Going back to the source: the manuscripts of Richard Wilhelm (3)

Wenn die Begriffe nicht richting sind, so stimmen die Worte nicht;
Stimmen die Worte nicht, so kommen die Werke nicht zustande…
Lunyu, Ch. 13.3, tr. Richard Wilhelm
If the terms are not correct the words do not agree;
If the words do not agree the works are not realised…
Lunyu, Ch. 13.3, tr. Richard Wilhelm

You might wonder why I am making such a fuzz out of something that seems to be a minor detail in Wilhelm’s translation of the Yijing. Is it really important whether ⚍ and ⚎ are either called shao yin 少陰 or shao yang 少陽? Are the names really that important?

In fact they are. The concept and usage of the sixiang 四象, the Four Images ⚌ ⚏ ⚍ ⚎ goes beyond their designations: they are linked to the seasons, and out of this link entire new concepts are constructed. Hexagrams can be seen as a combination of several two-line symbols. If you don’t know their proper names you will not know how to properly link the symbols to the seasons, and if you are interested in time related consultations with the Yi this can get you in serious trouble. The names are important because these names are also used as names for the seasons: tai yang 太陽 is Summer (it is also a name for the sun), tai yin 太陰 is Winter, shao yang 少陽 is Spring and shao yin 少陰 is Autumn. If you want to use these names to link the seasons to the sixiang you must know the proper names of these symbols.

In China this has never been an argument. There was no confusion about the names of  ⚍ and ⚎. The picture in which they are traditionally used makes it clear what is what.


The title 伏羲六十四卦序, ‘sequence of Fu Xi’s 64 hexagrams’, has to be read from right to left and so should the image. Black is yin 陰, white is yang 陽. The first line, below, is the Tai Ji 太極. The next line are yin 陰 and yang 陽, and the third line are the Four Symbols. It starts with tai yang 太陽 ⚌ which is Summer. Next comes shao yin 少陰 which is Autumn, and its Symbol is ⚍. In other words, ⚍ is shao yin 少陰, ‘ small (or young) yin‘. The picture is clear, the labels are logical – there is no need to discuss the names of the Four Symbols. And so the Chinese never had such a discussion.

But we, the readers in the West, do have this discussion, and it started with Wilhelm’s Yijing translation in which he switched the names of shao yin and shao yang:


‘⚍ the young or small Yang, ⚎ the young or small Yin.’

This is not the Chinese way. Did he always name the sixiang like this? No. In front of me were two pages that proved this.

The pages were an introduction to the hexagrams, undated. In it Wilhelm talks about the composition of the hexagrams, the meaning of the line positions, the meaning of yin and yang and the trigrams. At the end of the first page, he says (*insert drum roll here*)

1. Tai Yang, das große Lichte ⚌
2. Shou Yin, das junge Schattige (die Tochter) ⚍

He continues on the next page:

3. Shou Yang, das junge Lichte (der Sohn) ⚎
4. Tai Yin, das große Schattige


1. Tai Yang, the great light ⚌
2. Shao Yin, the young shade (the daughter) ⚍
3. Shao Yang, the young light (the son) ⚎
4. Tai Yin, the great shade ⚏

This is how the sixiang are originally labelled in China! Wilhelm knew their correct names and in his translation it ended up wrong! So I thought. But it was too early to jump to conclusions.

My time at the archive was running short and if I wanted to read the rest of the maps I would have to make pace. I photographed the pages, made a note of it on my tablet and proceeded to the next files.

The next note book was small and contained studies on the Chinese calendar, the Luoshu and the Eight Houses.

I always wondered why Wilhelm inserted the pages on the Eight Houses at the end of his book. He doesn’t give any description of them, nor how they could be used. What the pages from this note book tell is that he did study them carefully – it was not just some sort of novelty to him. What is interesting about these pages in general is that they belong to the xiangshu 象數 ‘Image and Number’ school which has more or less a daoist inclination. Even though his Yijing translation is predominantly Confucian in style and meaning, probably influenced by his teacher Lao Naixuan, this notebook shows he also stepped outside the Confucian view of the Yi.

On to the next note book: an earlier study of chapters of the Ten Wings. The translation of the core texts is still different from the final version, but there is extensive commentary added, commentary that often seems to be a translation of a Chinese source.


Names of the hexagrams are sometimes different, like hexagram 50 which is called ‘Der Kessel’ (‘the Kettle’) instead of ‘Der Tiegel’ (‘the Pot’).


That the commentary to the text is based on a Chinese source can especially be seen with hexagram 30:


‘Der Schein (li 離) ist etwas abhängiges (麗).’ (‘The light (li 離) is something that is dependent’ (麗)). The commentaries that are gathered in the Zhouyi Zhezhong edition mention li 麗 a lot. Both 離, the name of hexagram 30, and 麗 are pronounced li. Pronunciation is a much used quality to link the meaning of two otherwise unrelated characters. But I could not find Wilhelm’s text in an online version of the Zhouyi Zhezhong so I suspect it comes from another source.

