The land bestowed is great

The first three characters of line 2 of hexagram 2, 直方大, are most often translated as ‘straight, square, great’ (Wilhelm, Wu Jing-Nuan, Huang, etc.). It is a sentence which has always baffled me because it did not make any sense to me at all. The problem with translating this sentence probably comes from the fact that there hardly is any grammar in it – no verb, object, subject. So it seems. But the oracle bone inscriptions might prove a valuable source in explaining the real meaning of this line.

The OBI form of the first character, zhi  直,depicts an eye with a vertical line on top of it (see right picture, click to enlarge; from 甲骨文編, p. 497). (Looking) straight is the meaning that is derived from it, and ‘straight’ or ‘direct’ is the most common translation of it (馬如森; 殷墟甲骨學, p. 480). But that is not the whole story. We also have fragments where 直 can be read different. There is another character which is very close to 直, and which often occurs with other words denoting ‘land’, similar to the line of hexagram 2 where fang 方 can mean ‘region’ or ‘land’ (漢語大字典 3.2172.1). This is the character de 德.

The OBI form of the character de 德 contains the OBI of zhi as a component (see left image, click to enlarge; from 甲骨文編, p. 74). What is added are crossroads, intersections.The current form of the character is well known for its part in the name of that famous Daoist book, the Daode Jing 道德經, in which de is often translated as ‘virtue’. But on oracle bones it is close to the meaning of another character with a similar sound: de 得, ‘to get’, ‘to achieve’. De 德 on OBI is explained as ‘to grant, to bestow’. Ma Rusen’s 殷墟甲骨學 gives examples of this usage, where 德 is related to land:

貞: 王勿德土方
Divining: the king does not bestow land.

貞: 王德土
Divining: the king bestows land.
(殷墟甲骨學, p. 246)

We see that 德 is used here in combination with 土方, ‘land’ and 土, ‘soil’or ‘land’. This is very similar to the beginning of line 2 of hexagram 2, where it says 直方… We have examples where 直 can be read as 德, ‘to bestow’. In these cases it is often said that 直 means 值 or 徝, which both can be seen as variants of 德, carrying the same components. The 甲骨文精粹釋 gives a rubbing of a bone where 直 is read as 徝 (p. 1335; click here for image) and concerns the bestowing of female slaves.

直 can be seen as a short form of 值/徝/德, meaning ‘to grant’, ‘to bestow’. This turns the first sentence of the Yijing line to

 直方大
The land bestowed is great.

Possibly this line concerns a divination where the enquirer wanted to know what kind of reward he would receive for his services to the king ( ‘service’ fits the theme of hexagram 2 very well). The answer from the oracle was very clear: the land bestowed is great. It was not necessary to consult the oracle again (不習, the next line in H2-2; 習 meaning ‘to consult the oracle again’; 殷墟甲骨學, p. 289), the answer was in all aspects favorable (無不利).

[Update 8-10-2008] A footnote in David N. Keightley’s The Ancestral Landcape shows that the translation of  直方 is not quite decided (p. 68; thanks to Luis for pointing me to this book):

What some see as the old form of 德 is seen by others as the old form of 徝, with a specifically different meaning (see also 劉興隆; 新編甲骨文, p. 96). Whatever meaning you choose, I do believe that it shows there is a link between 直 and 方.

Indirectly  another interesting link popped through Keightley’s footnote: He says that xun 循 = 巡. The last character is related to 順, which by its left component is seen as a possible meaning for the Mawangdui name of hexagram 2, 川 (see Rutt; Zhouyi, p. 293). Another thread to explore…..

[Update 12-10-2008] Liu Xinglong 劉興隆 explains 徝 as 動詞, 巡視、觀察之義: a verb meaning ‘make an inspection tour’, ‘observe, inspect’ (新編甲骨文, p. 96). If we see 直 as a short form of 徝 (and I believe the oracle bones and bronze inscriptions show that this is possible) it would turn the H2-2 sentence  直方大 into “the inspected land is great”. But I also think that the meaning of ‘to bestow’ might still be valid: “the land that is bestowed to inspect (and control) is great”. The land that was bestowed came with the responsibility to control it. From this point of view Keightley’s translation of 徝, ‘to straighten out’, does not seem so strange after all, and the meaning of fang 方 as (land of) enemy tribes still holds as well.

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