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Category Archives: I Ching

Lost property

Lost property

A short story

In typical Yi style, this is a very short story:

‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

‘Subtly penetrating under the bed,
Losing your property and axe.
Constancy, pitfall.’

These are lines 56.4 and 57.6, and they have a direct textual parallel: gaining then losing property and axe (or axe-money). (Ignore the way I translated it with ‘your’ in 57.6 – it’s the same three words, ‘one’s property axe’, in both lines.)

Oddly enough, I only started paying attention to this because it was pointed out by Geoffrey Redmond – the one who maintains that ‘the unit of meaning is the phrase’ in the Zhouyi. He writes of 57.6,

‘This line refers back to the traveler’s money that was lost in the preceding hexagram, 56.4. It is unusual for themes in a hexagram to continue in another one. Most likely, this phrase was simply misplaced from the preceding hexagram.’

So naturally, I assume that the phrase wasn’t misplaced, and see where this takes me.

In the first place, I think this is a story, not just a contrast. To start with, there is no small-scale structural relationship (lines, trigrams) between these two lines to suggest a parallel or contrast; they’re simply adjacent in the Sequence. (And this part of the Sequence contains more than one reflective pattern revolving around themes of history, culture and transmission.)

From 56 to 57, the Xugua (‘Sequence’ Wing) says,

‘The traveller has no place where he is accepted, and so Subtly Penetrating follows. Subtly Penetrating means entering in.’

The traveller at 56.4 has only a temporary shelter; 57.6 is going further and further in.

Simply reading the two lines as a story already casts light on them: my heart is not glad, in 56.4, because I have an inkling of the loss to come. (This is one of those striking, resonant uses of ‘my’ that creates some distance from the protagonist of the line. Perhaps it is the oracle’s heart not glad, or a wiser narrator’s.) And if 56.4 is anticipating, then 57.6 might be remembering – coming from 56.4, it was never entirely, decisively confident of owning property and axe, and goes endlessly digging for certainty.

Line pathways and connections

Let’s keep exploring…

56.4 and the tides of history

56.4 changes to Hexagram 52, Stilling – naturally enough, since this ‘place to stay’ is where the traveller comes to a halt. The name of Hexagram 52 shows a solitary human figure, turning away. This is stilling as a response or reaction to movement, not as a permanent state.

Reading across the paired lines…

‘Feng is flooded with darkness
At midday, seeing a froth of light.
Your right arm broken,
Not a mistake.’

‘Traveller in a place to stay,
Gains property and an axe.
My heart is not glad.’

…the traveller’s situation reflects the person stymied by events in 55.3 – in the dark, not seeing where to go, incapacitated. To me, the lines seem to share a sense of helplessness, being overtaken by events. The traveller hasn’t quite been overtaken yet, but there’s an uneasy sense that he will be, soon. It’s his property and place to stay today, but it could be someone else’s tomorrow.

In practice, I usually get 56.4 when there’s a creeping anxiety and a fear of losing ground – as if I might need to run faster to stay in the same place. It’s almost as if having whatever-it-is now creates the possibility of losing it. I might need to pause and ask myself why I’m not more contented.

The inner lines for this pathway – 52.4 and 51.3 – don’t have the same disquiet:

‘Stilling your self,
No mistake.’

‘Shock revives, revives.
Shock moves without blunder.’

In both of these, there’s a sense ‘things are unfolding as they should’. There may be shock, but it’s timely, it’s doing its work; still yourself, no mistake, no need for you to be running about. And in fact, 55.3 has the same insight: ‘Your right arm broken – not a mistake.‘ Events unfold, there’s not a lot you can do about them, and this is all as it should be. 56.4 is the only line in the pathway that hasn’t got this message – perhaps because attaining shelter, property and axe is the full extent of the traveller’s ambitions?

57.6 and the bottomless Well

56.4 changes to 52, whose name in Chinese shows a human figure. 57.6 changes to 48, the Well – something much bigger.

