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Category Archives: Interpreting hexagrams

Comments on whole hexagrams, individual lines and so on

Rain

Rain

The Yijing mentions rain several times – in Hexagram 9, and then in 38.6, 43.3, 50.3 and 62.5. What does it represent?

Wilhelm, writing about 50.3, has a succinct answer:

‘The fall of rain symbolizes here, as in other instances, release of tension.’

Wilhelm is (here, as in other instances) spot on. But can we learn more by digging deeper?

When it doesn’t rain

The Yi’s first explicit mention of rain comes in the Oracle of Hexagram 9 – where it isn’t raining:

‘Small taming, creating success.
Dense clouds without rain
Come from our Western altars.’

Hexagram 9, Oracle

And then the exact same phrase is repeated at the other end of the book, in 62.5:

‘Dense clouds without rain
Come from our Western altars.
The prince hunts with tethered arrows,
And gets the one living in a cave.’

Hexagram 62, line 5

In a time of Small Taming, we’re building up our capacity in a small way, but it’s not there yet, like the clouds are not raining yet. The Western altars indicate a connection with the Zhou people, who were gathering strength like massing clouds.

Schilling takes this one step further:

‘Clouds are also a symbol of fruitfulness. That they travel over the western altars without raining indicates that union with the Shang princess will not lead to offspring.’

Dennis Schilling, Yijing, Das Buch der Wandlungen

This historical interpretation fits nicely within the tradition that rain means ‘uniting yin and yang’.

The most important thing to understand is that rain is something we want. Minford mentions that there are many oracle bone inscriptions about rain, and they’re generally about trying to get some: dancing, making music and sacrificing for rain. Song 210 describes the rain we hope for:

‘A great cloud covers the heavens above,
Sends down snows thick-falling.
To them are added the fine rains of spring.
All is swampy and drenched,
All is moistened and soft,
Ready to grow the many grains.’

Book of Songs, trans. Arthur Waley/Joseph Allen

So this is what Hexagram 9 is missing – and so too is 62.5:

‘Dense clouds without rain
Come from our Western altars.
The prince hunts with tethered arrows,
And gets the one living in a cave.’

Hexagram 62, line 5

I recently realised that 54.1.2 had good reason to remind us of 10.3. So… why might this be reminding us of Hexagram 9? I think it’s drawing a contrast.

Small Taming is a time of ‘not yet’: no rain yet, the Zhou star not yet risen, not time to act yet. Instead, it’s time for small-scale cultivation, preparation, developing alliances and being patient.

Small Exceeding is a quite different time – still acting in a small way, but now crossing the line, sending and receiving the message, making the transition. In a very rudimentary way, you can see the difference in the shape of the hexagrams:

compared to

So… this makes me think that the prince in 62.5 is dealing with the lack of rain. (Schilling actually thinks he is shooting arrows at the clouds to make it rain.) It’s line 5, after all: time for the prince to use his tools and his authority and do the small things that may have big results.

An important theme of 62 is getting the message rather than just ‘passing by’ – and it’s hard to imagine a more decisive connection than a corded arrow. The prince acts with the trigram zhen – thunder, swift movement, initiative – becoming dui, interaction (and, of course, water).

Field sees this line as describing Wen’s success in ‘bagging’ the Shang. But I prefer Wilhelm’s story here, of a ruler seeking out helpers. After all, the imagery is quite odd: corded arrows specifically for hunting and retrieving birds, mostly waterfowl, and there aren’t many cave-dwelling birds. (In China, there are swiftlets – good luck shooting one of these with an arrow.) Perhaps there’s a lost allusion to a particular story here, maybe something like the story of Yao finding Shun.

Rain at last: 9.6

‘Already rained, already come to rest.
Honour the power it carries.
The wife’s constancy brings danger,
The moon is almost full.
Noble one sets out to bring order – pitfall.’

