The Hermit in Lore: the I Ching

The I ching or Book of Changes is an ancient Chinese literary source originating as a divination manual. It presents hexagrams accompanied by explanatory commentaries and text. Although consulted for divination, the work acquired the reputation of being a reservoir of philosophical wisdom, for which it was as widely consulted in subsequent centuries. Because this origin and transformation is pre-Confucian, the I ching provides an excellent resource not interpolated by later tradition. It has special relevance to the study of Chinese eremitism.

Renunciation of service became a philosophical issue under Confucius, whose ethics took up the perennial issue of service to society and state versus reclusion. The Confucian concept of reclusion, it must be remembered, is still rudimentary, referring to abstention, not a hermit lifestyle. There should be no antiquarianism or historical anachronism in studying the I ching.

The I ching likely was originally consulted by government officials for making decisions. Advice to the ruler of the state is a common application of divination in all cultures, using devices such as taking of augury and astrology. But as a literary source, the I ching embodies specific modes of behavior and responses to crises. Their meanings are general, of course, even vague, but the consultant is expected to apply the established principle of the hexagram to an immediate situation. Some hexagrams advise actions which came to be understood as the origins of eremitism, advising an "eremitic" solution.

A hexagram consists of a unit of six horizontal lines, with accompanying commentary: Judgment, Image, and Lines, the latter a descriptive meaning of each line in detail. The lines are of two sets (top and bottom) and are solid or broken into two. The sequence of the lines from lowest to highest represents a specific natural phenomenon that, in turn, suggests an interpretation relevant to the consultant.

Although the lines are read from bottom to top, the traditional explanation takes the logic of the whole and works from the general to the specific, from the context to the circumstances, as a form of exposition.

The most obvious hexagram relevant to the construction of a Chinese personality of eremitism is number 33: tun or the pinyin dun. Here the hexagram represents "retreat." The original sense suggests caution and the avoidance of danger, as in a military situation, but the commentary universalizes the context to human affairs in general. Retreat is not cowardice or flight. Retreat is perspicacious, the wise perception of when to abandon the field  (of battle, social engagement, etc.). The commentary for Judgment is more specific:

Mountain under heaven: the image of retreat.
Thus the superior man keeps the inferior at a distance,
Not angrily but with reserve.

The mountain and the firmament part of retreat from one another. The wise man ("superior" as heaven, embodying wisdom) rises above the inferior man ("inferior" as mountain). He keeps distance because the mountain can never reach him, neither in the psychological nor physical sense. The wise man's retreat is not motivated by hatred or anger but dignity. The mountain reaches a standstill, while the heavens ascend ever indefinitely.

The I ching further analyzes each line of the hexagram. The top line retreats, representing a period of danger or precariousness. The commentary advises inaction (the famous wu-wei of later Taoism).

At the tail in retreat.
This is dangerous.
One must not wish to undertake anything.

The second line from the top means:

He holds him fast with yellow ox hide.
No one can tear him loose.

The color yellow signifies "middle." The inferior man is held fast by strong ox hide, hence bound by duty. The inferior man presses the superior and does not allow the latter to go, as in the Judgment statement.

Line three:

A halted retreat
Is nerve-wracking and dangerous.
To retain people as men and maid servants
Brings good fortune.

During the dangerous retreat, it is advised to take care of clinging servants. Obviously, the advise is addressed to men at court, of some means, who have run into trouble with the court ethos. By naming servants as a distinct group which the consultant should not abandon in hardheartedness as he withdraws from the court, it becomes clear that the inferior men are not the servants but those who gentlemen who serve the emperor and officials. This passage may reflect charity or pragmatism. The clinging inferiors of line two are no longer here.

Line 4:

Voluntary retreat brings good fortune to the superior man
And downfall to the inferior man.

This line reemphasizes the superior man's disposition as positive and marked by integrity. He is not forced to retreat but chooses a wiser more dignified way. His absence will further plunge the inferior onto downfall, already anticipated by the superior.

Line 5:

Friendly retreat.
Perseverance brings good fortune.

This line confirms that the timing of the retreat allows for an amicable resolution between superior and inferior, despite the danger referred to in an earlier commentary. The superior must be firm in conviction, nevertheless, to achieve the desired outcome.

Line 6:

Cheerful retreat
Everything serves to further.

Circumstances for retreat are now clear and a mood of cheerfulness can be entertained. Such a clarity establishes success for the path ahead.

The thirty-third hexagram has been detailed because it so irrefutably establishes an ethos of reclusion so early in ancient China. Though the contexts deals with civil service in a literal sense, and cannot be presumed to establish a universal motive for eremitism, this hexagram does lay out the circumstances necessary for an eremitism of the future. Chinese eremitism would thus, in this and the immediate Confucian period that follows, be characterized by a highly-principled social criteria, namely, the individual's capacity to reject social and civic norms in favor of personal integrity and freedom.

Here are other hexagrams indirectly confirming and extending the concepts of the third-third:

  1. The Creative (Ch'ien or qian)
  2. The Receptive (k'un),
  6. Conflict (Sung or song)
18. Work on What has been Spoiled (Ku or gu)
36. Darkening of the light (Ming I or mingyi)
52. Keeping Still, Mountains (Ken or gen)
60. Limitation (Chieh or jie)

Each develops a perspective on the concept of reclusion, all within the context of government service. Exploring the I ching from this historical angle is a refreshing experience. As a conclusion, the commentary on line six of hexagram 18 (Ku) is unambiguous and aptly describes the earliest philosophy of wisdom as reclusion, and the wise man as recluse:

He does not serve kings and princes,
Sets himself higher goals.


The theme for this article is suggested by Aat Vervoorn's Men of the Cliffs and Caves (see bibliography). Translations from the Richard Wilhelm's and Cary F. Baynes translation: I Ching: or, Book of Changes, 3rd. ed., (Bollingen Series XIX), Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1967 (1st ed. 1950). Full text on the Web at