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I-Ching trigrams, Mahjong guardians, and the Taoist eight immortals


Aug 29, 2021
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Recently i read in The Mahjong Oracle by Derek Walters:

"In Mah Jongg, the four seasons are represented in the pack by two sets of four tiles bearing pictures symbolizing the seasons, either by showing an appropriate flower, or by some seasonal occupation. Together, these eight tiles represent the Eight Immortals: guardians who guide and protect those under their care. They also represent the eight trigrams of the I Ching--perhaps the most ancient divination system on record."

For me these esoteric mysteries can be mind candy. I was unsatisfied by various online mappings that lacked explanations or references. Below are a few online clues about how these things have been mapped before.

"The plum blossom is also regarded as one of the Four Gentlemen of flowers in Chinese art together with the orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo. It is one of the Flowers of the Four Seasons, which consist of the orchid (spring), the lotus (summer), the chrysanthemum (autumn) and the plum blossom (winter)."
From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prunus_mume#Cultural_significance

"The King Wen sequence is also known as the received or classical sequence because it is the oldest surviving arrangement of the hexagrams. Its true age and authorship are unknown. ... Of the two hexagram arrangements, the King Wen sequence is, however, of much greater antiquity than the Fu Xi sequence."
From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Wen_sequence

"In [King Wen's] formation... the trigrams are arranged in a cyclical progression, read clockwise from the top. The trigrams were also assigned compass directions and seasonal associations."
From: http://livingiching.com/about/beginning_the_iching

I used the traditional mapping between i-ching trigrams, their name, nature, and personality. I used the Living I Ching "King Wen chart" to map the i-ching trigrams to directions and seasons. I used the Wikipedia page on the Four Gentleman and the Flowers of the Four Seasons to map the four Mahjong flowers to directions and seasons.

I used my own imagination to map the four Mahjong "noble professions" to directions and seasons. I performed similar mental gymnastics to map the i-ching trigrams to the eight Taoist immortals.

I used Unicode i-ching trigrams, and included a sideways ASCII representation. In the ASCII representation, the the lines go from right to left, where they would normally go from bottom to top. I use a capital letter "I" to represent a solid yang line, and a less-than symbol "<" to represent a broken yin line.

Below is a proposed mapping between I-Ching trigrams, Mahjong guardians, and the Taoist eight immortals.

Trigram: ☲ (I<I)
Name: Li
Nature: Fire
Personality: Clinging
Direction: South
Season: Mid-Summer
Mahjong: Farmer
Immortal: Lan Caihe (androgynist florist/gardener)
Just as fire clings to wood, crops cling to the ground.
Gardening is plausibly related to farming, thus Lan Caihe.
Coincidentally, 95% of plants on Earth are hermaphrodites.

Trigram: ☷ (<<<)
Name: Kun
Nature: Earth
Personality: Receptive
Direction: Southwest
Season: Early Autummn
Mahjong: Bamboo/Lotus
Immortal: He Xiangu (only female immortal)
Just as Kun is the most feminine trigram, He Xiangu is the most
feminine immortal. She is usually depicted carrying a lotus.

Trigram: ☱ (<II)
Name: Dui
Nature: Lake
Personality: Joyous
Direction: West
Season: Late Autumn
Mahjong: Chrysanthemum
Immortal: Cao Gujiu (official robes, jade tablet, acting)
Just as a lake is a pleasant place normally full of life, late
autumn is a joyous time of harvest festivals. On the ninth day of
the ninth month, during the Chong Yang festival, it is traditional
to hike into the mountains and drink Chrysanthemum tea, which is
thought to purify the body. Cao Gujiu gave all his wealth to the
poor and went into the mountains to seek the Dao. He carries a
jade tablet that can purify the environment.