Finally, in the last line of Small Taming, it’s rained. As Wang Bi describes it, making it rain is the ‘domestication’ the hexagram achieves, as the yin outer trigram controls the pure yang inner trigram qian. For reliable rain, you would need a yin force strong enough to ‘hold its ground’ against the rising vapours of qian. The inner trigram is like the rising air of a warm front, bringing rain. (It sounds as though Wang Bi was paying attention in my GCSE geography class.)

The rain is good news: now we have heaven’s favour and can start to grow our crops. Schilling associates this line with King Wen’s wife Tai Si giving birth to heirs. It’s the same basic idea: growth begins here; blessing is promised in future. If the gathering clouds meant gathering Zhou strength, then the rain means it’s time to start more active preparations.

What of all the warnings, though? Danger with the wife’s constancy, and pitfall for the noble one who sets out to bring order?

The rain ‘carried’ de, like a cart carries a load. De is power, and also a quality – virtue, or something’s unique nature and way of being. I think this is advice to honour the quality of the time. The rain’s brought energy and potential – and so now is the time to plant, watch over the growing seedlings, and wait. The line changes to Hexagram 5, Waiting.

The wife’s constancy means danger. To be ‘constant’ is to be loyal and persistent, holding to what you know to be true; the wife’s role is to create the home, ordering and securing the inner space. Freeman Crouch thinks this wife might be King Wen, safeguarding his own kingdom. In any case, this is someone seeking to hold onto what’s been gained, and this is perilous. (Though not necessarily wrong-headed – not everything that’s dangerous in the Yi is wrong.) The moon’s almost full: things are on the cusp of change. As Bradford Hatcher put it, ‘All these will continue for as long as the moon stays full. These are not things to found dynasties on.’

(Aside: I don’t buy the idea that zhen, ‘constancy’, really means nothing more than ‘divination’. In an oracular text, you wouldn’t need to write ‘divination of danger for the wife’ – just ‘danger for the wife’ would do. Either zhen is a completely redundant word, or it means something more than ‘divination’.)

The wife’s constancy is dangerous, but the noble one’s zheng, ‘setting out to bring order’, is disastrous. This is a step beyond securing the home, though it seems to come from the same basic desire for more security: setting out on a military expedition to set the world to rights. But this line changes to the trigram kan – flowing water, like falling rain, and also the flow of change and its dangers. There are limits to what can be secured. The noble one is needed at home, tending the fields, responding to changing conditions.

Rain brings good fortune: 38.6

‘Opposed, alone.
Seeing pigs covered in muck,
The chariot loaded with devils.
At first drawing the bow,
Then relaxing the bow.
Not robbers at all, but matrimonial allies.
Going on meets the rain, and so there is good fortune.’

Hexagram 38, line 6

Pigs, mud, chariot, devils, archer, robbers, marriage and rain – a bewildering kaleidoscope of omens, and a fitting culmination for a hexagram of ‘seeing differently’. It’s possible that many of these images are constellations: you see the muddy pigs and devil-cart in the heavens. Field says that the rising Heavenly Boar in autumn marks the beginning of monsoon season. Minford writes,

‘The Lunar Mansion known as the Ghost Cart corresponds to the constellation known to Western Astronomy as Cancer. Immediately south of this, in Canis Major and Puppis, is a Bow and Arrow, pointed at Sirius, the Dog Star (the Heavenly Wolf). According to Wolfram Eberhard, in southern China … “ghost cart” was the name of a special kind of owl, an evil bird which attacked children. It also had astrological connections and could appear as a comet.’

Minford, I Ching, the Book of Change

But in the end, the rain falls on us, down here on the earth, and that feels more important than all those ominous celestial signs. Wang Bi wrote, ‘One places value on encountering rain, because it unites yin and yang. Once yin and yang are united, all suspicions will disappear.’ As Wilhelm said, this rain brings the release of tension. It also seems to be a good marriage omen. Perhaps this is like Song 62, where Bo has marched boldly to war, and the woman left behind sings:

‘Oh, for rain, oh, for rain!
And instead the sun shines dazzling.
All this longing for Bo
Brings weariness to the heart, aching to the head.’

