Hexagram 47 - K'un / Oppression (Exhaustion) - James Legge Translation

hexagram 47
  • Above Tui the Joyous, Lake
  • Below K'an the abysmal, Water


In the condition denoted by K'un there may yet be progress and success. For the firm and correct, the really great man, there will be good fortune. He will fall into no error. If he make speeches, his words cannot be made good.

Meaning Commentary

The character K'un presents us with the picture of a tree within an enclosure. A plant fading for want of room, a tree, according to Tai Tung, not allowed to spread its branches. However this be, the term conveys the idea of being straitened and distressed; and this hexagram indicates a state of things in which the order and government that would conduce to the well-being of the country can hardly get the development, which, by skilful management on the part of the great man and others, is finally secured for them.

Looking at the figure we see that the two central places are occupied by strong lines; but 2 is confined between 1 and 3, both of which are weak, and 5 the ruler, as well as 4 his minister, is covered by the weak 6; all which peculiarities are held to indicate the repression or straitening of good men by bad. For the way in which the same view is derived from the great symbolism.

The concluding sentence of the Thwan is literally, If he speak, he will not be believed; but the Khang-hsi editors give sufficient reasons for changing one character so as to give the meaning in the translation. Actions, not words, are what are required in the case.

See The Richard Wilhelm translation of this hexagram.

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The Image

There is not water in the lake: The image of Exhaustion. Thus the superior man stakes his life on following his will.

Image Commentary

When the water has flowed out below, the lake must dry up and become exhausted. That is fate. This symbolizes an adverse fate in human life. In such times there is nothing a man can do but acquiesce in his fate and remain true to himself. This concerns the deepest stratum of his being, for this alone is superior to all external fate.

King Wans explanation

  1. In K'un we see the strong lines covered and obscured by the weak.
  2. We have in it the attribute of perilousness going on to that of satisfaction. Who is it but the superior man that, though straitened, still does not fail in making progress to his proper end?
  3. For the firm and correct, the really great man, there will be good fortune: this is shown by the central positions of the strong lines.
  4. If he make speeches, his words cannot be made good: to be fond of arguing or pleading is the way to be reduced to extremity.

Legge Footnotes on King Wans explanation

One sees the relative position of the strong and weak lines in the figure; but to deduce from that the idea expressed by K'un requires a painful straining of the imagination. That idea was in the mind, and then the lines were interpreted accordingly.

Perilousness is the attribute of the lower trigram, and satisfaction that of the upper. The superior man, however straitened, remains master of himself, and pursues the proper end of principle settled in his mind.

Why should the subject of K'un make speeches, be fond of arguing or pleading, as the characters say, if we could translate them literally, setting a value on the mouth? The reply to this is found in the trigram denoting satisfaction, or being pleased. The party in the extremity of K'un yet wishes and tries to make men pleased with him.

The Lines

The first SIX, divided, shows its subject with bare buttocks straitened under the stump of a tree. He enters a dark valley, and for three years has no prospect of deliverance. The symbolism of buttocks is rather a favorite with the duke of Kou.

The poor subject of line 1 sitting on a mere stump, which affords him no shelter, is indeed badly off. The line is at the bottom of the trigram indicating peril, and 4, which is its proper correlate, is so circumstanced as not to be able to render it help; hence comes the unfavorable auspice. Three years is used, as often, for a long time.

The second NINE, undivided, shows its subject straitened amidst his wine and viands. There come to him anon the red knee-covers of the ruler. It will be well for him to maintain his sincerity as in sacrificing. Active operations on his part will lead to evil, but he will be free from blame.

The three strong lines in the figure 2, 4, and 5 are all held to represent superior men and their being straitened is not in their persons or estates, but in their principles which are denied development. Hence the subject of 2 is straitened while he fares sumptuously. His correlate in 5, though not quite proper, occupies the ruler's place, and comes to his help. That it is the ruler who comes appears from his red or vermilion knee-covers, different from the scarlet knee-covers worn by nobles, as in paragraph 5. Let 2 cultivate his sincerity and do the work of the hexagram as if he were sacrificing to spiritual beings; and then, if he keep quiet, all will be well.

The third SIX, divided, shows its subject straitened before a frowning rock. He lays hold of thorns. He enters his palace, and does not see his wife. There will be evil.

For a full explanation of paragraph 3 Ku Hsi refers his readers to what Confucius is made to say on it in Appendix III, ii, 35. The reader, however, will probably not find much light in that passage. The Khang-hsi editors say here, The subjects of the three divided lines 1, 3, and 6 are all unable to deal aright with the straitened state indicated by the figure. The first is at the bottom, sitting and distressed. The second, occupies the third place, where he may either advance or retreat; and he advances and is distressed. Wounded abroad, he returns to his family, and finds none to receive him so graphically is there set forth the distress which reckless action brings.

The fourth NINE, undivided shows its subject proceeding very slowly to help the subject of the first line, who is straitened by the carriage adorned with metal in front of him. There will be occasion for regret, but the end will be good.

Line 4 is the proper correlate of 1, but it is a strong line in an even place, and its assistance is given dilatorily. Then 1 is overridden by 2, which is represented by a chariot of metal. It is difficult for the subjects of 1 and 4 to come together, and effect much; but 4 is near 5, which is also a strong line. Through a common sympathy, the subject of 5 will have a measure of success. So the symbolism of this line has been explained, not very satisfactorily.

The fifth NINE, undivided, shows its subject with his nose and feet cut off. He is straitened by his ministers in their scarlet aprons. He is leisurely in his movements, however, and is satisfied. It will be well for him to be as sincere as in sacrificing to spiritual beings.

Line 5 is repressed by 6, and pressed on by 4. Above and below its subject is wounded. Especially is he straitened by the minister in 4, with his scarlet knee-covers. But the upper trigram is Tui, with the quality of complacent satisfaction. And this indicates, it is said, that the subject of 5 gets on notwithstanding his straits, especially by his sincerity. This explanation is not more satisfactory than the last.

The sixth SIX, divided, shows its subject straitened, as if bound with creepers; or in a high and dangerous position, and saying to himself, If I move, I shall repent it. If he do repent of former errors, there will be good fortune in his going forward.

Line 6 is at the top of the figure, where the distress may be supposed to reach its height. Its subject appears bound and on a perilous summit. But his extremity is also his opportunity. He is moved to think of repenting and if he do repent, and go forward, his doing so will be fortunate.