20160907_145056One of the small note books looked especially interesting: it had the name of Wilhelm’s teacher Lao Naixuan on the cover. I can’t quite decipher what it says but I assume it refers to comments made by Lao and written down by Wilhelm. The note book was dated 1914. This was the year when Wilhelm started his study of the Yijing under the guidance of Lao Naixuan. I opened the note book and immediately the first page gave me another revelation.


On the second half of the page I read:

⚌ tai yang Sommer  ⚍ shau yin Herbst
⚎ shau yang Frühling ⚏ tai yin Winter


⚌ tai yang Summer  ⚍ shao yin Autumn
⚎ shao yang Spring ⚏ tai yin Winter

Again Wilhelm gave the Four Symbols their original Chinese names! This document was dated 1914. The other loose papers that I mentioned earlier are probably from around 1919. For at least five years or so Wilhelm did not have any doubts or change in the names of the sixiang. So how did the switch end up in his book? The last maps in the box should be decisive: they contained the handwritten manuscript that was to become the final version of the draft for his book.

The text still contains many corrections and there are several leaflets inserted with notes and remarks, like the small paper that became the footnote about James Legge’s translation. But it can immediately be recognized as the manuscript that was the source for his book. All the corrections that are made in this manuscript are also found in his book. So how does this final draft give the names of the sixiang? I thumbed through the manuscript until I found the relevant page.

‘⚌ das alte oder große yang    ⚏ das alte oder große yin
⚍ das junge oder kleine yang ⚎ das junge oder kleine yin’

I was disappointed. This was exactly how it ended up in Wilhelm’s book. I was hoping that the names of the sixiang in the manuscript would correspond with his earlier notes. I was hoping that I could say, Look! Wilhelm wrote it correctly! The publisher screwed up, not Wilhelm!’ But the manuscript proved otherwise. The names in the manuscript were the same as the names in Wilhelm’s book. I closed the manuscript and put it back in the map. My job at the archive of the Bayern Akademie der Wissenschaften was finished.

How did the name switch end up in the handwritten manuscript? We will probably never know. My personal guess is that it is a slip of the pen: two times Wilhelm gave the Four Symbols the right names, only the final draft of his book shows the name switch. Had he done this on purpose he would no doubt have mentioned it, in the same way he mentioned alternative readings of a line or character in Book III of his translation.

I did not find conclusive facts, but for me the matter was settled. I still had many questions. I had read matters in the letters of Wilhelm that I wanted to find out. But not today. I thanked the archivist for his help. I could not have does this without him. He guided me to the exit of the Akademie and I stepped into the sunlight. My head was filled with thoughts. I was tired. The next day, Thursday, I would spend by writing blog entry no. 2 and sleeping a lot. I had to get up early on Friday.

There was one journey left on my list.

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23 Responses to Going back to the source: the manuscripts of Richard Wilhelm (3)

  1. I assume you corrected this in your edited version? Great work! It was both educational and entertaining.

    • Thanks Maggie. About ‘correcting’ Wilhelm’s Yijing: you can’t do that – you can’t alter the text simply because you deem a certain statement wrong. If I would have it changed the Dutch version would differ from the German original. It would also differ from all the other translation of the German book. That would be confusing. But the new Dutch translation will be the first translation that has a footnote about it… 🙂

  2. Ted Bell says:

    At last! THE Definitive answer! Thank you again Harmen!

  3. That was fascinating, Harmen! Than you so much for sharing all this. Beautiful to see all those handwritten notes by Wilhelm. I’m sure you took tons more pictures that you will be studying later. This is great!

    As for the sixiang, we can only speculate at this point. It is obvious he had it “right” for many, many years, until he finished the final manuscript and gave it to the printers. Now, was the switch based on some “logical deduction” (say, “yang enters from below into yin and thus it is ‘shao yang'”) thus refuting millennia of Chinese “assumptions”, making him a revolutionary; or was it a deliberate obfuscation of the symbols for some esoteric, unknown purpose?

    Do you know the history and provenance of those manuscripts at the Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften in Munich? Were they always housed there after Wilhelm’s death? My question is, were they ever housed anywhere in Switzerland before the Akademie?

    Thank you again for all this.

  4. Rodrigo Olvera says:

    Luis: I guess I know why you asked about Switzerland 😉
    Harmen: Always a pleasure to read your findings… and searchings.

    • I knew you knew, Rodrigo. 🙂 I think Harmen also knows.

      • Nope, haven’t got a clue. Does it have something to do with chocolate?

