Qu Yuan’s poems are preserved in the Songs of Chu (Chu Ci). It has also been translated under the title, Songs of the South. It is an anthology of poems in the Chu style. The collection begins with the “Trouble Parting” (“Li Sao”), Qu Yuan’s most famous poem.

The Chu songs differ from the Book of Odes, abandoning the regular four-character verses that fill that canon and allowing verses of varying lengths. What’s more, its pronunciations are based on the Chu dialect. The Book of Odes in its structure, sentiments, and pronunciation was northern. The Songs of Chu were distinctly southern in their open emotion, ecstatic visions, vigorous actions (racing over the waters), and love of extravagant imagery (“evergreens, lychee, cypresses, and orchids”).

“Divination” from Songs of Chu

The reason I bring this up in a blog about the I Ching is that one of the poems deals specifically with the limitations of divination.

In this part-prose, part-poetry piece, Qu Yuan consults with Great Diviner Zhan Yin. The diviner prepares his instruments of divination—turtle shells and yarrow stalks—and asks for the question. Qu Yuan gives many. Here are a few of them

Is it better to be sincere, genuine, honest, simple and loyal—or should I forget my past and work toward a future without poverty?

Is it better to condemn injustice as if plowing up grass and weeds—or should I travel in search of a great patron and fame?

Is it better to be correct in speech without hiding—even if it’s at risk to my own life—or should I follow the manners of the vulgar and wealthy just to secure a life?

Is it better to reach for lofty ideals and safeguard the truth—or should I serve the king’s consort, flattering, chattering, and grinning with the other scholars?

When Qu Yuan had blurted out all his questions, Zhan Yin stopped and excused himself, saying:

Sir, a foot does not count what is short, and an inch does not count what is long. Things can be counted, but without base. Knowledge can count without revealing. Numbers can count without reaching an end.  Divination can count without clearing things up. “An effective ruler relies on the heart, a dynamic ruler relies on the mind.” You really cannot use the turtle shells and yarrow stalks to resolve these matters.


Qu Yuan

June 6, 2011

While there are a number of explanations for the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival, most people associate the festival with Qu Yuan (340–278 BCE) of the feudal state of Chu (roughly the south-central and eastern part of China today).

Qu is one of China’s earliest and most revered poets, visionaries, and patriots. He was a descendant of the Chu royal house and an official in the court. The country of Chu was one of seven feudal states that formed after a previous larger and centralized government had decayed completely.

Qin was a neighboring states. It conducted a succession of military campaigns against Chu, until General Bai Qi (d. 257 BCE), a man known more for his brutality than his strategy, conquered the Chu capital of Ying. Qin would eventually conquer all the other feudal states, uniting all their territories under a single rule. The Qin ruler who did this was none other than Qin Shihuang, known as the First Emperor, and the man whose Terra-cotta Army in Xian became a world famous archaeological discovery in our own time.  The name we use today, “China,” is derived from the word Qin.

When the capital of Ying fell, Qu Yuan hefted a large stone in his arms and drowned himself in the Miluo River on the fifth moon, fifth day. The dragon boats re-enact the urgent attempts of the people to rescue the heroic poet. According to legend, the people beat the water with their paddles to frighten away the water dragons, and they threw lumps of rice into the river so the fish would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. This gave rise to the practice of making zongzi.

This is all connected to the next entry regarding divination.

Today is the Dragon Boat Festival. There is a reason that I bring this up in the context of the I Ching, which you’ll see in a few entries. But for the moment, here is some information about the Dragon Festival.

Most people associate this festival with Dragon Boat races the rice dumplings called zhongzi, and the poet Qu Yuan.

Now popular around the world, the dragon boat is wooden and looks like a long and low canoe. It is often brightly painted with a fully carved dragon head at the prow.

The standard crew consists of twenty paddlers facing the bow, a drummer at the bow facing the paddlers, and a sweeper at the rudder. However, there can be boats with a crew as small as ten or more than eighty. When the boat is large, the drummer is placed in the center of the vessel.

The drummer is the leader of the boat. The paddlers synchronize themselves to the beat, and the drummer signals to them with the drum, hand signals, or by calling, exhorting the crew to do their best during the race.

Dragon Boat racing developed into a modern sport in Hong Kong during the 1970s. According to the International Dragon Boat Federation, the sport is thriving in more than sixty countries and any colleges and organizations sponsor competitive teams.

Zongzi, Sachets, Lucky Strings and Tigeer Head Shoes

Called Rice Dumplings or Chinese Tamales, zongzi consist of glutinous rice stuffed with different kinds of fillings wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves in a pyramidal shape and then cooked by steaming or boiling. The shapes range from tetrahedral to cylindrical. Each family has its own recipes, but common ingredients include mung beans, red bean paste, jujubes, pork, chicken, sausage, black mushrooms, salted duck eggs, chestnuts, cooked peanuts, green beans, dried shrimp, dried scallops, and taro.

Increasingly, people are tending to buy their zongzi in stores and even online, and in China and Taiwan, the price of zongzi and the rate of sale is seen as an economic indicator.

