The name of this hexagram is very straightforward: the Well. The old character, which looks like a noughts-and-crosses grid, is usually said to be a picture of a grid of fields, with the well at the centre. But it is also the exact same shape as the frame used in ancient China to support the sides of the well: examples have been found dating from 1300BC.
This very simple image has a wealth of meanings in divination, just as the well has a wealth of practical and symbolic meanings in real life. As the population grew, the well would have been absolutely essential for life. And beyond that, it was a social centre, and building and maintaining it was a shared, social task. So the condition of the well would be a good index of the health of relationships within the group.
But as so often, it’s the most elementary literal understanding that gives rise to the most far-reaching symbolic interpretations. A well is a way of reaching the water. Ordinary life carries on across the fields; the well-shaft connects this daily activity to another, life-giving dimension.
The connection, the way of reaching, seems to me to be the essential. It can represent friendship, social connection and shared roots, or a personal ability to ‘tap into’ your reserves of strength. It can also represent a connection to underlying truth – hence Yi’s not infrequent use of this hexagram to represent itself.
‘The Well. Moving the capital city, not moving the well.
No loss, no gain,
Going, coming: welling, welling.
Almost there, yet the well rope does not quite reach,
Breaking your pitcher,
When ancient Chinese rulers had to move their capital cities, they could take with them all the paraphernalia of everyday life – except for the well. This connection is not something you can own: it must be recreated afresh in each new place. And it will neither lose nor gain: our politics cannot change its essential nature. (Though connection to the source can and does cause political change – see Hexagram 49!)
The contrasting pair of ‘going, coming’ represents not only the movements of people, but also the passage of time (like ‘buying-selling’ meaning ‘trade’). In sharp contrast, ‘welling, welling’ highlights the unchanging nature of the Well – as if its shaft were dug at right-angles to time, to bring up meaning from the invisible world into everyday life, bridging the unbridgeable. (The hidden core of the Well is Hexagram 38, Opposition.)
But this will not happen by itself. There is always water in the well, but not everyone will reach it – and if you can’t reach the source, or lack the means to contain it, it will never help you.
So receiving Hexagram 48 is often a sign that there is real work to be done. Its roots lie in the desperate isolation of Hexagram 47, Confined. One who experiences Confinement is like a tree hemmed in on all sides by walls, unable to trust the words that connect them to others or make sense of the world. And so she (or he) is cast back on her own inner resources – where Yi hints that she will find some transformative ‘mutual encounter’ at the heart of the experience.
Together, Confined and the Well describe a single experience of outer oppression, turning inward, and connecting to the source – but from opposite perspectives. The square of walls around the tree becomes the square well-frame, and the ‘pit’ is transformed: what you find at the core is independent of change on the human scale; it doesn’t require anyone to ‘make sense’ of it.
This reminds me of those myths where the hero must visit dark depths to bring back the gift of life. The trigrams tell the same story: in Confined, the essence drains inward, from outer lake to inner stream. And with the Well, it is brought back into circulation, inner wood opening the way to the water. But in the Yijing, the ‘hero’ who brings back the water is a whole society, working steadily and prosaically together to keep their well in good order. The best any individual can do is to get involved in this effort:
‘Above wood is the stream. The Well.
The noble one labours with the ordinary people to encourage them to help one another.’
The stream suggests shared toil in the face of a challenge; the inner wood suggests an adaptive, intelligent response to it. But this is also a plain and literal image of exactly how immersed the noble one is in his work: looking down through the water, you can still see that wooden well-frame.