I Ching Hexagram 15 - Ch'ien / Modesty

hexagram 15
  • Above K'un the Receptive, Earth
  • Below Ken Keeping Still, Mountain


This hexagram is made up of the trigrams Ken, Keeping Still, mountain, and K'un. The mountain is the youngest son of the Creative, the representative of heaven and earth. It dispenses the blessings of heaven, the clouds and rain that gather round its summit, and thereafter shines forth radiant with heavenly light. This shows what modesty is and how it functions in great and strong men. K'un, the earth, stands above. Lowliness is a quality of the earth: this is the very reason why it appears in this hexagram as exalted, by being placed above the mountain. This shows how modesty functions in lowly, simple people: they are lifted up by it.

See the James Legge translation of this hexagram.

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Modesty creates success. The superior man carries things through.

Judgement Commentary

It is the law of heaven to make fullness empty and to make full what is modest; when the sun is at its zenith, it must, according to the law of heaven, turn toward its setting, and at its nadir it rises toward a new dawn. In obedience to the same law, the moon when it is full begins to wane, and when empty of light it waxes again. This heavenly law works itself out in the fates of men also. It is the law of earth to alter the full and to contribute to the modest. High mountains are worn down by the waters, and the valleys are filled up. It is the law of fate to undermine what is full and to prosper the modest. And men also hate fullness and love the modest. The destinies of men are subject to immutable laws that must fulfill themselves. But man has it in his power to shape his fate, according as his behavior exposes him to the influence of benevolent or of destructive forces. When a man holds a high position and is nevertheless modest, he shines with the light of wisdom; if he is in a lowly position and is modest, he cannot be passed by. Thus the superior man can carry out his work to the end without boasting of what he has achieved.

The Image

Within the earth, a mountain: The image of Modesty. Thus the superior man reduces that which is too much, and augments that which is too little. He weighs things and makes them equal.

Image Commentary

The wealth of the earth in which a mountain is hidden is not visible to the eye, because the depths are offset by the height of the mountain. Thus high and low competent each other and the result is the plain. Here an effect that it took a long time to achieve, but that in the end seems easy of accomplishment and self-evident, is used as the image of modesty. The superior man does the same thing when he establishes order in the world; he equalizes the extremes that are the source of social discontent and thereby creates just and equable conditions.

The Lines

Six at the beginning means: A superior man modest about his modesty May cross the great water. Good fortune.

A dangerous enterprise, such as the crossing of a great stream, is made much more difficult if many claims and considerations have to be taken into account. On the other hand, the task is easy if it is attended to quickly and simply. Therefore the unassuming attitude of mind that goes with modesty fits a man to accomplish even difficult undertakings: he imposes no demands or stipulations but settles matters easily and quickly. Where no claims are put forward, no resistances arise.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 36 - Ming I / Darkening of the light. The first line here has all of the attributes this hexagram champions therefore all can be expected to go well. He is even modest about his modesty! In Legge's words "the superior man who adds humility to humility." However if we look at the resultant hexagram we find number 36 or Darkening of the light which is an ominous omen. Even though he who is gets this line is correct and does correctly, evil will result. All one can do is maintain ones inner light and persevere.

Six in the second place means: Modesty that comes to expression. Perseverance brings good fortune.

'Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh.' When a man's attitude of mind is so modest that this expresses itself in his outward behavior, it is a source of good fortune to him. For the possibility of exerting a lasting influence arises of itself and no one can interfere.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 46 - Sheng / Pushing Upward. Here modesty is rewarded and good fortune is the result. The resultant hexagram is number 46, Pushing Upwards, and shows that this lines success is to be gained as a result hard work and the rewards thereof. Legge is more ambiguous and says "...humility that has made itself recognized..." with a hint of censure "... representing a humility that has crowed that is, has proclaimed itself." even though he also says good fortune will eventuate.

Nine in the third place means: A superior man of modesty and merit carries things to conclusion. Good fortune.

This is the center of the hexagram, where its secret is disclosed. A distinguished name is readily earned by great achievements. If a man allows himself to be dazzled by fame, he will soon be criticized, and difficulties will arise. If, on the contrary, he remains modest despite his merit, he makes himself beloved and wins the support necessary for carrying his work through to the end.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 2 - K'un / The Receptive. Modesty needs to be maintained after success has been earned or problems arise, mutterings begin. Legge merely states that this line has its worth acknowledged and "He will maintain his success to the end, and have good fortune." Legge obviously is of the opinion that a truly modest person does not need to be reminded to be modest! The resultant hexagram 2, predicts sublime success so the outcome here could be barely be better.

Six in the fourth place means: Nothing that would not further modesty in movement.

Everything has its proper measure. Even modesty in behavior can be carried too far. Here, however, it is appropriate, because the place between a worthy helper below and a kindly ruler above carries great responsibility. The confidence of the man in superior place must not be abused nor the merits of the man in inferior placed concealed. There are officials who indeed do not strive for prominence; they hide behind the letter of ordinances, decline all responsibility, accept pay without giving its equivalent in work, and bear empty titles. This is the opposite of what is meant here by modesty. In such a position, modesty is shown by interest in one's work.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 62 - Hsiao Kuo / Preponderance of the Small. The excuse of being modest should not be used to avoid ones responsibilities! In contrast to Wilhelm, Legge seems to have little negative to say about this line "Its subject is sure to be successful and prosperous". He merely a mild warning to take the greatest precaution. The resultant hexagram 62, shows only small achievements are possible now but not great ones so this could be what Legge means in his warning.

Six in the fifth place means: No boasting of wealth before one's neighbor. It is favorable to attack with force. Nothing that would not further.

Modesty is not to be confused with weak good nature that lets things take their own course. When a man holds a responsible position, he must at times resort to energetic measures. In doing so he must not try to make an impression by boasting of his superiority but must make certain of the people around him. The measures taken should be purely objective and in no way personally offensive. Thus modesty manifests itself even in severity.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 39 - Chien / Obstruction. Modesty is not weakness and sometimes it is the correct option to use force to enforce ones authority. The lesson here is that one must not resort to unreasonable or insulting behaviour merely because of ones position. Only resort to rigorous enforcement of authority when absolutely neccessary. Legge additionally adds that sometimes modesty is sufficiently powerful an influence that even those normally without power can wield it due to the power of their personality. The resultant hexagram is 39, Obstruction, "obstacles that cannot be overcome directly" so notwithstanding all of the above we see that the outcome of this line is not looking good.

Six at the top means: Modesty that comes to expression. It is favorable to set armies marching To chastise one's own city and one's country.

A person who is really sincere in his modesty must make it show in reality. He must proceed with great energy in this. When enmity arises nothing is easier than to lay the blame on another. A weak man takes offense perhaps, and draws back, feeling self-pity; he thinks that it is modesty that keeps him from defending himself. Genuine modesty sets one to creating order and inspires one to begin by disciplining one's own ego and one's immediate circle. Only through having the courage to marshal one's armies against oneself, will something forceful really be achieved.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 52 - Ken / Keeping Still, Mountain. This line seeks to protect the virtue of its area of responsibility and no more. It has not the power to seek wider influence. This perhaps implies (morally) disciplining oneself and ones family or employees. The outcome represented by hexagram 52 indicates that the worldly concerns of others will be of less concern than ones own spiritual development. Legge is more politically inclined in his interpretation, he sees that subject who gets this line enforcing correctness in his local area only and not by using force.

See the James Legge - I Ching Hexagram 15 - Ch'ien / Modesty translation of this hexagram.