Another custom is to hang calamus (a fragrant wetland plant ) and moxa (mugwort) on one’s door and giving pyramid-shaped silk sachets to children. This emphasis on fragrant plants is reminiscent of Qu Yuan’s own poems. In “Lady of the Xiang” (“Xiang Furen”), there are many references to fragrant plants and flowers. White sedge, duckweed, lotus, irises, perfumed pepper, cassia, orchid, lily, peonies, fig-leaves, sweet clover, and wild ginger enrich his imagery and he is extravagant in his love of scent:

Combine a hundred plants! Fill the courtyard!

Let fragrance build! Scent the halls and gates!

Baisuo—five colored strings, sometimes with little bells, are given to children to wear around their necks, hands, and legs for good luck. Tiger Head shoes—embroidered red cloth shoes—are also popular for small children.

Hexagram 58, Exchange, is symbolized by two lakes pouring into another. This is a fitting background to the Image: The noble one investigates and explains knowledge to friends.

We can instantly see what the I Ching regards as important: this is the exchange of two equals. The pairing is not a lake and a stream, nor a river and an ocean. It is the joining of two lakes, two bodies of water that are equivalent.

When we exchange or share with others, there has to be equality. A lake is formed by the pooling of water. Thus the personality of the people in the exchange must be correspondingly deep, the accumulation of much wisdom, knowledge, and experience.

Two lakes are also level, placid, flat. There are no aggressive points on the surface, there are no sharp parts to the lakes. The lakes represent two people who have profound knowledge but who outwardly are smooth, level, and mirroring heaven.

When two lakes join, their waters mingle. When two lakes join, one flows into another and then the waters will flow back until the waters cannot be separated from one another: two lakes joined in exchange will eventually come to a common level. What is created is a new lake, with its own depth, its own contours, its own waterline.

Tao is frequently compared to water. This comparison is so often repeated that we may sometimes forget to look at it fresh. Two lakes join in exchange that can only be achieved by flowing back and forth—one lake cannot “conquer” the other. In the exchange, something new is formed—a single lake, double in volume and surface area. But it all started with equality, a flowing into one another, and a settling to a new depth. In this example, then, Tao is achieved by the exchange of two lakes.

The Noble One: Wind

May 1, 2011

Hexagram 57, Wind, is one of the eight hexagrams consisting of two identical trigrams. Thus, it is one of the cardinal hexagrams of the entire set of 64 Hexagrams.

Wind represents gentle but steady power. It also represents a presence that interweaves through all things, just as the wind flows everywhere. Wind also includes the image of wood. This may seem like an odd linking until one considers that wood grows slowly, so its movement is similar to wind’s gentle pressure. Wood also grows everywhere, penetrates the earth, and cracks the rock and is again compatible with what wind symbolizes.

So what are we to learn from this symbolism? The Image says, the noble one gives further instructions and takes action.

It’s important to put this in context. There are other kinds of action depicted in the I Ching. There are times when we are supposed to mount a vigorous campaign, to cross the great water. Sometimes we are even supposed to attack. At other times we are advised to wait. But here, we are supposed to formulate thoughtful plans, communicate with others, and then take action. The implication, though, is that our action cannot be a single burst, but a long and steady effort.

The image of the wind even carries to the breath of the Noble One, giving instructions. The image of the wind carries to the vigor of the Noble One, working to take action.

It’s worth noting that the actions of a Noble One in keeping with the symbol of wind have to be subtle and far-seeing. The wind never flags. Can you carry on your plans with all the constancy of the ever-moving air?

The Noble One: Traveler

April 17, 2011

What are the essential elements of being a Traveler? First, one has to be somewhat self-sufficient. While one will be eating and living among strangers, one also has to have resources. Secondly, one is open to new opportunities. In the constant movement and the lack of any permanent living place, many new possibilities will be encountered. Thirdly, one has to have direction, clarity, and insight to know what to do and to know where to go next.

Thus it may be surprising that Hexagram 56, Traveler, has an Image that is about criminal justice. Perhaps an easy way to understand this is to remember that Chinese magistrates were often assigned to different places—one story about the famous poet Su Dongpo is about his arrival in Hangzhou to be the magistrate. Another image is to think of the traveling circuit judges of old. Thus, this hexagram can refer to a judge or high official traveling to a locale and being called upon to resolve disputes or to deal with a criminal situation.

The juxtaposition of this Image with that of being a traveler becomes more focused: The noble one is clear-minded and cautious in meting out punishment and yet does not delay trial. The first part of the Image, derived from the formation of the trigrams themselves is “fire on the mountain.” In olden times, there were lookout fires on the mountains, especially on the borders. The image of someone traveling to a distant place, looking for the signal fire on the mountain melds with the idea of being a traveling judge: the judge also has to guide as clearly as a fire on the mountain.