Book of Songs, trans. Arthur Waley/Joseph Allen

38.6’s rain brings union, and also seems to wash away misapprehensions, clearing the air for a longer view.

This line, by the way, changes the trigram li, fire, to zhen, thunder – not an explicitly watery trigram until you look at the character: ‘rain’ and ‘moment’.

Rain washes away regrets: 50.3

‘The vessel’s ears are radically changed,
Its action blocked.
Rich pheasant fat goes uneaten.
Rain on all sides lessens regrets,
In the end, good fortune.’

Hexagram 50, line 3

Here’s a truly revolutionary line: the vessel’s ears (its carrying loops, but also literally ‘ears’, for listening) are being radically changed – the name of the paired hexagram, 49. It’s all happening here… except that for now, nothing can happen. There’s a ‘closed for maintenance’ sign hanging on this line: the vessel can’t be used, the best food goes uneaten. How frustrating.

The frustration, of course, is very reminiscent of Hexagram 9: good things will happen, just not yet. But the rain (which might be coming from all directions, or just be coming soon) will change everything.

Wang Bi says ‘rain is something that happens when yin and yang engage in intercourse free of one-sidedness and arrogance,’ and that this is the eventual – much-blocked & delayed – meeting of lines 3 and 5. All commentators agree that this rain washes away sorrows, the regrets for the unused vessel and wasted food.

The line promises good fortune in the end. Rather like 9.6 (another change to the trigram kan), this is the turning point, just beginning a period of growth and change. (This line points you to Hexagram 64, Not Yet Across. Nothing’s finished yet.)

Getting soaked: 43.3

‘Vigour in the cheekbones means a pitfall.
Noble one decides, decides.
Goes alone, meets the rain,
And is indignant as if he were soaked through.
Not a mistake.’

Hexagram 43, line 3

In the other examples, we’ve seen rain bringing blessing and fertility, relieving tension and clearing the air. This line looks altogether different: this rain brings a soaking, and indignation. It’s exactly the same event as in 38.6, though: 遇雨, ‘meeting rain’, ‘getting caught in the rain’. Why the difference?

Line theory says the yang third line is humiliated because it’s associated with the inferior yin line 6. Field suggests that the noble one goes ‘hurry scurry’ and gets wet because he’s unprepared. All this is all very well, but it doesn’t explain why being rained on should be a bad thing, only in this line.

And… actually, it isn’t. This is ‘no mistake’.

To go back to basics for a moment: rain brings a change of state. The frustration of ‘not yet’ ends in 9.6; tension and suspicion end in 38.6; blockage ends in 50.3. Rain brings change that gets things moving and working together, and the same is true of this line.

Vigour in the cheekbones – rigidity, firmness, preserving one’s dignity – was disastrous, and the noble one’s path is different. He decides, goes out and gets drenched. He may not be pleased about this, but he’s also undergone a change of state, from isolated decision-making to wide open communication.

This line changes to Hexagram 58, the doubled trigram dui, whose actions include opening – even forcing open, in the face of resistance. (See Harmen on ‘the salient’, and how Samgirl described a Taoist practice she pursued in the face of her church’s opposition: ‘opening channels in me that have been closed for ages.’) The noble one’s been soaked through, fully exposed to the elements, and this is what makes things grow. This is a third line, after all, coming to the edge of the hexagram’s inner space. Deciding isn’t just an inner event: time to go out and meet some reality.

Rain’s role

From these lines, I think a picture starts to emerge. It only rains in line 3 or line 6 – at the upper edge of a trigram, in its ‘sky’ line (if the trigram’s three lines correspond to the three realms of earth, humanity and heaven). In other words, rain comes at the end, on the verge of a change of state. ‘That’s out of the way,’ says the rain. ‘Now we can begin.’

I Ching Community discussion

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