        • Nope. Everything to do with a certain Chilean Yijing “Master” who created a quasi-Christian religion around the classic and who claimed that most of his knowledge of the Yijing was acquired while he lived in Europe and was introduced to a “Yijing group/Secret Society” based in Basel, with some of its surviving members having even been friends of Wilhelm. It was further claimed that said group was privy to lots of “secret material”, all unpublished and “for their eyes only”, brought back from China by Wilhelm… That’s your Sunday story. 😀

          • Interesting. I didn’t know this. You don’t have more details like names, dates etc? It sounds like a lot of b*llshit to me and should not be hard to debunk. Wilhelm was all about sharing, look at the translations that he wrote. His Yi notes show nothing arcane or so profound that it should remain a secret. He had a Confucian master and although his book collection contained several daoist titles like for instance the Can Tong Qi there is nothing secretive about it. Mysterious maybe, but nothing that is not widely spread in China.

  5. Once, I even asked Karcher, who spent lots of time in Switzerland at Eranos. He never heard of such a group.

  6. Sigh…, BS is what I’ve been calling it since I first learned about those claims. But he’s got a following that respects him almost like a prophet. He isn’t a bad person at all but becomes aloof and arrogant if confronted with questions where he’s got to prove what he claims to be true. There are no names. Just a place (Basel) and the what (a Yixue society of some sort you could only join by invitation). Alas, I’ve gave him the benefit of the doubt as I can’t disprove him just by calling the whole thing BS, but the more I learn about the people and actors around the time of Wilhelm and after, the closer I am to tell others to call it what it is.

    • Rodrigo Olvera says:

      Well, he often talks about the “orden del jade de las alturas”, not sure how to translate that into English. ‘Order of the Jade from Hights’ may be too literal. ‘The Jade Order of the Hights’?

      Anyway, he talks about this as a secret order of priests born in 1911, when the old ‘Order of Saints and Sages’ (allegedly the order of priests keeping the archives in the Zhou dinasty, disbanded in the time of the Warring States and restored in 1250) lost their earthly authority because of the Chinese revolution. Allegedly, Wilhelm’s teacher was a Priest of this Order, Wilhelm’s himself was a member and he started a branch in Switzerland with lots of secret books and “codes”. Ricardo considers himself a member and priest of this ‘Order’.

      So, the only “name” is this ‘orden del jade de las alturas’. I bet no one will ever find any evidence for his claims. 🙂

  7. Verónica says:

    Great!!! thanks a lot!

  8. claudine says:

    Thanks so much Harmen for sharing, I found nowhere an explanation about Si Xiang.
    It was driving me crazy…Your explanations are always documented, argued and very clear even for a non chinese speaking.

    • Thank you Claudine 🙂

      • claudine says:

        Harmen, your explanation was very clear, but a few hours later, my mind was confused. Because yang-yin = autumn, do we have to invert the EAST and WEST bigrams of the taiji, so hexagram 11 is at the autumn solstice in the West and hexagram 12 in the East, which seems strange.
        Yan-yin = shao yin doesn’t disturb me, because one can find a meaning in it on the taiJi (the “little yin in the yang”, in the lower (yin) of Tai ji), but it’s the autumn which I don’t know what to do with.
        I’m the one who’s mixing it all up? Will you be addressing these issues in the September training?
        can you give me a clue or a line of inquiry?

        Thanks so much for answer, but sincerly no problems if not!

        Best regards,

        • Hi Claudine, you say, “hexagram 11 is at the autumn solstice in the West and hexagram 12 in the East”, but where is this mention of hexagrams connected to the compass? Now I am confused 🙂

          • claudine says:

            Hi Harmen, you’re absolutly right…it’s only MY way to memorise. I build hexagrams from a first layers of bigrams then a second one that wrap the first and the third wrapping the 4 lines.
            I put all that around the taiji, and nuclear became obvious.

            So my last question, do we have to put yang-yin on the West side of the taiji?

            Please don’t be confused, I look forward to studying with you, i’m sure I’ll have questions!🙂 thanks.

          • Questions are good 🙂. If with yang-yin you mean ⚎: that is small yang which belongs to the East. The other one ⚍ belongs to the West.
            To answer your earlier question, “Will you be addressing these issues in the September training?”: the answer is no. We will not work with the Sixiang because they were ‘invented’ very late in Chinese history (somewhere around 900-1000AD) and did not have any influence on the history or early usage of the Yijing. Since the course will focus on the earliest application as much as possible (emphasizing ‘as possible’) we will not use the Sixiang. But don’t let that keep you from asking questions about them. I don’t mind saying my opinion about them 🙂.

          • claudine says:

            so you now put ⚎ small yang to the East and ⚍ to the West” around the taiji?
            what is the impact of your discovery of this error in Wilhelm?

          • Yes. I don’t know better than this is how it is always done in China: young yang, or growing yang, belongs to the East, to Spring, etc. Young yin is the West, Autumn.

            My discovery does not really have impact, I think. Most people who seriously study the Sixiang will sooner or later find out that Wilhelm differs from the Chinese sources. But in the latest edition of the Dutch version of Wilhelm’s Yijing I have added a footnote about it.

          • Claudine says:

            Thanks you very much Harmen for your explanations and precious time.

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