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Hexagram 29 - K'an / The Abysmal (Water) - James Legge Translation

hexagram 29
  • Above K'an the abysmal, Water
  • Below K'an the abysmal, Water


K'an denotes falling into peril. K'an, here repeated, shows the possession of sincerity, through which the mind is. penetrating. Action (in accordance with this) will be of high value.

Meaning Commentary

The trigram K'an, which is doubled to form this hexagram, is the lineal symbol of water. Its meaning, as a character, is a pit, a perilous cavity, or defile; and here and elsewhere in the Yi it leads the reader to think of a dangerous defile, with water flowing through it. It becomes symbolic of danger, and what the authors of the Text had in mind was to show how danger should be encountered, its effect on the mind, and how to get out of it.

The trigram exhibits a strong central line, between two divided lines. The central represented to king Wan the sincere honesty and goodness of the subject of the hexagram, whose mind was sharpened and made penetrating by contact with danger, and who acted in a manner worthy of his character. It is implied, though the Thwan does not say it, that he would get out of the danger,

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The Image

Water flows on uninterruptedly and reaches its foal: The image of the Abysmal repeated. Thus the superior man walks in lasting virtue and carries on the business of teaching.

Image Commentary

Water reaches its goal by flowing continually. It fills up every depression before it flows on. The superior man follows its example; he is concerned that goodness should be an established attribute of character rather than an accidental and isolated occurrence. So likewise in teaching others everything depends on consistency, for it is only through repetition that the pupil makes the material his own.

King Wans explanation

  1. Khan repeated shows us one defile succeeding another.
  2. This is the nature of water; it flows on, without accumulating its volume (so as to overflow); it pursues its way through a dangerous defile, without losing its true (nature).
  3. That the mind is penetrating is indicated by the strong (line) in the centre. That action (in accordance with this) will be of high value tells us that advance will be followed by achievement.
  4. The dangerous (height) of heaven cannot be ascended; the difficult places of the earth are mountains, rivers, hills, and mounds. Kings and princes arrange by means of such strengths, to maintain their territories. Great indeed is the use of (what is here) taught about seasons of peril.

Legge Footnotes on King Wans explanation

On paragraph 2 Liang Yin says: Water stops at the proper time, and moves at the proper time. Is not this an emblem of the course of the superior man in dealing with danger'

On paragraph 4 the Khang-hsi editors say that to exercise one's self in meeting difficulty and peril is the way to establish and strengthen the character, and that the use of such experience is seen in all measures for self-defence, there being no helmet and mail like real-heartedness and good faith, and no shield and tower like propriety and righteousness.

The Lines

The first SIX, divided, shows its subject in the double defile, and (yet) entering a cavern within it. There will be evil.

Line 1 is weak, at the bottom of the figure, and has no correlate above, no helper, that is, beyond itself. All these things render the case of its subject hopeless. He will by his efforts only involve himself more deeply in danger.

The second NINE, undivided, shows its subject in all the peril of the defile. He will, however, get a little (of the deliverance) that he seeks.

Line 2 is strong, and in the centre. Its subject is unable, indeed, to escape altogether from the danger, but he does not involve himself more deeply in it like the subject of 1, and obtains some ease.

The third SIX, divided, shows its subject, whether he comes or goes, ascends or ascends, confronted by a defile. All is peril to him and unrest. His endeavors will lead him into the cavern of the pit. There should be no action (in such a case).

Line 3 is weak, and occupies the place of a strong line. Its subject is in an evil case.

The fourth SIX, divided, shows its subject at a feast, with simply a bottle of spirits, and a subsidiary basket of rice, while the cups and bowls are only of earthenware. He introduces his important lessons as his ruler's intelligence admits. There will in the end be no error.

Line 4 is weak, and will get no help from its correlate in 1. Its subject is not one who can avert the danger threatening himself and others. But his position is close to that of the ruler in 5, whose intimacy he cultivates with an unostentatious sincerity, symbolled by the appointments of the simple feast, and whose intelligence he cautiously enlightens. In consequence, there will be no error.

The fifth NINE, undivided, shows the water of the defile not yet full, so that it might flow away but order will soon be brought about. There will be no error.

The subject of line 5 is on the eve of extrication and deliverance. The waters of the defile will ere long have free vent and disappear, and the ground will be levelled and made smooth. The line is strong, in a proper place, and in the place of honour.

The topmost SIX, divided, shows its subject bound with cords of three strands or two strands, and placed in the thicket of thorns. But in three years he does not learn the course for him to pursue. There will be evil.

The case of the subject of line 6 is hopeless. When danger has reached its highest point, there he is, represented by a weak line, and with no proper correlate below. The thicket of thorns is taken as a metaphor for a prison; but if the expression has a history, I have been unable to find it.