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What does ‘crossing the great river’ mean?

What does ‘crossing the great river’ mean?

This post is for Liz, who commented,

“Hi Hilary,
Ok. Point blank – what does crossing the great river mean?”

How does it feel?

This is a better question to ask, because divination does not work by replacing images with what they mean. First, you use your imagination to get inside the image and appreciate how it feels. Then you recognise what there is in your current situation that feels like this, and you understand what it means – in that particular reading.

So, to find out what crossing the great river means… visit a river. Peer into the water; listen to it. Step in, if you can, and feel the weight of the current dragging at your legs. Feel how it threatens to tug you off-balance with each step.

Look across the river: you are going that way. The river isn’t. Imagine how you could get all the way across.

And then, because drowning isn’t conducive to good interpretation, I suggest you retreat back to the bank. Consider how much easier and safer it would be to amble peacefully along the bank, parallel to that powerful current, or even to hop in a boat, ship your oars and drift downstream. What would it take to get you to make the crossing?

And what, in the situation you’re asking about, feels like that?

What else do we know?

As I was saying in that earlier post, whatever knowledge we can gather on the topic from back when the book was first written is going to help. It still isn’t going to tell us what it means, but it’ll help us to imagine how it feels. And in particular, it’ll help to liberate us from the little conceptual boxes of modern life, where crossing rivers mostly happens by driving over a bridge, frequently in a traffic jam. (47.4…?)

Knowledge is imagination food. Let’s tuck in

Harmen’s video

Harmen Mesker has laid out an hour-long banquet of river-crossing, here. Here’s a quick summary…

The old form of the character she, , ‘crossing’, clearly shows two footsteps, one on either side of a river. It’s included in a lot of oracle bone inscriptions, asking literally about the king’s travels. Would he cross the river and return safely? And also – often – whether he should cross and hunt. In fact, there are phrases such as ‘涉 buffalo’ where 涉 by itself means ‘cross the river to catch…’ – animals, or human captives.

Harmen emphasises that ‘fruitful to cross the great river’ means you are expecting reliable results from the crossing. You know you’ll be bringing home the buffalo.

Since there will be buffalo to bring home, and this is about crossing a big river, and not least because in 11.2 there’s a different verb traditionally read as specifically crossing a river without a boat, Harmen is very emphatic that ‘crossing the great river’ means crossing with a boat, and definitely not wading.

Crossing the river in the Book of Songs (with or without a boat)

Well, since in the Language of Change glossary I specifically translated this as ‘wading the great river’, this is quite awkward. Where had I got this idea of ‘wading’ from?

Partly from the character – those two footsteps on either side of the river. (The word for ‘crossing’ in 11.2 actually looks more like crossing with a horse.) And also from the Book of Songs, where a lot of river-crossing happens – but not for hunting trips. Instead, we have young men and women crossing the river to reach their beloved. Here’s Song 34, using she for wading a ford:

He: ‘The gourd has bitter leaves;
The ford is deep to wade.’
She: ‘If the ford is deep, there are stepping stones;
If it is shallow, you can tuck up your skirts.’

The Book of Songs, trans. Arthur Waley

There are romantic river-crossings in Songs 54, 58 and 87, too, all using she 涉. In 87, someone is to hold up their lower garments and she. (Legge thinks the woman is wading across herself; Waley thinks she’s telling the man to!)
And in Song 232, there are ‘swine, with their legs white, all wading through streams’ – probably not using a boat.

But then again, when in Song 250 Duke Liu crosses (涉) the river Wei, Waley says he ‘made a ford’ while Legge says he ‘used boats’. And if we carry on reading through Song 34, it ends with the forlorn girl still waiting for the man to get his feet wet, in an early Chinese version of ‘He’s just not that into you’:

‘The boatman beckons and beckons,
Others cross, not I;
Others cross, not I.
I am waiting for my friend.’

