I suppose there shouldn’t be a need for a prologue to a blog post; after all, this isn’t a book or an academic paper. Alas, I feel there is a need for it. Having dedicated more than 40 years of my life to the study of the Yijing (I Ching)–and I mean “study” not just using it, which I seldom do anymore but the study always remains–, if you are serious about it, you will gifted with, and be fortunate of, crossing paths with many other serious students of the classic. They include those in formal academia and those outside, all of them sharing the same level of intense interest in it. Indeed, I count myself very fortunate to have met so many great students along my path. As with all fields of study, in many instances, agreement and consensus is hard to find and that’s part of the beauty of this study. It may sound preemptive, but I know that what follows will find serious resistance with some fellow Yixue students and specialists of the Chinese written language. For them I offer this disclaimer: The extent of my knowledge in Classical Chinese is confined within the parameters of my specialization in the study of the Yijing. They don’t go much beyond it. As it is, and as a token of peace and consideration, I offer you a block of salt to take with you along the reading ride.
Some 20 years ago, what I thought was a weed, started growing in the backyard of our house in Philadelphia, right next to the patio door. Call it laziness, if you wish, but I allowed it to grow. For some three years… It was not until it started giving fruit, beautiful and tasty dark berries, similar to blackberries but not quite, that I realized it was a Red Mulberry tree. Slow me, three years later, being so close to the wall and the patio door, I had no choice but to cut it down, lest the roots started breaking the concrete and the bricks next to it. The central and main trunk of the young tree (it had three main branches coming up from the roots), grew up as straight as billiard cue. Full of little branches growing out from it and thus full of knots within, but straight and beautiful nevertheless. The wood of the Red Mulberry tree has some great and interesting characteristics and all Morus trees are considered hard hardwoods. So beautiful and attractive to my eyes, in fact, that I saved it with the idea of one day making a walking staff out of it. It feels heavy and solid in my hands. I should mention that, being in the same family as the White Mulberry, the trees that feed the silkworms and give us such a beautiful fiber, it added a romantic association to my attraction to it.
Although we’ve kept our house in the city, we moved from Philly to New Jersey some 17 years ago and that piece of wood moved with us. From time to time I pick it up. Many years ago, I debarked it and cut down the knots and, as the natural moisture of the wood dried out, it created a number of longitudinal cracks along the whole length of it. Most of them are small cracks, from about an inch to three inches long, but there are two of them that are some 7 inches long and deep. Most woodworkers would avoid and curse at the cracking of the wood but I cherish those crevices. I consider them as serendipitous as the presence of the tree in my house in the first place. It is nature taking its course.
A few years after that, I picked it up again and kept on cutting down the knots, as close to the trunk as I could, but taking care of saving their “character”. I want them there. Many of them, close to the base (the top of the staff now) provide a beautiful dark contrast against the trunk. It is a very hard wood to whittle down. Even using a steel rasp it is difficult to bring the knots down.
A couple of months ago I felt I needed something to keep my mind away from a few issues and my reading schedule. One can only cram so much at a time in the good ol’ cranium… I should have picked up some sort of physical exercise routine but my eyes fell upon that piece of wood again. My daughter, who was like two or three when I first cut that tree down, asked me what I was doing and I told her I was making and carving a walking staff and also told her about the provenance of the wood and some of the ideas I had for it. It appears she inherited some of my twisted sense of humor when she commented, tongue-in-cheek, that it made sense to her that I started paying more attention to the walking staff as I got older and may actually need it for, well…, for walking… It is a good thing I love her dearly.
Wishing that that serves as a nice introduction to the vehicle of all the carving and attention that’s going on, I’ll explain what I’m carving. In keeping with my lifelong study of the Yijing, the subject is obvious. What’s not so obvious, perhaps, is that I am carving a few amulets and talismans related to the Yijing because…, well, because it is a nice and interesting thing to do and explore. Whatever its metaphysical utility may be, at least I would enjoy its beauty when it is finished. Anyone can create amulets and talismans. The key is ‘intent’. As long you find meaning on what you are doing, and just for what reason, I believe your intent will transfer to your work as conceived. Its veracity is a hard thing to prove but, after all, fortunately, I only have to convince one person.
