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Leaping in the abyss

Leaping in the abyss

I’ve been having another look at the mysterious fourth line of Hexagram 1, Creative Force:

‘Someone leaping in the abyss.
No mistake.’

Hexagram 1, line 4

A story of dragons

This line is generally understood to be part of the story that begins in line 1, with the dragon still asleep underwater,

‘Dragon underwater – don’t act.’

and culminates in line 5 with the dragon in full flight,

‘Dragon flying in heaven.
Fruitful to see great people.’

Then the dragon overreaches in line 6, and all six dragons take flight without a leader when all six lines are changing.

There are two ways of understanding the dragon. The more widely-accepted view is that this is the Azure Dragon asterism: a giant group of constellations that begins to rise above the horizon at the beginning of spring, and is in full view at the height of the year.

So the dragon is first sleeping below the horizon, and hence beneath the waters that were thought to surround the habitable world –

‘Dragon underwater – don’t act.’

Then the first star of its horn appears just over the fields at nightfall, and it’s time to work together (zhi 13) and prepare for the growing season –

‘See the dragon in the fields.
Fruitful to see great people.’

And then (after line 3, which is about the noble one instead of the dragon), comes:

‘Someone leaping in the abyss.
No mistake.’

By April, the dragon’s horn and neck are clearly visible above the horizon, and the rest of its body is coming into view. It’s arranged almost vertically, and so appears to be ‘leaping’ straight up from the watery abyss below the world.

S.J. Marshall has another take, and though he offers it as an alternative to the star-dragon, I see no reason why the two shouldn’t co-exist. He describes how dragons slept in pools in the mountains over winter, until, at the first sign of clouds gathering in spring, the people rushed to the pool to wake them with offerings, noise and aggravations. The rain would only fall once the dragon took flight. So at line 4, there’s a glimpse of something rising from the pool to the clouds – and when it reaches them, in line 5, we’ll have rain.


The odd thing – or at least, I find it odd – is that this line doesn’t mention dragons. Lines 1,2,5 and 6 straightforwardly name the dragon, but not line 4. Someone is leaping, or maybe there’s leaping. How come?

Marshall’s story of the dragon in the mountain pool might explain it:

As clouds descend low in the mountains it is perhaps easy to enter into the spirit of the occasion, particularly as the dragon is said to possess the power of making itself invisible when it leaves the water to mae its ascent. Those intoxicated by wine may swear they saw a claw, or the tip of the tail, entering a cloud.

S.J. Marshall, The Mandate of Heaven

A mostly-invisible, barely-glimpsed dragon would create this kind of uncertainty.

Here’s another possibility, though. If you look through the Songs (the Shijing) for ‘leaping in the abyss’, you find Song 239, celebrating the joys of a prosperous country with a good prince. Among its signs of prosperity and harmony:

The hawk flies up to heaven, the fishes leap in the deep.

The ‘leaping’ and ‘deep’ are the same words as in 1.4. Fish leap in the abyss, too.

Leaping carp

A Chinese folktale tells how, once a year in the third month of spring, the carp swim up the Yellow River to the foot of the mountains, where there is a waterfall called Dragon Gate. If they can leap the falls, they will be transformed into a dragon – and when the first fish makes the leap, the rains come. So we have…

  • leaping from the pool,
  • the possibility of attaining a whole new level of being
  • at roughly the same time of year that the dragon constellation rises vertically from the horizon,
  • becoming a dragon,
  • and bringing rain.

(For more detail, see these two Wikipedia articles. And a little way down this page, you’ll find a lovely video of the story.)

More about the leap…

The carp’s leap is said to represent a sudden rise in social status, especially from passing the imperial examination. (Work hard in school, and you’ll get on in life!) The Yi is older than the imperial examination, of course, and has more to say with this line, but who’s to say how long carp have been attempting the dragon gate?

The leaping carp is moving up into a higher realm, much as the fourth line moves up a level into the upper trigram. This is the original ‘line 4 moment’: going from theory to practice, testing your strength and exploring the possibilities – though you’re not quite sure yet what they are.

A natural and traditional view is that the recipient of this hexagram should imagine themselves as the dragon, and that at line 4 they might move out into public life. Or, equally, they might not: there is hesitancy, and the wise querent will pay attention to right timing. The Wenyan (the seventh Wing) says,

‘The true gentleman cultivates inner strength, fulfils his task. He tunes Self to the moment, and thus incurs no harm.’

