
  • 32, Lasting
  • 41, Decreasing
  • 42, Increasing
  • 47, Oppression
  • 48, the Well
  • 57, Subtly Penetrating

No-one seems to know why these nine hexagrams were chosen, and – despite my best efforts to find a pattern – nor do I. The hexagrams are given in Sequence order, but they’re not regularly distributed and don’t mark any pivotal Sequence moments that I know of. There’s no distinctive pattern of trigrams.

10 and 15 are complements, as are 32 and 42, but none of the others. 41/42 and 47/48 are pairs, of course. Their presence together makes me half-wonder whether this might be a preserved fragment from a larger text (because paired hexagrams might be written on the same bamboo slip) – though the way it’s arranged in three separate lists makes that less likely.

The only regularity I found that seems significant is that the Oracle texts of five of the nine say it’s ‘fruitful to have a direction to go’. Since only 14 hexagram oracles in the whole book mention this, I think it’s worthy of note. Perhaps this is an unusually purposeful group of hexagrams?

‘Concerned about calamities’

Wilhelm translates the introduction,

‘The origin of Yi was in middle antiquity. Those that composed Yi knew suffering and sorrow.’


Lynn has,

‘The rise of the Changes, was it not in middle antiquity? Did not the makers of the Changes become concerned about calamities?’


and Wang Bi’s commentary on this:

‘If they had not become concerned about calamities, then it would have been sufficient for them to deal with things through non-purposeful action.’

I find that an interesting idea: it seems to suggest that these hexagrams are about planning and intervening to stave off calamity. That’s certainly not how Wilhelm sees it: his commentary makes this the voice of doom-laden resignation:

‘The writer [of the Dazhuan] … feels himself in sympathy with them [the authors of the Yi] in this respect, for he too can do nothing more than preserve for posterity the framework of a perishing civilisation.’

Thoroughly glum – and, I think, not the idea. Surely the problems of the Zhou people were to do first with surviving an oppressive, degenerate regime and then with rising to the challenge of the Mandate of Heaven to create their own kingdom. So I agree with Wang Bi: this is about channelling de to good effect, averting disaster and renewing civilisation.

How it sounds to me now, when I have one of these hexagrams in a reading, is quite simple. ‘Times were rough for them, too. They knew what it was like. Here’s something they gave you to help.’ These are good hexagrams to receive this year.

Hexagram 10, Treading

A compilation of the three statements about Treading:

Treading, character’s foundation. It is responsive and attains its goals. It can be used to act responsively.

‘Character’ translates de – approximately. De covers a spectrum of meanings, from spiritual power and charisma to virtue. Legge and Lynn translate ‘virtue’, Rutt translates ‘powers’ and Wilhelm/Baynes has ‘character’. ‘Virtue’ works well if you can think of its meaning to a herbalist: the ‘virtue’ of a plant being its unique healing properties, its particular strength and goodness. With ‘character’, you need to think of expressions like ‘strength of character’ and ‘she has character’.

So… Treading is de‘s foundation. What does that really mean? The key concept here has to be the repeated word 和, he, ‘responsive’ or ‘harmonious’. It’s a word we know well from 61.2:

‘Calling crane in the shadows,
Her young respond in harmony.
I have a good wine vessel,
I will share with you, pouring it all out.’

Hexagram 61, line 2

The dictionary also gives the meanings ‘to join in singing’ and ‘to compose a poem in reply’.

Wang Bi (as translated by R.J. Lynn) implies a tension between being responsive and attaining one’s goals:

‘To practice harmony yet fail to reach the goal is a matter of just following where things lead one, but Lu means to practice harmony and yet manage to reach the goal. Thus it constitutes a way upon which one may tread.’

How can you act responsively, but still stay in control of your own direction, not be pushed hither and yon by circumstances? You’ll need the qualities of Hexagram 10, treading the tail of the tiger: recognising the great powers, having the courage to engage and the skill to align with them.

Walking with the tiger is 和: making your actions compose a poem in reply to its power and grace. And this is the ‘de’s foundation’ – meaning not what it grows from, but what it walks on. (Wang Bi points out helpfully that ‘a foundation is where one plants one’s feet.’) It’s de in practice: no floaty abstractions about virtue, but knowing how to put one foot in front of the other. Being powerful, or having ‘character’, or just surviving anxieties and disasters, starts with right relationship to the powers of the world.

Hexagram 15, Integrity

Integrity is character’s handle. It is honoured and shines out. It can be used to create the rituals.

All the translators agree that Hexagram 15 is the handle of de. It means, I think, that this is how you access and use your strength of character, how it can be applied. (The same word also means lever.)

It makes sense that the qualities of Hexagram 15 would make this possible: honesty, integrity, and willingness to do the work, as opposed to self-deception, vainglory or indeed false humility.

The specific use of this is to ‘create the rituals’ – to craft them, design them, set them up. ‘Rituals’ are 禮, li – etymologically, an altar and a drum. The trouble with translating it as ‘manners’ or ‘decorum’ is that this evokes using the right cutlery for the fish course, not sacred observances to ensure the favour of ancestors and spirits.

How does Integrity create rituals? The ‘honour and radiance’ of the second part are the raw ingredients: communicating the participants’ respect to the spirits, and showing the spirits’ glory to the participants. Someone with Integrity would be a transparent medium for this two-way communication, and so it becomes the ‘handle of powers’. (That’s Rutt’s translation – and it’s good to remember that de is not confined to the human realm!)

Following the tiger brings you into contact with powers; the attitude of Hexagram 15 gives you the means to engage. If you have Integrity, your rituals will be well-made, holding closely to the reality.

Is this any help to us when we cast Hexagram 15 now, and we’re (usually) not designing rituals for offering our ancestor a sheep? I think it is, if we boil it down to essentials. You can use Integrity to engage with de, creating practices that honour spirit and allow its presence to shine through your activity. Those ‘practices’ could be anything: how you work, how you make breakfast, how you walk the dog.

Hexagram 24, Returning

Returning is character’s root. It is small and distinguishes between things. It provides the means of self-knowledge.


It’s easy to see Hexagram 24 as a ‘root’: everything will grow from that single solid line at the base, under the earth. De starts growing here, as everything does.

Also, though, Returning means turning round, ‘The Turning Point’ – and you could also say that de grows from the ability to turn around. It starts, with Hexagram 24, as an inkling, the small nudge that distinguishes between things and says, ‘not that way, this way.’

And then there are cycles. I once asked a wise woman how to avoid forgetting and setbacks in growth, and she suggested that the forgetting and setbacks might just be part of the process. The way she described it reminded me of 24: you go out, you get help, you come home, you integrate what you learned, or you forget some of it, and you go round again. But every new direction begins from the same root: the little inner nudge that says ‘Let’s grow.’

(Six more hexagrams will follow, in future posts!)

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