One beautiful source of amuletic glyphs can be found in Oracle Bone Inscriptions, or OBI for short. OBI are the earliest representations of Chinese script and what has reached us are divination accounts inscribed on bovine scapulae and tortoise plastrons, hence their name. The bulk of them date from the Shang to early Western Zhou dynasties (1600-800 BC). It is obvious that OBI didn’t spontaneously appeared as a fully functional script system, with a developed grammar and syntax. However, no one is certain what came before OBI in the same way that we, on the other hand, know how cuneiform script on clay tablets developed over time, for example. It is almost certain OBI are the developed inscriptional result of earlier texts that were written upon ephemeral materials, such as wood (bamboo slips, for instance) or fabrics and none has reached us.
Bone pyromancy in China, which includes scapulimancy and plastromancy, is one of the precursors of what we know today as the Yijing, the other being achillomancy, which is the division and counting of yarrow talks. There are instances where achillomancy is mentioned in OBI. OBI are a fascinating subject in itself and I collect old books on the subject. One of the reference books I have, with many beautiful examples, is “Bone Culture of Ancient China” by Williams Charles White, 1945 (a few years ago I scanned a few pages from it where it is explained how the bones were prepared and cracked and I posted it to Slideshare, here.)
Two of the OBI I picked form the omen “no mishap” or “no disaster”, (wu zai, 無災, see figure 8 below). I was actually attracted by the form of the inscriptions, which you can see in the picture below. This prompted me to search the text of the Zhouyi (the core text of the Yijing) for the character 災 and what I found is the main reason for this post.
The character occurs five times in the received text and my friend, Harmen Mesker, whom I consider one of the best living Western Chinese philologists, has this to say about 災, in an unrelated post about Hexagram 7:
Jiu 咎: The Shuowen says that 咎 means 災, ‘disaster’. Duan Yucai 段玉裁 says in his 說文解字注, ‘Commentary to the Shuowen Explanation of Characters’, 災當是本作烖。天火曰災。引伸之凡失意自天而至曰災。
It is thought that 災 originally was written as 烖, ‘calamities from Heaven, as floods, famines, pestilence, etc.’ (Unihan database HM). Fire of natural origin is called 災. By extension 災 means ‘disappointment from Heaven coming (to you)’
It should be noted the glaring fact that while 災 is used only five times in the received text, its semantic partner (in general terms), 凶/xiong, appears 58 times. Also, curiously, the character only appears as such in the received text. It does not appear as such, 災, in either the Shanghai Museum (上博/Shang Bo) text, the Fuyang (阜陽) text or the Mawangdui (馬王堆) text. Curiously, in the Shanghai Museum (SM) Zhouyi text, a very old variant of the character is used, perhaps with a more nuanced semantic meaning (Fig. 1 and 2). That character, composed of 才 on top of 火, isn’t even in the Unihan database. Neither the Glyph Wiki for 災 or the Multi-Function Chinese Character Database, which both have a long list of characters related to 災, have something similar to the one in the SM text. Furthermore, according to the 上博楚简文字声系 (thank you, Harmen, for pointing this out to me and sharing the page that contains the citation in Fig. 3), within the corpus of all the recovered SM texts, the character is only found twice in the Zhouyi bamboo strips: Hexagrams 25 [strip 21], and 62 [strip 56], per below figures.
Apparently, what is used today for calamities/disasters, 災, used to refer to natural fire disasters, such as forest fires. However, ancient Chinese had more specificity when mentioning disasters and calamities, which makes me wonder about the components of said character as used within the context of the Zhouyi, and later, the Yijing.
Updated on Sep/18/2015 thanks to some new material I received from Harmen Mesker in a Facebook chat conversation. My deepest thanks to him. (italics and boldface are mine. The text has been edited for clarity.):
According to the 古文字谱系疏证 the Shanghai Museum character ( ) appears on an oracle bone, namely image no. 19622 (see Figure 3.A). The 古文字谱系疏证 says that the meaning of the character has yet to be researched. I couldn’t find any references to this oracle bone in the studies that are concerned with this character so if you were able to squeeze it somewhere in your article you would be the first.
the 甲骨文合集释文 transcribes the text on this bone as …在火. It transcribes the first character as something looking like ? but I’m not sure if I read that correctly. The 古文字谱系疏证 reads it as ?. This character is by 劉興隆 in 新编甲骨文字典 explained as ‘神鬼為害’, ‘spirits doing harm’. (To this I replied: See, that explanation is also fascinating, ‘spirits doing harm’. Spirits are never casual, they are right down personal.)
I’m not sure if I translate it correctly because he also says it is a verb. In other words, the context is still within the realm of disaster. ? is the accepted transcription of the sperm cell (excusez le mot). So the complete sentence would be ?[才+火]. The latter [..]’being the mysterious zai character. Oh yes, spirits are very personal. And revengeful.
