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Category Archives: Interpreting hexagrams

Comments on whole hexagrams, individual lines and so on

Crime and punishment

Crime and punishment

Some Yijing imagery is immensely straightforward to relate to. I was having the ‘What do you do?’ conversation a few weeks ago, and a friend asked me what kind of thing readings said, and how they answered questions. ‘Imagine,’ I said, ‘you’re asking about taking on a new voluntary role, and the answer tells you that a roof beam is bending and buckling under the weight it bears.’ She got it, of course. Three thousand years later, no commentary required.

Only – also of course – some of the imagery is less immediately relatable; things that might have been part of daily life for the original users of the oracle, but bring a modern user to an abrupt standstill. The stories of crime and punishment, for instance…

‘Biting through, creating success.
Fruitful to use legal proceedings.’

Hexagram 21, Biting Through – the Oracle

Legal proceedings?

Not – normally – literally. With this one, I often encourage people to think of a courtroom drama where the investigative lawyer reaches the truth. The hexagram overall is about biting through obstacles – something stuck between the teeth that prevents the jaws from meeting effectively. The idea is to gnaw and work one’s way through – to truth, and to efficacity, so things work together as smoothly and easily as the grinding surfaces of healthy teeth. And on reflection… an unpunished or unsolved crime, or an injustice not righted, a dispute not yet settled, truth not discovered, are all obstacles that prevent people from connecting smoothly and easily – a spanner in society’s works. Identify the problem, says Hexagram 21, whatever is getting in the way, and work through it.

These are not Bleak House-style legal proceedings, then: they have a positive purpose. A similar idealism comes through in the Image of 21:

‘Thunder and lightning. Biting through.
The ancient kings brought light to punishments and proclaimed the laws.’

Hexagram 21, the Image

Punishment should be clear; it’s meant to increase people’s understanding, so they can learn about consequences. And even in the much older text of the moving lines, there is often this same expectation that punishment should serve some constructive purpose. Take lines 1 and 6 of 21, for instance…

‘Shoes locked in the stocks, feet disappear.
Not a mistake.’
‘Shouldering a cangue so your ears disappear.

Hexagram 21, lines 1 and 6

To be prevented from moving at the outset is not a problem – not only does it keep you out of trouble, it might even be a hidden opportunity. (21.1 changes to Hexagram 35, Advancing.) But to be incapable of hearing – changing the trigram of clear perception to that of shock – is disastrous.

Lines 1 and 6 in any hexagram are traditionally described as being ‘outside the situation’ of the main hexagram. That makes them a natural place for mention of criminal punishment, which works by removing people from normal interaction in society, sidelining them and making their exclusion clearly visible to all. Stocks or the cangue push you ‘outside’ in two ways: by limiting your freedom to act and interact, and by shaming you publicly.

The same two lines, 1 and 6, refer to punishments in Hexagram 4:

‘Sending out the ignoramus,
Fruitful to make use of punishing people,
To make use of loosening fetters and manacles.
Going on in that way is shameful.’
‘Striking the ignoramus.
Fruitless to act like an outlaw,
Fruitful to resist outlawry.’

Hexagram 4, lines 1 and 6

I think these lines show the same preoccupation with punishment having some constructive effect. The ignoramus needs to learn from experience, so hampering his movement is a terrible idea: he needs to move freely and find out for himself. By all means shout at your child after you’ve rescued him from the duckpond again, but don’t put him on a leash.

Line 6 needs to take great care. An ‘outlaw’ (or ‘robber’ or ‘bandit’, kou 寇) is someone ‘beyond the pale’, outside the realm of law that makes social give and take, mutual care and help, possible. In striking out at ignorance – perhaps in frustration, without too much thought – where do you stand yourself, inside or outside? And what are you teaching? Punishment should resist outlaws, not create them.

In these two lines of punishment and being ‘outside the situation’, the aim is always to encourage learning through better connection and communication – creating greater coherence. In readings, these lines can talk about how you relate to your own ignorance. Don’t remove yourself from the flow of life with fetters or with violence; find something more constructive to do than beating yourself up for not knowing.

A few more examples…

In Hexagram 29, the Repeated Pits can be traps, places where you are cut off from the flow. And out on the edge, at line 6, you’re cut off altogether by prison walls – thorn thickets were used for prison stockades:

‘Bound with good rope and cords.
Shut away in a thorn thicket.
For three years, gains nothing.

Hexagram 29, line 6

This one really is ‘outside the situation’, unable to get anywhere or create anything.

Hexagram 38 offers a whole hexagram about being on the outside –

‘Opposing means outside. People in the Home means inside.’

The Zagua

One of the nastiest ways this can happen to you is through criminalisation:

‘Seeing the cart dragged back,
The oxen stopped,
Your men branded and their noses cut off.
With no beginning, there is an end.’

Hexagram 38, line 3

Branding and nose-cutting are severe punishments, permanently marking these men as outsiders.

Hexagram 47 – Oppression, Confinement – is another hexagram where you might naturally expect to meet punishment imagery. Punishment is a way you can be isolated from the world, exhausted, made unable to progress. Here punishment is specifically mentioned in lines 1 and 5.

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

Hexagram 47, line 1

As in other ‘outside’ lines, there’s the theme of being excluded and alone. It’s not altogether clear what’s happening here, though, and the translation is uncertain. Some think you’re confined by being tied to a tree in the valley, but it seems more likely to me to be a caning. But then why enter the dark valley and stay there for three years? 29.6 was imprisoned, but this one might just be sulking, refusing to show her face. (Bradford Hatcher saw the line this way, describing the valley as ‘one truly great rut, surrounded on all three sides’.)

And line 5 –

‘Nose cut, feet cut.
Oppressed by the crimson knee-coverings.
Then moving slowly brings release.
Fruitful to use offerings and oblations.’

Hexagram 47, line 5

A reminder of the full brutality of ancient Chinese penalties: we can interpret as ‘loss of face’ and loss of agency, but this is still a nasty moment, a threat of being marked for life. But… this is at line 5, not line 6: a line, traditionally, of autonomy and choice. The officials with crimson knee-coverings lack the power to exclude you permanently: you can get free, recover the power of movement and restore connection.

Hopefully, this overview gives you some imagination food for working with this imagery in your own readings. It’s good to look, in very simple terms, at the effect of the punishment. Often, that’s to mark the person out as different and prevent them from participating and engaging. 4.1 can’t learn freely if left in fetters; 21.1 can’t get in more trouble, sitting in the stocks; 47.1 can’t (or won’t) interact, down in the valley. Outlaws (4.6) are outside the realm of human interaction, and so too are those with ears gone, or tied up in a thorn thicket. What excludes you, or bars you from full participation in the flow of life?

Also… isn’t it interesting that, in this oracle that’s supposed to have been created originally for the use of kings and lords, the lines that talk about criminal punishment are almost all about suffering it, not imposing it?

I Ching Community discussion

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