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.

The Noble One: Thunder

March 21, 2011

Understanding the Image of Hexagram 51 requires understanding the context of the hexagram. The Statement says, “Thunder comes frighteningly.” When one is shocked by a sudden event, one should look to oneself first. Confucius taught that when there was a problem, he first sought the error within himself.

Thus, The noble one examines his morals in fear and dread. If you are caught in a great upheaval, check to see if you are completely in the right.

Here is where we have to check the other side of the Image, a side only implied and not discussed here. What if you feel that your morals are completely in order? If you are completely sure of that, then perhaps you are the thunder. But in acting, you must make sure that you are completely scrupulous, completely moral. Only then is there no mistake.

The Noble One: Reform

March 7, 2011

Hexagram 49, Reform, is usually translated as Revolution. However, if we think of it in that way, how do we understand the Image? The noble one orders the calendar by the seasons.

Quite clearly, what is meant is not revolution but reform of how people are governed and how people live their lives. Now, the seasons are relatively regular in comparison to human governance. They follow each other without fail, and while there might be variations in weather and temperature, the features of each season have never failed. When human affairs become disordered, the I Ching and the Taoists would have us return to the natural course of things, and, in fact, have us pattern our affairs upon them.

Hexagram 49 does not mean reform, or revolution, to replace one set of human theories with another. It means to align ourselves with the cycles of nature, to become, in effect, more natural.

For the Taoists, problems always arise when people who are out of step with nature. Therefore, reform is a matter of putting ourselves back in accord with nature.

The Noble One: Well

February 20, 2011

The well is a fundamental thing to a village. Without water, people could not live there. The well is needed to quench thirst, wash, and cook. In some places, wells even provide the water to grow crops. The well is truly a central and essential part of any community.

And how simple and pure it is: an opening in the life-giving earth, pure water seeping in, stored unseen, available to sustain many people as long as the work is done to reach it.

In the same way, the Image of Hexagram 48, Well, asks if we can be as vital to our community as a well. The noble one encourages the people and lends them assistance. This is no mere platitude. Firstly, in order to encourage people and lend assistance, one has to have real substance. Just as water in its purity revives the thirsty, so too must a noble one have pure character if he or she will really help others. Secondly, a noble one who is like the well must be just as inexhaustible. Thirdly, the noble one, like the well, does not discriminate. All people draw from a well. All people draw from a noble one.

If you would be a noble one, then ask yourself if you can be like a well, sustaining all who come to you. Could you really “encourage people and lend assistance?”


Lunar New Year 2011

February 3, 2011

Tonight is the eve of Lunar New Year day. On behalf of livingiching.com may you and your family enjoy happiness, prosperity, and longevity.

Studying the I Ching is important, but you need no book to tell you that life is more than abundant; that if you can grasp the direction of the Way, you are already blessed with insight; and that if you can follow the changes, you are already on the edge of divine knowledge.

How often we worry about advantage. How often we look at ourselves and find ourselves wanting. How often we worry whether the future will be kind to us. Really, we ought not to worry. Heaven and earth provide for us in measure overflowing.

Be happy that the old year, with its toil and misfortunes, is gone. Look forward to the new year. Let all bad habits and anxieties fall away with the old year. Let only shining spirit dawn with the first day of the new year.


Bok Kai Temple

July 21, 2010

Bok Kai Temple, Marysville, California

The Bok Kai Temple is in Marysville, California. It was built in 1854 by Chinese who came to California to work in the gold mines. (In many Chinese communities, the United States is still called Gold Mountain.) The original temple burned down and it was replaced in 1880.

The temple is on the banks of the Yuba River. Bok Kai, meaning Northern Stream, is a Taoist deity. He is also known as the Northern Sea Immortal, the Northern King, and the Northern Sea Taoist. The temple was built in part to address the river’s flooding. Today, there’s a levy directly in front of the temple. It’s not aesthetic, but it certainly prevents flooding.

The temple is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and it’s California Historical Landmark 889. The temple is open by appointment and during festival days. I went to visit the temple because I haven’t been for many years. I remember watching the divination there when I first went many years ago.

Unlike the I Ching, where one has a direct and private link, divination at the temple is a service provided by the priest. One asks a question, prays devoutly, and then shakes a canister filled with bamboo slips until one falls out. The priest checks the number written on the slip and then finds the corresponding pre-printed fortune from a large board where the fortunes are hanging from pegs. Significantly, he discusses your situation with you, and it’s interesting to see naturally reticent people throwing aside all inhibition to discuss their troubles. Then the priest interprets the divination, and tries to reassure the supplicant.

My sister in-law claims that two couples went there to pray for children and that both wishes were fulfilled.

Bok Kai Temple is in need of restoration so any support would be good. I like to go because it is tangible proof of the faith of people who came to this country across the world’s largest ocean to find their destiny. Some prospered, most struggled, and many were unjustly oppressed or killed. But their temple still stands today, a reminder that faith, spirituality, and hope can actually last longer than the hearts that hold them.

In my studies of the I Ching, I noticed that the texts were fairly dispassionate. They could discuss everything from great fortune to great wretchedness without ever seeming to add a value judgment of their own. Yet after many years’ of studies, I do have the opinion that the I Ching does believe that there’s a greater good and a greater bad. I feel that the I Ching advocates peaceful community and strong relationships and it abhors alienation and egotistical isolation.

Hexagram 13, Kindred, makes this explicit in two ways. First, the Lines indicate a range of relationships. In Line 1, one meets the kindred at the gate, the beginning of all things, and any fault disappears. In Line 2, although one meets the kindred in the ancestral temple, where there should be a double unity of kinship with one’s ancestors and one’s family, there is remorse: the kinship cannot resolve the problem. In Line 3, one is armed and ready to ambush, presumably with a large force that is kindred—but it is useless. In Line 4, the kindred mount the ramparts; they are unable to win, and yet that leads to fortune. Line 5 shows the kindred when all seems lost, and yet there is finally a combining of armies. Line 6: the kindred go to an outdoor sacrifice symbolizing communing with the even greater divine order and regrets vanish. In all six lines, the I Ching shows kindred in various permutations.

It is up to the Image to spin the hexagram onto a completely different level: The noble one groups and sorts all that must be done.

Here, the Image initially speaks not of the kinship of people, but the kinship of things and of different matters. It is up to the Noble One to group and sort all that must be done. By setting things in order, the Noble One makes the eventual kinship of people possible. But it is the critical preparation that brings success.

Some people think that study spirituality should relieve them of all difficulties. In fact, the difficulties do not go away. Studying spirituality helps us understand, accept, and sometimes solve our problems, but it does not make us invulnerable to them.

Hexagram 12 brings us to the idea of Clogging. All is stuck, nothing is moving, nothing is favorable to us. What are we to do? The Image advises: The noble one acts with self-restraint in the face of punishing hardship, and avoids glory or riches.

Sometimes that’s not easy advice to follow. It’s hard to remain in control when we’re in the midst of  “punishing hardship.” Why not go crazy? Why not weep and sob?

The I Ching would have us act with self-restraint because we must be vigilant. Change happens all the time. What if we miss the opportunity to get out of our difficulties? Only the person wise enough to forbear and be watchful can escape the hardship as soon as possible.

In the time of such hardship, even the promise of glory and riches may be illusory. We should not push forward to try to gain anything. We should wait until the times themselves change. If good fortune comes again, it should be because the circumstances are right, and not because we arrogantly pushed for them.

It’s easy to be spiritual when all goes well. It’s the time of hardship when spirituality is tested. That is also the time when spirituality is the most valuable.