The SM Zhouyi manuscript, dated ca 350 BCE, is the oldest extant version of the text. If we take antiquity to be a clue to original thought, perhaps we could reason what those ancient scribes tried to communicate and for that we have to rely on the most ancient representation of the character, which is to be found in the OBI. Now, bear with me as I try to get to the OBI from where we are today.
As mentioned above, the character used in the SM Zhouyi is composed of 才(cai) above 火(huo) (Fig. 4).
However, the key to understand the character, in my modest opinion, rest not on the acting agent of the harmful results (火／fire), which acts as a general metaphor for the results of misfortune, but on 才.
Fig. 5 below contains a few examples of OBI “才” from the Jiaguwen Zidian (甲骨文字典):
According to the Zhongwen, 才is glossed as:
- Pictograph of a sprouting plant
- Natural talent
- Just, only (Adv.)
In Schuessler’s Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, we have:
- “Be well endowed”
- (Innate) ability
Then he goes on to explain (boldface and underlines are mine):
“Etymology not certain. Matisoff (1995: 42f) proposes cognation with Proto-Tibetan *(t)sa:y <> *(d)za:y‘property, livestock, talent’, but see zi/資. Most likely, this word is derived from Sino-Tibetan ‘come forth’ (as child, seedling, > zi/子); for semantic connection between ‘birth’ and ‘natural characteristic/endowments’, compare > sheng/生 ‘give birth, live’ <> xing/性姓 ‘what is inborn: one’s inner nature; one’s name’. Thus a Written Tibetan cognate of cai/才 is probably mtshan ‘name’ <> mtshan(-ma)‘shape and peculiar characteristics of separate parts of the body; genitals; mark, token, symptom’.
I suppose the reference to zi/資, which means capital or funds, is contextually relevant to figure out the etymology of 才, but that particular character is not older than the Warring States period. On the other hand, being used in OBI, it appears that 才 is indeed a much older semiotical concept. Indeed, a pictograph of a sprout shows the incipient promise of more to come; that which possesses the potential for growth. However, it is the close association with “talent” that give us a clue to the proper understanding of the character. The word ‘talent’ appears to be a straight forward communicable concept in English, as in, speaking of Mozart at six years of age, “…the boy has a great innate talent for music”. On the other hand, ‘talent’ is an ancient word loaded with lateral meanings. It is one of those words that doesn’t stir any sort of emotions in an English reader or listener beyond its accepted, straight forward meaning. But there is a reason for this and the word, some words in a target language, for a translator, are worth dissecting. The Merriam-Webster has the following definition for ‘talent’ and all of them are important for our exploration, in particular those that are considered “archaic” and “obsolete” (boldface and underlines are mine, which is pretty much everything):
Origin of TALENT
Middle English talent, talente; in sense 1, from Old English talente, from Latin talenta, plural of talentum unit of weight or money, from Greek talanton balance, pair of scales, unit of weight or money; akin to Latin tollere to lift up — more at tolerate; in sense 2, from Old French talent inclination, desire, disposition, from Medieval Latin talentum, perhaps from Latin, unit of weight or money; in remaining senses from Middle English, unit of money; from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14–30
That is a telling definition and, although the etymology of the Chinese character may be uncertain, its usage, since ancient times, finds a strong resonance, and is closely related with the metaphorical meanings at the roots of the modern English word ‘talent’ in most of its senses. Of particular interest, contextually with the character used in the SM Zhouyi (Fig. 4), where 才 is used on top of 火 to form that obsolete version of 災, is the sense given in 2:
a archaic : a characteristic feature, aptitude, or disposition of a person or animal
b obsolete : an evil disposition or attitude : passion, anger
才 may have other modern grammatical uses but its original meaning is very distinct and its message was very clear: it accounts for those innate abilities and/or talents that, in a balanced state, are innocuous albeit awe inspiring, but which, on the other hand, possess the potential for purposely swinging badly towards destructive outbursts. Thus, it is the combination of what’s embodied in such an image, 才, acting as a “conscious human intention” catalyst upon a damaging agent, 火, that give us the real meaning of such a character. This character, , considered an early version of today’s 災, and usually translated as ‘disaster’ (as in “natural disasters” or even “personal misfortune”), in actual facts, it is depicting arson. By extension, it is the kind of ‘disaster’ that’s intentionally befallen upon others by a third party. Nothing natural, Act of God sort of quality about it.
Somehow, in my very humble opinion, that meaning got lost with the passing of millennia. What was a very specific representation of inflicted personal disaster or calamity, was generalized and became a ‘natural disaster’ occurrence.
