Wet clothes

Some time ago somebody asked me for advice with a Yi Jing interpretation. The hexagram she threw was 63, with the second and fourth line moving. Especially the fourth line bothered me, and bothers is what I would like to share with others.


There is a world of differences between many Yi translations, and because no one is 100% right (or 100% wrong) I always look at the original Chinese text of the Yi. It is also a way of finding interesting things. This was the case when I looked at the fourth line of 63. The first sentence of this line is translated by Wilhelm as ‘The finest clothes turn to rags’. But the Chinese text does not contain ‘turn to’, it talks about ‘have, (there) are’. When I noticed this Wilhelm’s translation didn’t satisfy anymore. But of course I had to find something else. That’s when the Great Search begins.

Coloured silk

The first character, ‘xu’ or ‘ru’ has basically just two meanings. The first one is easy: ‘coloured silk material’. The second meaning has to be described. In the old days, when you wanted to pass through important mountain passes or gates, you received one half of a metal seal. At the gate or pass was an official with the other half. If the two halves fitted you were allowed to pass through. According to the Hanyu Da Zidian this system was also used during the Han-dynasty (206 BC – 221) with written silk which was cut in two. One such half was called a ‘xu/ru’. Stephen Karcher uses this meaning in his (revised) ‘I Ching – The Classic Chinese Oracle of Change’. But the use of silk for this purpose, and writing on silk, was not practiced before the Han dynasty, which means that this second meaning of ‘xu/ru’ is not valid here. After all the Yi is written long before the Han dynasty.


The character is often equalled with another character which looks almost the same and is pronounced in the same way. This character means ‘short coat’ or ‘jacket’. This is the meaning which Wilhelm used, and it seems to be the best meaning because it fits the context of the sentence, as we will see below. Combined with the meaning of xu/ru as ‘coloured silk material’ we get Wilhelm’s ‘the finest clothes’.

In his Dutch Yi Jing translation ‘De I Tjing voor de 21ste eeuw’ (‘The Yi Jing for the 21st Century’) Han Boering translates the first character of 63-4 with ‘leak’, which makes the translation ‘the leak is plugged with rags’ (many more translate it like this – Cleary, Palmer, to name but two) . Han properly states that he is following Wang Bi (226-249) here. But where does Wang get it from? Nowhere in other old books have we found ‘xu/ru’ used for ‘leak’. If we look at the translation of Wang Bi’s Yi by Lynn, we can see what Wang actually does. Wang writes: “Xu (gorgeous clothes) should be read here as ‘ru’ (wet).” (p. 541)

What Wang is doing is interpreting: he interpretates xu/ru as ru, meaning ‘wet’ or ‘submerge’. According to the Hanyu Da Zidian Wang was the first to interpretate xu/ru like this, it isn’t found in earlier works. When this is the case, I am quite rigid: xu/ru cannot mean ‘leak’ in the Yi, simply because it was not used with that meaning in the time it was written. The second character means ‘have’ or ‘are’. The third character means ‘clothes’. This is a direct link with the first character xu/ru, which also deals with clothing. This link strengthens the meaning of xu/ru as some kind of garment. The fourth character means ‘worn out’. Roughly translated this makes the sentence Beautiful/coloured clothes – have/are – clothes – worn out. In somewhat better English: Between the beautiful clothes are worn out clothes.

The sentence contains a little bit of rhyme. Many Chinese sayings contain rhyme, and often they consist of four characters. It is possible to view this sentence as a saying with a deeper meaning. When a new dynasty was established the whole apparatus of ministers and other officials was taken over from the former dynasty. Most men promised loyalty to the new emperor and therefore where assured of their position. It was impossible for the new emperor to replace every single person, better it was to use experienced people of whom you knew they were up to their task. And as an official you had the choice between cooperation or a horrible death. But the emperor was not mad (not always). Promising loyalty to the emperor is one thing, to carry it out is something different. The emperor had to find betrayers who were still loyal to the old dynasty and could plan a revolt. When the emperor wondered if his ministry contained traitors and he consulted the Yi about this, he might get the answer ‘between the beautiful (=new) clothes are worn out (=old) clothes. Be careful all day long’. With such an answer the emperor knew what to do.

Philosophy or hard fact?

Most translations of the Yi have a philosophical foundation: they look at the text with the idea that what it says has not to be taken literally, but serves as a metaphor for something else. But is this acceptable?

The Yi is an oracle, and oracles seldom have to be taken literally. The oracle of Delphi, the Pythia, spoke in riddles and afterwards her sayings had to be interpreted by someone else. The Ifa oracle of the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria is not less mysterious than the Yi. An oracle has to be cryptic; otherwise you are limited in your interpretations of the answer. A good oracle does not give a plain description of the circumstances but leaves enough room to link the answer to your specific situation. You need vague language for that. (For that matter, many horoscopes in newspapers, who behave more or less like an oracle, miss the point completely. “Today your charisma is overwhelming! You have an irresistible influence on your colleagues”, my horoscope said today. My charisma is never overwhelming, not even today, and to be honest, I’m not waiting for it to become that.)

