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Hexagram 48 - Ching / The Well - James Legge Translation

hexagram 48
  • Above K'an the abysmal, Water
  • Below Sun the Gentle, Wind


Looking at Ching, we think of how the site of a town may be changed, while the fashion of its wells undergoes no change. The water of a well never disappears and never receives any great increase, and those who come and those who go can draw and enjoy the benefit. If the drawing have nearly been accomplished, but, before the rope has quite reached the water, the bucket is broken, this is evil.

Meaning Commentary

Ching, which gives its name to this hexagram, is the symbol of a well. The character originally was pictorial, intended to represent a portion of land, divided into nine parts, the central portion belonging to the government, and being cultivated by the joint labour of the eight families settled on the other divisions. In the centre of it, moreover, was a well, which was the joint property of all the occupants.

What is said on Ching might be styled Moralizing on a well, or Lessons to be learned from a well for the good order and government of a country. What a well is to those in its neighborhood, and indeed to men in general, that is government to a people. If rulers would only rightly appreciate the principles of government handed down from the good ages of the past, and faithfully apply them to the regulation of the present, they would be blessed themselves and their people with them.

In the Thwan we have the well, substantially the same through many changes of society; a sure source of dependance to men, for their refreshment and for use in their cultivation of the ground. Its form is what I have seen in the plains of northern China; what may be seen among ourselves in many places in Europe. It is deep, and the water is drawn up by a vessel let down from the top; and the value of the well depends on the water being actually raised. And so the principles of government must be actually carried out.

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The Image

Water over wood: the image of The Well. Thus the superior man encourages the people at their work and exhorts them to help one another.

Image Commentary

The trigram Sun, wood, is below, and the trigram K'an, water, is above it. Wood sucks water upward. Just as wood as an organism imitates the action of the well, which benefits all parts of the plant, the superior man organizes human society, so that, as in a plant organism, its parts co-operate for the benefit of the whole.

King Wans explanation

  1. We have the symbol of wood in the water and the raising of the water; which gives us the idea of a well. A well supplies nourishment and is not itself exhausted.
  2. The site of a town may be changed, while the fashion of its wells undergoes no change, this is indicated by the central position of the strong lines in the second and fifth places.
  3. The drawing is nearly accomplished, but the rope has not yet reached the water of the well, its service has not yet been accomplished.
  4. The bucket is broken: it is this that occasions evil.

Legge Footnotes on King Wans explanation

Kang Khang-Khang says: K'an, the upper trigram, represents water, and Sun, the lower, wood. This wood denotes the water-wheel or pulley with its bucket, which descends into the mouth of the spring, and brings the water up to the top. This may be a correct explanation of the figure, though the reading of it from bottom to top seems at first to be strange.

Paragraph 2. That the fashion of the well does not undergo any great change is dwelt upon as illustrating the unchangeableness of the great principles of human nature and of government. But that this truth may be learned from the strong and central lines only produces a smile. So do the remarks on the other two sentences of the Thwan.

The Lines

The first SIX, divided, shows a well so muddy that men will not drink of it; or an old well to which neither birds nor other creatures resort.

Line 1, being weak, and at the very bottom of the figure, suggests, or is made to suggest, the symbolism of it. Many men in authority are like such a well; corrupt, useless, unregarded.

The second NINE, undivided, shows a well from which by a hole the water escapes and flows away to the shrimps and such small creatures among the grass, or one the water of which leaks away from a broken basket.

Line 2 is strong, and might very well symbolize an active spring, ever feeding the well and, through it, the ground and its cultivators; but it is in an inappropriate place, and has no proper correlate. Its cool waters cannot be brought to the top. So important is it that the ministers of a country should be able and willing rightly to administer its government. In the account of the ancient Shun it is stated that he once saved his life by an opening in the lining of a well.

The third NINE, undivided, shows a well, which has been cleared out, but is not used. Our hearts are sorry for this, for the water might be drawn out and used. If the king were only intelligent, both he and we might receive the benefit of it.

Line 3 is a strong line, in its proper place; and must represent an able minister or officer. But though the well is clear, no use is made of it. I do not find anything in the figure that can be connected with this fact. The author was wise beyond his lines. After the first sentence of the paragraph, the duke of Kou ceases from his function of making emblems; reflects and moralizes.

The fourth SIX, divided, shows a well, the lining of which is well laid. There will be no error.

Line 4 is weak, but in its proper place. Its subject is not to be condemned, but neither is he to be praised. He takes care of himself, but does nothing for others.

The fifth NINE, undivided, shows a clear, limpid well, the waters from whose cold spring are freely drunk.

Line 5 is strong, and in its right place. The place is that of the ruler, and suggests the well, full of clear water, which is drawn up, and performs its useful work. Such is the good Head of government to his people.

The topmost SIX, divided, shows the water from the well brought to the top, which is not allowed to be covered. This suggests the idea of sincerity. There will be great good fortune.

Line 6 is in its proper place, but weak. If the general idea of the figure was different, a bad auspice might be drawn from it. But here we see in it the symbol of the water drawn up, and the top uncovered so that the use of the well is free to all. Then the mention of sincerity suggests the inexhaustibleness of the elemental supply.