Translation by John Minford

Alfred Huang says this is like King Wu making sorties against the Shang and then retreating, ‘testing his capability for success.’

Wilhelm, though, has a remarkably different idea. It’s not just a choice between advancing and not-advancing, but between going on into public life or withdrawing and becoming a sage – two positive choices that are equally good, and equally adventurous:

Here we reach the upper limit of what pertains to man in the hexagram. Advance on level ground is no longer possible. In order to advance, a man must dare to relinquish his foothold on earth and soar into realms of uncharted space and utter solitude. Here the individual is free – precisely because of the possibilities inherent in the position. Each man must determine his own fate.


Hesitancy and Hexagram 9

I tend to think of the pure yang of Hexagram 1 as in search of a field of action, and each changing line as opening a new field. So at line 4, Creative Force finds its scope for action in Hexagram 9, Small Taming – a hexagram which explicitly says there are ‘dense clouds without rain’.

This means fulfilment is still in the future; the decision is not yet taken; the dragon has not yet taken flight. And I think it also implies feelings of uncertainty, unreadiness and possible inadequacy –

Will the dragon take flight? For now, there is the dance along the border between ‘just enough’ and ‘not quite there’, stretching your wings and playing with vast possibilities. There’s no shortage of creative drive and imagination, but it’s not clear what will prove attainable.

(from my book)

(What if I turn out to be just a fish, after all?)

LiSe goes a step further, looking at the fan yao, 9.4 –

Being sincere, blood goes away, fear goes out. Without fault.

LiSe’s translation

– and seeing that 1.4 is the time deliberately to banish such fears:

Fearlessness can accomplish miracles. As soon as a stuntman feels fear, he is in danger. Fearlessness is the core of the hero. Hex.9.4 tells you to forget yourself (and any fear) for the sake of your responsibilities. Hex.1.4 is about what fearlessness accomplishes.


Leaping, dancing and playing

1.4 evokes the eager leap of a fish seeking to become a dragon, striving for a whole new level of existence. And… the verb 躍 yue means not only ‘leap’ but also ‘dance’. Yue is not just for fish… the character contains ‘foot’, after all, as well as ‘feathers’ and ‘bird’, and it’s used in Song 31 to describe a war dance. (Might the dancers leap higher with feathers on their ankles?)

Some alternative perspectives…

Karcher translates,

‘Someone’ is playing in the Primal Abyss.
This is not a mistake.

Karcher, Total I Ching

and insists that we should not ‘lose the playful spirit’ because ‘joy is the key to creation’.

Wu Jing Nuan:

Who is jumping? Is it man or dragon or both? The ideogram yue shows a foot, a bird, and feathers. This is a shamanistic picture of leaping about and dancing, a ritual to promote creativity. The abyss ideogram, yuan, is fashioned from the symbols for water and vortex, the whirlpool of constant, overwhelming phenomena. The recipient of this line must jump free of the whirlpool of everyday life.

Wu Jing Nuan, Yijing

My favourite commentary on this line by far comes from Bradford Hatcher. I recommend reading it through a few times:

The shaman drinks his brew, spreads his feathers, steps to the edge of the known, to dance into higher realms. The brave young dragon stands at the edge of the cliff, facing this rite of passage one way, his white-knuckled talons scarring the rocks, preparing to leap from aerial theory to practice, now two different things at long last. To gain the abyss will mean to let go of that clawhold completely. The wind will be no easy thing to take hold of, until reaching dangerous speeds. But here is the only control to be gained, the wind becomes the master: the only conquest comes from obeying the facts. No wavering will lift this beast, much less beast and his baggage, so lightening up should help. And never miss half the point by failing to look down. There can be no half measures here, in fact, as there are no real dragons in theory.

Bradford Hatcher

No real dragons in theory. Exactly.

Coda: and in experience?

What does ‘leaping in the abyss’ look like in practice?

Like a leap to a whole new level, certainly, or dreaming of that. Plenty of people receive 1.4 as they’re dreaming of possibilities that might or might not become real, with motivation that might or might not break through into action – and yes, typically accompanied by some anxiety (or good old impostor syndrome) that probably needs banishing.

I found several readings about whether a relationship might make the leap from friendship or flirting into romance, several ‘how will the job interview go?’…

…and then there’s one about a quite different leap: a painfully-conscientious business owner asking, ‘How can I get to retirement safely?’ Years later, he’s dived into a joyful, creative retirement full of art and song-writing.

Painting of carp leaping the falls to become a dragon

I Ching Community discussion

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