The Yi works so well as an oracle because de text and the hexagrams allow you to choose many directions. Not one element can be nailed down to one meaning, everything is written and depicted in images full of metaphors and associations. But is this intentional?

Nowadays it is generally agreed that the Zhou Yi, the basic text of the Yi Jing without later added commentary, got his present form around 800 BC. It may be two hundred years earlier or 100 years later, but not more. The Yi is not the work of one author, the different layers in the text show that different hands wrote the book. We do not know where the text precisely comes from, but there are resemblances with the oracle bones from the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1750 – 1122 B.C.). It is therefore assumed that these form the beginning of the Zhou Yi, and that later on the text was edited and completed.

It was a tough time, the period in which the Yi is supposed to have been written. China was not yet the big country is we now know it; in the early days of Chinese civilisation it consisted of several small states which were regularly at war with each other. We find this evidently in the Yi, for instance at hexagram 7, or hexagram 63, fourth line. War was an accepted occupation and an immense industry. Life in that time focused on essential securities like food, shelter, safety. We find this on the oracle bones, which dealt with subjects like hunting, war, medical matters – in short, everything with which the people were confronted in daily life. Something like philosophy or religion did not yet exist (people practiced ancestor worship, but from the Shang/Zhou point of view this was merely for practical reasons: ancestors influenced the wellbeing of the people and their surroundings. A good relationship with your ancestors gave a better change for fewer problems). Also, the writing didn’t yet know much abstract words; the words which deal with abstract concepts did not go further than ‘high/low’ and ‘above/below’. This is important to realise when we are discussing the Yi because it has consequences for the view we have of the book. If during the time of the writing of the Yi there didn’t exist something like philosophy, and abstract words were not yet composed, then we must be careful with finding these things in the Yi.

An example, one which I have bothered myself several days with, might illustrate my point. The name of hexagram 3, ‘tun/zhun’, is often translated as ‘(initial) difficulties’. This is also how it is used in many old books. But these books often don’t go further back in time than 600 B.C., which is quite some time after the composition of the Zhou Yi; the time gap is even larger when compared with the oracle bones. If we look at the meaning of ‘tun/zhun’ during the last days of the Shang dynasty, we find something entirely different.

‘Tun/zhun’ already appears on oracle bones, but was written differently. The character used at that time reminds of a flower, with bud and leaves. I intentionally used the words ‘reminds of a’ and not ‘is a’, because we simply do not no for sure what it depicts. The explanation that it is a flower bud is however generally accepted. But if we examine oracle bone phrases with this character, we find meanings which do not have much to do with a flower bud. The valuable dictionary Jiaguwen Zidian gives as meanings:

  • one pair
  • spring, year
  • expression ‘duo tun’: is used for the possession of the five-coloured ‘gunyi’ ritual clothes of the emperor
  • name of a person (for instance a diviner)
  • name of a place

Nothing which makes us think of a flower bud, and the meanings surely are not close to ‘difficulties’. The meaning of ‘spring’ can be linked to a flower bud, but the rest of the meanings leaves us guessing where they come from.
These are the meanings of ‘tun/zhun’ at the end of the Shang dynasty (about 1100 B.C.); a few centuries later, the time when the Zhou Yi is supposed to be written, the meaning of ‘tun/zhun’ has significantly changed. Now it means

  • gather
  • stationing of army troops
  • obstruct, blockade
  • garrison
  • army unit of five men
  • indication for ‘village’
  • name of a person
  • measure word for cotton

(Source: Hanyu Da Zidian)
Earlier I mentioned that warfare played an important part in the time these meanings were used. Therefore I personally assume that ‘tun/zhun’ has more to do with war than with ‘initial difficulties’. But we can imagine that the meaning ‘difficulties’ is later on derived from ‘tun/zhun’. When there is war, there are bound to be difficulties. But the addition of ‘initial’ is a younger interpretation, probably based on the fact that hexagram 3 is at the beginning of the Yi.

It is not odd to link meanings like ‘stationing of army troops’, ‘garrison’ and ‘army unit of five men’ to hexagram 3. If we look at a few sentences in this hexagram, we already see war-like things in it. The second, fourth and sixth line talk about ‘riding horses in squads’. If we explain ‘tun/zhun’ as ‘garrison’, then the first sentence of the fifth line could be translated as ‘reward of the king to the garrison’, and the first sentence of the second line as ‘garrison changes direction’.

Of course this doesn’t say it all; a lot more work has to be done to make a translation which stands as close as possible to its earliest origin. But we do however see that philosophical or abstract meanings can divert us from what possibly was meant. When used in daily practice, the Yi focuses on what really happens, instead of referring to conceptual layers. This goes along with the concrete imagery which the Yi originally contained. That’s not philosophy, but hard fact.