The banner of Kun

The fifth line of hexagram 2 has the sentence


Most often this is translated as something like ‘yellow lower garment/skirt. Greatly auspicious’. The Mawangdui manuscript made me ponder about another translation for chang 裳, a translation which fits the imagery of hexagram 1 and 2 and which would be my favourite – if I would get rid of some disturbing facts that discredit this translation.

The MWD text gives chang 常 instead of 裳. Both characters are said to have the same etymological origin (王力古漢語字典, p. 1224; 古文字詁林, vol. 7, p. 170), and Wang Li says that both characters were used interchangeably. Indeed the Shuowen says that 常 means ‘lower skirt’ (‘下帬也’), but we don’t have any other texts which uses 常 for 裳, except maybe the MWD text. But 常 has a meaning that is not found with 裳, a meaning which you will not find in most Western dictionaries which are too limited in scope. The 王力古漢語字典 (p. 265) and 漢語大字典 (vol. 1, p. 744) say that 常 can also refer to a banner:

古旗幟名。上繪日月圖形。為天子之旗。<釋名。釋兵>: “常。九旗之名。日月為常,畫日月於其端,天子所建,言常明也”
Name of an ancient banner, painted with a picture of the sun and moon. It is the banner of the king. The Shiming, in the chapter ‘Explaining Army Terms’ says: “常 is one of the nine banners. The sun and moon stand for constancy, with a picture of the sun and the moon at the top the emperor holds it erect, signifying constant brightness.”

In ancient times, so says the Zhouli, there were nine kinds of flags, each representing a state affair.The 古文字詁林 adds that the banner was fitted on a army chariot.

If we would follow the MWD text, we could translate 黃常元吉 as ‘yellow king’s banner. Greatly auspicious’. But then we ignore the received text, which mentions 裳 instead of 常 – and 裳 is never used in the meaning of ‘banner’. It is very tempting to see 裳 as a phonetic loan for 常, something which is not entirely impossible I think, considering the link that there is between these characters. But we need more data to substantiate this.

But why do I think that “king’s banner” is such a good translation for 常/裳 in the given context? Because it fits so well certain imagery that is associated with hexagram 2, and 1 as well. The banner was used as an identifier on the battlefield, to determine the position of the king, generals and the different units, and to signify whether they were defeated or not. Maybe line 5 tells about seeing the yellow banner of the king on the battlefield (battlefield being a possible associated image for hexagram 2), telling he was still able to fight and going for victory. The banner also reminds us of the etymology of qian, the name of hexagram 1. The symbols of the sun and the moon on the banner of the king connect very well with the yin and yang images of hexagram 1 & 2, and the fifth line is the position of the king. The chariot on which the 常 banner is supposed to be mounted is one of Kun’s associations in the Shuogua (‘坤為大輿’).

Of course this is all very doubtful. There is no textual evidence that 黃裳 refers to the yellow banner of the king, although we do know that yellow was the imperial colour. So, as a translation I need to back it up a bit more. But as associated symbols I think it adds a nice touch to the meaning of line 5, and hexagram 2 as a whole.

Tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.