Fire, in the I Ching, is the symbol for mental clarity. Thus, we have the “clear-minded” reference of the Image. The mountain is the symbol of stillness, of caution, contemplation, and integrity. This accounts for the caution in meting out punishment. But fire must burn at its own pace, and a mountain cannot move. Thus, we do not delay matters and we follow what we stand for.

Having the mental clarity of a bright flame and having the integrity and stability of a mountain are certainly two ideals to follow in our lives—no matter where we travel.

The Noble One: Plentiful

April 13, 2011

Hexagram 53, Plentiful has this Image:

The wise one decides lawsuits and applies punishments.

Why should a time of plenty be a time for lawsuits?

First, in times of trouble such as war or famine, lawsuits are of a lower priority. The first attention must be given to survival.

Secondly, times of plenty bring more disputes. However, when the society is stable and wealthy these conflicts must be confronted. It goes unsaid here, but too many disputes threaten the very stability that supports times of plenty.

The second half of the Image, however, makes it clear that criminal penalties are being referred to. Again, in times of plenty there will be more crime and so the Noble One has to enforce the law.

The I Ching was aimed at the ruler of a country and therefore the reminder to adjudicate lawsuits and to mete out punishment was relevant to the intended recipient of the oracle. We are fortunate to have access to the I Ching today. Applying this advice if we are not necessarily leading a country means this: in a time of plenty, we must be on guard for disputes and conflicts and, where necessary, we have to respond to transgressions against us.

Perhaps it seems strange to talk about conflict and punishment if we use the I Ching with a spiritual motivation. But the monks in ancient China had to learn martial arts because bandits attacked the monasteries. Being spiritual—and being in a time of spiritual plenty—does not make one invulnerable to attack. The Noble One must be wise enough to manage crime.


Hexagram 54, Marrying Sister, portrays a situation that is less-than-ideal. In the past, a younger sister was sometimes married to a popular ruler or chieftain along with her older sister. Naturally, the younger sister was subordinate, and sent along into a relationship not of her own choosing. There is also an allusion to being a concubine. Again, a woman is married in a subordinate and unfortunate situation. The Statement confirms this gloomy situation: “Advance: misfortune. No place will bring gain.”

Few of us will be in the literal situation of Marrying Sister, but there will be plenty of situations in which we find ourselves in similar oppressive circumstances. That’s when the Image becomes relevant and inspiring: The noble one pursues far-reaching goals while keeping aware of possible ruin.

This is one of the most valuable messages of the I Ching. When all seems against you, when you are put into the degrading situation of being a Marrying Sister, when any advancement brings misfortune and no place will bring gain, it is essential to remember that you still have your own inner determination. This you must not let go for any reason.

If you are hemmed in all around and there seems to be no advantage, then you should still have far-reaching goals. True, you have to be wary. Your situation is precarious and ruin is close at hand. Nevertheless, if you keep to your inner determination, you will be able to find the opening to your distant goals.


The noble one dwells in high moral character and reforms popular customs. This is the Image of Hexagram 53, Gradually. No one can quarrel with the need to dwell in high moral character, but what do we make of pairing gradualness with the reformation of popular customs?

The answer is that both high moral character and the reformation of popular customs must be done gradually. Nothing is gained by sudden declaration or violently forcible reform. For personal or social reform to take place, there must be a slow planting of new ideas. Then they will last.

The trigrams of this hexagram represent a tree on a mountain. For a tree to grow, especially the isolated pine in the crags of an exposed granite peak, the true power is one of gradualness. The tree can’t be transplanted there whole, nor can it acclimate properly if it were suddenly placed there. It can only survive if it grows there gradually. Having grown there gradually, though, even wind and rain storms cannot uproot it.

We are witnessing great changes in social customs now. The Internet and social media alone are effecting great, though gradual changes. The role of the I Ching in the past was to advise the rulers of the country. It was clear that the will of the people, not the ambitions of the ruler, were paramount. There are gradual changes among the social customs all the time: it is not just the noble one, but gradualness itself that reforms popular customs.


The Noble One: Stilling

March 21, 2011

Hexagram 52, Stilling is classically regarded as an allusion to meditation. The Statement is: “One stills one’s back and does not move one’s body. There is movement in one’s courtyard but one does not see one’s people.”

However, the Image seems to give a different implication: The noble one does not consider matters beyond his position. Here there is the idea of someone in action, perhaps as vigorous as the thunder of Hexagram 51, who pauses in stillness. Matters require a cessation for the moment and a consideration of one’s options. The Noble One is to examine only the possibilities of the current position. There is to be nothing gained by speculation or ambitiously far-reaching plans.

Does Hexagram 52 mean that we should not act? It’s important to distinguish this carefully. There are certainly other hexagrams that state we should not act. This is not one of them. We are only to consider what is within our position, but we are still supposed to act on them.

Taoist meditation is outwardly still but inwardly dynamic. The Taoist feels that everything in the universe moves, and therefore meditation must also move—inside. In the same way, the situation of Stillness means that we must consider all that is inside—and move nevertheless. That movement will not be discernable even to the “people in one’s courtyard,” but the effects will be far reaching.