You can guess which verb is used for crossing with the boatman.

So, Harmen, I think we’re both wrong: you can cross the great river by boat or on foot. Yi doesn’t name the river or the reason: those depend on the reading. But either way, there’s no bridge; it’s not a crossing to be undertaken lightly. I imagine these lovers crossing in a spirit of daring determination, taking the risk because of the strength of their desire.

A historical river crossing

The Zhou people – whose oracle this is – conquered the Shang and founded a new ruling dynasty. And the (literally) crucial moment in their march on the Shang was a river-crossing, at the Fords of Meng.

In 1048BC, a vast army of the Zhou and their allies gathered on the bank – only to be halted by appalling omens, so that Wu gave the order to turn back. Two years later, with the stars and oracles supporting them at last, they made the crossing and marched on to gather in the Wilds of Mu, where they faced and defeated the Shang. (SJ Marshall sees a reference to this gathering in the wilds in Hexagram 13 – which also says it’s fruitful to cross the great river.)

So now we have a whole three-course meal of imagination food. You cross the river on a royal hunting expedition, or you brave the waters to meet your beloved, or you march your armies across in obedience to Heaven’s Mandate.

What about the context?

The Yi is not, pace Redmond, just a ‘collection of scraps’; it’s an organic structure of breathtaking complexity and wholeness. Which means that if we want to understand a phrase like ‘crossing the great river’ in a reading, we’d better look at how it’s being used in that particular hexagram.

Liz mentioned that she’s especially interested in Hexagram 42:

‘Increasing, fruitful to have a direction to go.
Fruitful to cross the great river.’

Hexagram 42, the Oracle

Here are two things that will bear fruit: having a direction (or a ‘far place’ to go to), and crossing a great river. That’s an interesting combination, because the ‘direction’ character breaks down, according to Richard Sears, into ‘a man with a pole fording a river’. (LiSe translates as ‘probing’.) Fruitful to set off on your travels, take a sounding rod to test the depth of the ford, and cross the great river.

Hexagram 42 would be a good time to undertake such a journey because now you are blessed with a good harvest, a superabundance of resources. The Image authors, thinking along similar lines, saw this as a time to make whatever changes are needed:

‘Wind and thunder. Increasing.
A noble one sees improvement, and so she changes.
When there is excess, she corrects it.’

Hexagram 42, Image

So in this spirit – knowing you have the resources, energy and all round good luck you need – it’s a good moment to cross the great river. There’s probably a whole herd of buffalo just waiting for you on the opposite bank.

But the phrase is going to have a slightly different feel to it every time you see it. For instance…

‘People in harmony in the wilds: creating success.
Fruitful to cross the great river.
A noble one’s constancy bears fruit.’

Hexagram 13, the Oracle

Those people gathering in the wilds, and the martial character of lines 3, 4 and 5 (and this whole section of the Sequence of Hexagrams) might remind you of the Zhou and their river crossing. Here, crossing the river is placed alongside the noble one’s constancy, as the two things that bear fruit in such times. Now there are people with whom you can find harmony, and you’re in harmony with heaven so that your constancy will pay off (this isn’t Hexagram 12 any more!), go ahead and cross the river to join them.

Or Hexagram 5, Waiting:

‘Waiting, with truth and confidence.
Shining out, creating success: constancy brings good fortune.
Fruitful to cross the great river.’

Hexagram 5, the Oracle

This is the first mention of crossing the great river in the Yi – our introduction to the idea – and perhaps the most important context is how much it isn’t like its paired hexagram, 6, Arguing:

There is truth and confidence, blocked.
Vigilant and centred, good fortune. Ending, pitfall.
Fruitful to see great people,
Fruitless to cross the great river.’

Hexagram 6, the Oracle

No use crossing rivers in a time of Arguing, as anyone who’s taken a big decision in a spirit of ‘I’ll show them!’ might agree. But it’s worthwhile to cross when this is a sign of trust: expecting this to work out, and confidently awaiting your reward on the opposite bank.

