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Mountain above: Hexagrams 22 and 23

Mountain above: Hexagrams 22 and 23
This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Mountain above

I talked in a previous post about gen, mountain, as the outer trigram of Hexagrams 4 and 18. There, it ‘nurtures de‘, with a dual obstructing and protecting function that feels something like mentorship.

The next appearances of mountain outside come in the 20s, a series of hexagram pairs with inner thunder, outer mountain.

Hexagram 22, Beauty

‘Beauty’ and ‘Making beautiful’

Hexagram 22 is Bi 賁, meaning ‘beautiful’ and ‘lustrous’ – especially something made beautiful, like the gleam of a well-groomed horse’s coat. The same character also means ‘ardent’ and ‘energetic’, which is reminiscent of the prospective groom in its line texts: beautifying his feet, oiling his hair and harnessing his best white horses to the carriage.

I also picked up an interesting factlet from Scott Davis: bi was also once a ceremony or prayer petitioning for good harvests or for a child. Perhaps you make things beautiful for this offering?

The key idea: this is not a thank-offering, but a petition – like courtship is a petition. This isn’t beauty for its own sake, but for communication.

The Oracle: small yield from having somewhere to go

The Oracle says,

‘Beauty. Creating success.
Small yield from having somewhere to go.’

This is the Yi’s first mention of yield from having somewhere to go – places to go, things to do, a journey to undertake. And sure enough, there’s a journey in the lines: not a grand adventure or great military expedition, but on a smaller scale, the groom fetching his bride. That’s his reason to make things beautiful.

Why is the yield only a small one? Because, I think, it’s for a single, limited purpose. The groom’s finery will have done its job if it helps to bring about one wedding. This is not about changing the world.

Fire under the mountain

In trigram terms: inner fire is lighting up the flank of the mountain. This isn’t the same as light that spreads over the whole earth. That kind of light – daylight – is in Hexagram 35 (fire above earth), and it’s important for what we can do in the light, not for its own sake. But the mountain catches the light, is made beautiful by it – and stops it from spreading further. It represents an end for the light, in both senses of the word: its purpose, and also its limit.

The Image paints a trigram-picture of civil society:

‘Below the mountain is fire. Beauty.
A noble one brings light to the many affairs of government, but does not venture to pass judgement.’

‘Bringing light’ clearly corresponds to the inner trigram – li, fire and light – and so the ‘affairs of government’ must be the mountain: the form and rules of society, infused with the light of intelligence. And I think ‘not venturing’ is also the mountain: setting limits to one’s scope and ambition, realising that the light of our understanding doesn’t reach everywhere.

There’s an interesting alternative view, though, in RJ Lynn’s translation:

The noble man clearly understands all the different aspects of governance, and so dares not reduce it to a matter of passing criminal judgement.

R.J. Lynn, The Classic of Changes

He’s following the interpretation of Wang Bi:

One should curb others by means of the enlightenment provided by pattern; one cannot use the coercive force of punishment to do this.

So it’s not that Beauty is inadequate for passing judgement, but that passing judgement is insufficient for civilisation. This expands on the idea of the Sequence…

‘Things cannot carelessly unite and be completed, and so Beauty follows. Beauty means adorning.’

…that Hexagram 21, Biting Through, is insufficient on its own. No-one is married just because they get together: the ‘beautifying’, the ceremony, makes the marriage. Likewise, you don’t have government just because you punish people: civilisation is a working whole, and this kind of performative ceremony, deliberately making things beautiful and expressive, creates it.

So 22’s mountain sets a limit and embodies purpose, and also has a hint of the mountain-as-mentor – only on a larger scale, as an enlightened culture whose institutions can be brought to life by the light of awareness.

Hexagram 23, Stripping Away

The Sequence in trigrams

The progression from hexagram 22 to 23, Stripping Away, is a lot like that from 12 to 13. The outer trigram stays the same, and the inner trigram changes – from earth to fire, there, and from fire to earth, here. And here as there, this is marked by a pointed change in the text of the Oracle, from

‘Beauty. Creating success.
Small yield from having somewhere to go.’


‘Stripping away.
Fruitless to have somewhere to go.’

When fire is lit under heaven, the noble one’s constancy begins to bear fruit. And when the fire goes out under the mountain, there’s no longer any yield in having somewhere to go.

The dynamism of 22 (‘ardent, energetic’) has gone; vitality has been removed from form, so all that’s left are the empty surfaces – the mountain itself, sitting on the earth. Fire lent its energy to the mountain, but earth, if anything, takes it away. Fire illuminates, burns and moves; earth receives, or undergoes. The trigram picture of Stripping Away is of a mountain above the plains, eroding – nothing to do with your insights or intentions: it just happens.

The Image

So what could the Image authors, who always found a way for a ‘noble one’ to participate in the energy of the trigrams, make of this? Well… what if the mountain erodes generously?

‘Mountain rests on the earth. Stripping Away.
The heights are generous, and there are tranquil homes below.’

Erosion seen this way – mineral-rich soil for the fields in the valley – is no loss at all.

A more normal way to translate ‘the heights’ would be as ‘those above’ – meaning the nobility, those who are ‘above’ others socially. Still, the words used are very simple – 上 and 下, above and below. This is the only hexagram where the Image doesn’t explicitly name a person – noble one, ancient kings or prince – as its protagonist, and I’d assume that depersonalisation is quite deliberate. Instead of putting yourself in the shoes of the noble one, you’re invited to imagine yourself as whole classes of people – or just as a mountain and a valley.

The nurturing and protecting mountain has also become generous. You could even say it works rather like Hexagram 22, with the mountain infused by the spirit of the inner trigram: there, awareness; here, generous service and support.

Cave lit up at night
Ghajn Tuta cave, Malta

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