Hexagram 21 - Shih Ho / Biting Through - James Legge Translation

hexagram 21
  • Above Li the Clinging, Fire
  • Below Chen the Arousing, Thunder


Shih Ho means union with an amount of force. Shih Ho indicates successful progress in the condition of things which it supposes. It will be advantageous to use legal constraints.

Meaning Commentary

Shih Ho means literally Union by gnawing. We see in the figure two strong lines in the first and last places, while all the others, with the exception of the fourth, are divided. This suggests the idea of the jaws and the mouth between them kept open by something in it. Let that be gnawed through and the mouth will close and the jaws come together. So in the body politic. Remove the obstacles to union, and high and low will come together with a good understanding. And how are those obstacles to be removed? By force, emblemed by the gnawing that is, by legal constraints. And these are sure to be successful. The auspice of the figure is favorable. There will be success.

See The Richard Wilhelm translation of this hexagram.

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The Image

Thunder and lighting: The image of Biting Through. Thus the kings of former times made firm the laws Through clearly defined penalties.

Image Commentary

Penalties are the individual applications of the law. The laws specify the penalties. Clarity prevails when mild and severe penalties are differentiated, according to the nature of the crimes. This is symbolized by the clarity of lighting. The law is strengthened by a just application of penalties. This is symbolized by the terror of thunder. This clarity and severity have the effect of instilling respect; it is not that the penalties are ends in themselves. The obstructions in the social life of man increase when there is a lack of clarity in the penal codes and slackness in executing them. The only to strengthen the law is to make it clear and make penalties certain and swift.

King Wans explanation

  1. The existence of something between the jaws gives rise to the name Shih Ho Union by means of biting through the intervening article.
  2. The Union by means of biting through the intervening article indicates the successful progress denoted by the hexagram.
  3. The strong and weak lines are equally divided in the figure. Movement is denoted by the lower trigram, and bright intelligence by the upper; thunder and lightning uniting in them, and having brilliant manifestation. The weak fifth line is in the centre, and acts in its high position. Although it is not in its proper position, this is advantageous for the use of legal constraints.

Legge Footnotes on King Wans explanation

The equal division of the strong and weak lines is seen by taking them in pairs, though the order in the first pair is different from that in the two others. This is supposed to indicate the intelligence of the judgments in the action of the hexagram. Kan, the lower trigram, symbolizes movement; Li, the upper, intelligence. The fifth line's acting in its high position does not intimate the formation of the figure from I, the 42nd hexagram, but calls attention to the fact that a weak line is here lord of judgment. This does not seem natural, but the effect is good, judgment is tempered by leniency.

The Lines

The first NINE, undivided, shows one with his feet in the stocks and deprived of his toes. There will be no error. Lines 1 and 6 are much out of the game or action described in the figure. Hence they are held to represent parties receiving punishment, while the other lines represent parties inflicting it.

The punishment in line 1 is that of the stocks, administered for a small offence, and before crime has made much way. But if the depriving of the toes is not merely keeping them in restraint, but cutting them off, as the Chinese character suggests, the punishment appears to a western reader too severe.

The second SIX, divided, shows one biting through the soft flesh, and going on to bite off the nose. There will be no error.

Line 2 is weak, appropriately therefore in an even place, and it is central besides. The action therefore of its subject should be effective; and this is shown by the biting through the soft flesh, an easy thing. Immediately below, however, is a strong offender represented by the strong line, and before he will submit it is necessary to bite off his nose, for punishment is the rule it must be continued and increased till the end is secured.

The third SIX, divided, shows one gnawing dried flesh, and meeting with what is disagreeable. There will be occasion for some small regret, but no great error.

Line 3 is weak, and in an even place. The action of its subject will be ineffective and is emblemed by the hard task of gnawing through dried flesh, and encountering, besides, what is distasteful and injurious in it. But again comes in the consideration that here punishment is the rule, and the auspice is not all bad.

The fourth NINE, undivided, shows one gnawing the flesh dried on the bone, and getting the pledges of money and arrows. It will be advantageous to him to realize the difficulty of his task and be firm, in which case there will be good fortune.

Of old, in a civil case, both parties, before they were heard, brought to the court an arrow or a bundle of arrows, in testimony of their rectitude, after which they were heard in a criminal case, they in the same way deposited each thirty pounds of gold, or some other metal. See the Official Book of Kau, 27. 14, 15. The subject of the fourth line's getting those pledges indicates his exercising his judicial functions; and what he gnaws through indicates their difficulty. Moreover, though the line is strong, it is in an even place; and hence comes the lesson of caution.

The fifth SIX, divided, shows one gnawing at dried flesh, and finding the yellow gold. Let him be firm and correct, realizing the peril of his position. There will be no error.

The fifth line represents the lord of judgment. As it is a weak line, he will be disposed to leniency and his judgments will be correct. This is declared by his finding the yellow metal; for yellow is one of the five correct colours. The position is in the centre and that of rule but the line being weak, a caution is given, as under the previous line.

The sixth NINE, undivided, shows one wearing the cangue, and deprived of his cars. There will be evil.

The action of the figure has passed, and still we have, in the subject of line 6, one persisting in wrong, a strong criminal, wearing the cangue, and deaf to counsel. of course the auspice is evil.