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.

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