This brings me back to some of the actual OBI examples (Figs. 6 & 7), which today are considered the original representations of modern 災 (and also of the character shown in figures 1, 2 & 3: ), as they appear in the engraved bones in figure 8:
However, those OBI are not exactly representations of 災 or but, more precisely, of . Even though, for all intents and purposes, 災 and are cognates, and the latter two are obsolete in modern usage, they originally had different specificities. As a matter of fact, 災 had its own specific examples of OBI, quite different from the above (see Figs. 9 & 10):
We must remember that the OBI stage, the characters were still early in their evolution and much more pictographic than later representations. The same reasoning that applies to the OBI in Figures 6, 7 and 8 could be applied to the above two and come up with very specific conclusions as to their original semantic meaning, but those are not within the scope of this post. Which takes me back to the characters actually represented in the OBI I selected for the carvings, .
The characters are composed of two distinct character components, 才(cai) in the upper left quadrant and 戈(ge). Since we have discussed 才 before, let’s pay attention to 戈(ge). Ge represents a Chinese dagger-axe (Figures 11 and 12).
The OBI representations of the character (Figure 13) are very descriptive but more so are the Bronze Script examples (Figure 14). By extension, 戈 also means “weapons” and “war”.
The combined meaning of 才 and 戈, forming , according to the Zhongwen, is “wound”. The interesting thing is that that is the ancient meaning of the character. The modern meaning–if and when it is used, since it is considered obsolete–is almost identical to 災/灾: disaster; harm, calamity; catastrophe; cataclysm; personal misfortune. (Source is the Multi-function Chinese Character Database)
Now, how personal can a “wound” be? Even in war and combat, which shouldn’t bring the images of wholesale destruction-at-a-distance we know today but of the closeness of infantry’s hand-to-hand combat and the use of bladed weapons, such as swords and dagger-axes, to both defend themselves and inflict harm onto others. is a character composed in such a way as to declare that what’s coming is an armed and skilled (talented) combatant and with the intention to hurt you. It does not refer to an “Act of God” sort of calamity or disaster but harm that’s as personal as it can be. Even if such omens were sometimes given within the context of “hunting” and not within combat situations (although field inspections–see Fig.8–could many times lead to combat and skirmishes), hunting could get very personal and extremely dangerous, depending on the prey.
The semantic generalization and progression shown in —> ? —> —> 災/灾, from something that was, at least for me, clearly inflected on a personal level, to something with such general meanings as the umbrellas of “calamity” and “disaster,” should not negate its roots when it comes to interpret those sparse five instances in the Yijing.
I am one of those students of the classic that believes that every single character presented in the text has a function and was purposely written. When it comes to translation, it is easy to overlook native nuances if not paying close attention to detail, even more so when the text being translated is as old as the text of the Yijing. That is to say, they are nuances that transcend time and a translator must try hard to contextualize his of her interpretations to the time when they were written.
When Wilhelm translated the character to German he used the following (where the first two numbers refer to the Hexagram number and then the line number where they occur):
- 24-6: Unglück
- 25-3: 1. Unglück 2. Verlust
- 56-1: Unglück
- 62-6: Unglück
Looking up “unglück” we have the following meanings in English:
Unglück neuter nounWord forms: Unglück(e)s, genitiveWord forms: Unglücke, plural
(= Unfall, Vorfall)
(= Pech)(im Aberglauben, bei Glücksspiel)
It is interesting to note that Wilhelm used “verlust” (“loss” in English) for the second occurrence of the character in 25.3, the only line in the received text where the character 災 appears twice. This is clearly a personal contextual interpretation of the character and not a straight translation, which is fine and keeps with his overall take of the text. Of course, before it is pointed out to me, I know Chinese characters can be very polysemic when contextualized with others in a text.
I don’t know enough German to judge this properly (meaning that I don’t know if another German word[s] could apply better according to my interpretation of the character) but it seems obvious to me that Wilhelm defaulted to the modern and accepted meaning of 災/zai. This isn’t a condemnation but simply an observation based on what I exposed above. It occurs to me though, that it should have struck him as odd the sparseness of the character in the text when compared with the abundance of 凶/xiong. I mean, it should have compelled him to wonder and comment about that fact in his translation. That alone, at the very least, and as a pioneer translator in the West, considering his popularity, would have caused other future Western translators to wonder as well and drive them to investigate the reason for the disparity.