‘The Well. Moving the city, not moving the well.
Without loss, without gain,
They come and go, the well wells.
Almost reaching, but the rope does not yet draw water from the well,
Breaking one’s clay jug,
Pitfall.’

The well requires human effort, but it also dwarfs us. People come and go, but the water is always there, whether you reach it or not. Human efforts, and decisions, and property, are ‘relativised’: even cities are moved, but not wells. The well construction might belong to everyone, but the water table is timeless, and no-one can own it.

57.6 is joined with 48.6/47.1:

‘The well gathers,
Don’t cover it.
There is truth and confidence,
Good fortune from the source.’

‘Buttocks oppressed with a wooden stick,
Entering into a gloomy valley,
For three years, meeting no-one.’

– lines bringing an awareness that the water table might be over your head. ‘Penetrating under the bed’ comes to mean digging endlessly into something bottomless and shapeless. If 56.4 is hanging on by its fingernails to property and self-determination, 57.6 loses its grip and falls into the endless underground waters. You can’t hold onto ‘your stuff’ in the well, because the whole idea of ownership loses its meaning.

For me, 57.6 tends to mean that I’m over-interpreting other people’s behaviour and worrying too much about their opinions. (I also had it once to describe a day when I got somewhat lost on the London Underground – chiefly because I kept asking directions instead of looking at a map.) ‘What will they think of me?’ is certainly a bottomless, endless question; ‘How to please all the people, all the time?’ is another one, and a good place to lose my grip on my own convictions and have them washed away. I think the line has a more general application, though: it’s about anything that relativises you and yours by putting it in a much bigger context. That could be other people’s opinions, or the passage of time, or even the vastness of nature.

The paired line, 58.1, is very much the ‘other side of the coin’:

‘Subtly penetrating under the bed,
Losing your property and axe.
Constancy, pitfall.’

‘Responsive opening: good fortune’

Subtly penetrating under the bed comes (I think) of a desire to be completely aligned, in complete harmony, with no friction or discord. When the same desire for alignment is turned around and directed outward towards someone specific – as in conversation – then it is good. ‘Responsive’ here is the same word that describes the crane’s young in 61.2, who ‘respond in harmony’ to her call. Its meanings include ‘singing in harmony’ and ‘composing a poem in reply’. So this line’s a healthy extrovert, in comparison to 57.6’s neurotic introvert.

Stories we might tell

What stories might we tell around 56.4 and 57.6? As many as there are readings with each line, of course… but one that seems to me to be murmuring along in the background is that of Zhou and Shang. Hai, the original ‘traveller’ of 56, was a Shang ancestor. His descendants would found a great dynasty – but it would only be a temporary shelter, for they were to lose the Mandate and the Zhou would receive it.

The traveller has his place to stay and things he owns, but there’s still an atmosphere of unease. Someone (that mysterious speaker whose heart is not glad) is aware that events move on, and just because you have this now doesn’t mean you will be able to hold onto it forever.

The protagonist of 57.6 is so intent on exploring the depths – of time, or the collective reality, or the riches of nature – that she finds she has nothing of her own. Scaling up and scaling up, she loses herself from view.

This region of the Sequence (49/50, 54.5, 55…) concentrates on Zhou history – not the ins and outs of military strategy, but rather how they received, owned and implemented their Mandate. This little story of lost property might be asking, sotto voce, ‘Oh, so the Mandate is yours, is it? On what scale?’

The broader perspective that makes your personal experience just one part of the whole can be useful: it allows you to create harmonious exchanges, in 58.1. And it can be reassuring, as in 55.3 and 51.3: I may be stuck, but the wheels of history are turning as they should. Or it can be disconcerting: I have this now, but for how long? And ultimately, if you zoom out (or penetrate in) far enough, your experience and ownership disappears altogether. I think of the idea that people ‘own’ ancient woodland, or of ‘owning’ a ‘cello whose lifespan is measured in centuries. It’s laughable, of course – but also essential: someone has to keep the ‘cello safe from the central heating this winter.

sand running through fingers

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