So what does it mean?

It means what it feels like – what it reminds you of – what you recognise.

photo: looking across a river at sunset

I Ching Community discussion

12 responses to What does ‘crossing the great river’ mean?

  1. Thank you for your exploration of this important phrase, Hilary. But (of course) I still don’t think I am wrong 😀 I don’t think you can cross a dachuan 大川 by foot. Sure, as your examples show, there *were* rivers that could be crossed by foot. But sources (see the ridiculously long video at 1:01:11 https://youtu.be/bjDQ-tSXtvg?t=3671) tell us that a dachuan 大川, which is a really big river, needed a boat to be crossed. The examples that you give don’t talk about a dachuan 大川 (or do they? I didn’t check the Chinese original), so the rivers in these texts might be less broad or deep than a dachuan. As always, it is all about context.

    • You’re right – they are she-ing, but the size of the river isn’t specified. No doubt he thinks it’s enormous, while she says otherwise!

      However, when you have an army of thousands to get across the Fords of Meng, I expect the foot-soldiers, at least, have to wade.

      • Apparently they had pontoon bridges in early China… (https://interestingengineering.com/the-pontoon-bridge-the-floating-bridge-from-ancient-china-used-in-the-biggest-20th-century-battles)

        Which is a topic on my to-do list: how did infantry cross rivers in early China? Some military classics mention boats (and the absence of pontoon bridges, see Ralph Sawyer, ‘The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China’, p. 82-83) but I don’t know if that tells anything about Shang and Zhou customs.

      • P.S. Ralph Sawyer writes in ‘Conquest and Domination in Early China’,

        “Even though King Wen reportedly created a temporary pontoon bridge from watercraft to facilitate his future wife’s passage to Chou, and the Shang had already been employing boats to a limited extent for transport and military campaigns, there is no evidence that King Wu employed rafts or boats to convey his forces down the Wei and Yellow Rivers. (note 454) In fact, the vestigial accounts only mention watercrafts’ being employed to assist the army’s fording the Yellow River at Meng-chin where they would have been essential for transporting the provisions and chariots.”

        Note 454 reads: Shang oracular inscriptions include queries about whether boats should be used in campaigns.

        • Glad to hear your to-do list is thriving – we wouldn’t want you to get bored.

          It does all seem to depend on context, as you say… and the authors of the Yi must have been good at stripping out a lot of context (like names of rivers, or ancestors in 18), to create a useful oracle. (It seems to be working so far.)

  2. I’ve done readings where “crossing the great river” referred to dying as in a reassurance that death was not the end but a “crossing over” to another land or state of consciousness. The negro spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has the lyric, “I looked over (the river) Jordan and what did I see coming for to carry me home? A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.”

  3. Well…golly gee! LOL. This is wonderful. Thank you, Hilary. The shift from meaning to feeling is worlds apart and the crossing the river feels far, far more real and a bit of a felling of “Uh oh!”

    Thank you very much.

  4. OK. I have reread these generous comments…and well, since I am a Zen Buddhist who practices a “mystical” practice any one of these scenarios is, of course, possible. I for whatever reason go to childhood experiences of rivers. I lived right across the street from the mouth of the river that fed into the Atlantic ocean…and in this practice the river is a spiritual union. Which is ever a challenge of great magnitude…it is a death.
    This river I knew and played had nuclear submarines submerging and arising out of it while I stood aghast as a kid seeing these huge creatures appear and disappear 30 feet from where I stood. The current of the river never seemed frightening, but what lay under this black water seemed to be in the category of “terrible.”

    My context from the past…my context today is different…and yet, the history of context seems right now quite strong. LOL
    Thanks again for this illumination.

  5. Oh. I wouldn’t have thought of this direction if you hadn’t written them down. It will be a freshness for this phrase. Thank you.

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