Trigram: ☰ (III)
Name: Qian
Nature: Heaven
Personality: Creative
Direction: Northwest
Season: Early Winter
Mahjong: Scholar
Immortal: Lue Dongbin (scholar)
Early winter is a time for intellectual pursuits, and a scholar is
likely to take an interest in heavenly things. Luo Dongbin is
usually depicted in the dress of a scholar.

Trigram: ☵ (<I<)
Name: Kan
Nature: Water
Personality: Abysmal
Direction: North
Season: Mid-Winter
Mahjong: Fisher
Immortal: Zhang Guolao (occult alchemist, eccentric hermit)
K'an is water, and a waterfall goes down into an abyss. A fisher
works closely with water, and must be patient in order to catch
fish. Zhang Guolao is an eccentric hermit, the oldest and wisest
of the immortals. Patience and wisdom go hand in hand. This
mapping felt like a bit of a stretch.

Trigram: ☶ (I<<)
Name: Ken
Nature: Mountain
Personality: Still
Direction: Northeast
Season: Late Winter
Mahjong: Plum blossom
Immortal: Zhongli Quan (alchemist, revives the dead, creates gold)
Ken is a still mountain in late winter. Just as the plum blossom
blooms in late winter, it is an omen of rebirth and new beginnings.
Zhongli Quan was reputed to bring the dead back to life and
transmute base materials to gold. The mountains are a place to
mine and refine precious metals. The stillness of meditation is a
place to transmute the soul.

Trigram: ☳ (<<I)
Name: Zhen
Nature: Thunder
Personality: Arousing
Direction: East
Season: Spring
Mahjong: Orchid
Immortal: Li Tieguai (trickster clown who fights for the oppressed)
Zhen is an arousing thunder in the spring time. Just as an orchid
is a rare flower that can hang on a dark ledge, Li Tieguai is a
revolutionary force who can help the downtrodden.

Trigram: ☴ (II<)
Name: Sun
Nature: Wind
Personality: Gentle
Direction: Southeast
Season: Early Summer
Mahjong: Woodcutter
Immortal: Han Xiangzi (flute artist)
Sun is a gentle wind that blows right to the heart of a matter
without disrupting anything. Wind is associated with the element
wood. The woodcutter cuts through the heart of a tree. Han
Xiangzi plays a woodwind instrument, blowing his breath through the
heart of bamboo. A melody directly addresses the human heart.
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Feb 6, 2021
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Below is a proposed mapping between I-Ching trigrams, Mahjong guardians, and the Taoist eight immortals.
With regards to what you are calling the Trigram: Name: Nature: Personality: Direction: and Season:

... all of these are describing the Houtian, or late heaven, or King Wen bagua (trigram) circle.

Traditionally, it has trigram Fire, Li at the top of the circle, representing mid-day, summer, and also south. Ancient Chinese maps had south at the top, so east was to the left .... Spring is considered the beginning of the year, represented by trigram Thunder, which is also early morning, and the east (where the sun rises each morning) ....

I can't really speak to the "Mahjong guardians" or "Taoist eight immortals"; I don't see them as being connected to - nor mentioned in - the Yijing (or at least the Zhouyi), but that's just my impression.

There is another discussion here in Exploring Divination, Harmen on trigram circles, where Yijing teacher Harmen Mesker discusses the age of both the later and early trigram circles in a video. He concludes that what we call the 'Late Heaven' or 'King Wen' circle is actually much older, from as early as 300 BC; this contradicts with the Living I Ching website, where it says:

"Fu Xi’s sequence of hexagrams was revised by a feudal prince posthumously known as King Wen."

Harmen would challenge this. And I think that it's perhaps a myth, created to make the early bagua circle seem more important: after all, how can a trigram circle be any more ancient or more important than one created by the important ancestor, Fuxi?

Best, D


Aug 29, 2021
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Thank you for the link to the discussion Harmen on trigram circles. That makes sense and it seems to validate my Wikipedia quote "Of the two hexagram arrangements, the King Wen sequence is, however, of much greater antiquity than the Fu Xi sequence."

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