For all of the above, I don’t believe even modern native Chinese students and academics dedicated to the Yijing would give the character much thought and all would default to the umbrella meanings of “calamity” and “disaster.” What drove me to walk this meandering path was a simple disparity in the choice and frequency of this specific character in the text, when compared to others with similar semantics.
Below are a few examples of how 災 was translated in the West. The first English translations are from Wilhelm/Baynes, German is from Wilhelm, Spanish are from Wilhelm/Vogelmann; the second English translation comes from the recent, excellent translation by John Minford where he sometimes adds a Latin translation to the text to emphasize, in his words, a “mantic formula.” Instances of 災 in translation are highlighted.
It should be noted, from an oracular interpretive perspective, that all instances of 災 occur in Yin lines, twice where Yin should be optimally positioned (top line of 24 and 62), and twice in odd places, one in a first line (56) and twice in a single third line (25).
H24 上六 迷復。凶。有災眚。用行師。終有大敗。 以其國君凶。至于十年不克征。
- Six at the top means:
Missing the return. Misfortune.
Misfortune from within and without.
If armies are set marching in this way,
One will in the end suffer a great defeat,
Disastrous for the ruler of the country.
For ten years It will not be possible to attack again.
- Oben eine Sechs bedeutet:
Verfehlung der Wiederkehr. Unheil.
Unglück von außen und innen.
Wenn man so Heere marschieren läßt,
wird man schließlich eine große Niederlage erleiden,
so daß es für den Landesherrn unheilvoll ist.
Zehn Jahre lang ist man nicht mehr imstande anzugreifen.
- Al tope un seis significa:
Extravío en el retorno. Desventura.
Desgracia desde fuera y desde adentro.
Si de este modo hace uno marchar ejércitos,
sufrirá finalmente una gran derrota,
y esto será nefasto para el soberano del país.
Durante diez años ya no estará uno en condiciones de atacar.
- Yin in Top Place
Disaster and Misfortune,
Deployment of the Army.
Leads to a great defeat,
For the Ruler of the nation.
After ten years,
It is still impossible to march.
H25 六三 无妄之災。或繫之牛。行人之得。邑人之災。
- Six in the third place means:
The cow that was tethered by someone
Is the wanderer’s gain, the citizen’s loss.
- Sechs auf drittem Platz bedeutet:
Die Kuh, die von jemand angebunden war,
ist des Wanderers Gewinn, des Bürgers Verlust.
- Seis en el tercer puesto significa:
la vaca que alguien dejara estacada,
es ganancia del andariego, pérdida del ciudadano.
- Yin in Third Place
Freedom from Guile.
A traveler gets it.
For local Folk.
H56 初六 旅瑣瑣。斯其所取災。
- Six at the beginning means:
If the wanderer busies himself with trivial things,
He draws down misfortune upon himself.
- Anfangs eine Sechs bedeutet:
Wenn der Wanderer sich mit kleinlichen Dingen abgibt,
so zieht er sich dadurch Unglück zu.
- Al comienzo un seis significa:
Cuando el andariego se dedica a nimiedades
atrae sobre si la desgracia.
- Yin in the First Place
H62 上六 弗遇過之。飛鳥離之。凶。是謂災眚。
- Six at the top means:
He passes him by, not meeting him.
The flying bird leaves him. Misfortune.
This means bad luck and injury.
- Oben eine Sechs bedeutet:
Ohne ihn zu treffen, geht er an ihm vorbei.
Der fliegende Vogel verläßt ihn. Unheil!
Das bedeutet Unglück und Schaden.
- Al tope un seis significa:
Sin encontrarlo, pasa de largo junto a él.
El pájaro volador lo abandona. ¡Desventura!
Esto significa desdicha y daño.
- Yin in Top Place
A bird flies
Into the distance.
An epilogue of sorts.
As life would have it, when I started to write this, and I’ve been at it, on and off for a few months, my mother was in general good health but shortly after she was admitted, gravely ill, to a hospital in Montevideo. Although she gave it a mighty fight, like no one I’ve known, living or dead, I lost her. Because it is us, the living, those left behind, that lose the ones we love and nurtured us. It is a particular perspective that’s not always obvious. I used to talk with my mother daily, about nothing and everything, just talk, stating we were always present in each other’s lives and we loved our mutual presence. The emptiness of her absence is sometimes unbearable. Needless to say, I found an eery synchronicity between my preoccupation with 災 and her loss. Sometimes, as I’ve claimed in other places and other writings, studying and writing about the Yijing works like a quantum field where us, the observers, can unwittingly collapse certain latent states…