Qian Gua: Strive for Self-improvement

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The Qian hexagram (the symbol of heaven) in I Ching demonstrates how a man succeeds through persistent hard work.

Written by CHEN Yang Translated by YAO Yuan

Text: Qian predicates creation, success, potentiality and perseverance.

   Image: The movement of heaven is full of energy; a superior man should make himself strong and untiring.

The hexagram text says the spirit of enterprise is important, as striving makes a life successful, lucky, perseverant and full of initiatives as at its beginning.

In his interpretation of I Ching, ancient Chinese philosopher Cheng Yi said eight trigrams were initially created to represent the relations between heaven, earth and man; By pairing two of the eight trigrams, 64 hexagrams were then formed to represent all the “changes” in the world. The qian hexagram is the doubling of the qian trigram that symbolizes heaven. As Chen explained, the Chinese character “qian” refers to the spiritual essence of heaven, rather than its material form of sky. With six yang strokes, the hexagram symbolizes the purest yang and highest levels of energy, which is exactly the character of the heaven. (editor’s note: each hexagram figure is composed of six lines, either broken (yin) or unbroken (yang). Following the upward sequence, they correspond to the six phases of the course of a change from its beginning to the end.)


 Nine at the beginning: Dragon lies hidden. Do not act.

(editor’s note: the numbers six, seven, eight and nine are four divination results that represent old yin, little yang, little yin and old yang, respectively.)

The bottom line suggests the yang energy has just sprouted from the earth, but the time for action is not ripe. In divination, the line tells people to wait in patience and refrain from premature acts.

Nine in the second place: Dragon appears in the field. It is time to see the great man.

In the second phase, the hidden dragon climbs onto the ground, indicating the emergence of a great man. Some believe this line describes the state of King Wen of Zhou in his last days of incarceration. (editor’s note: King Wen of Zhou was the founding monarch of the Zhou Dynasty and believed as the writer of I Ching’s hexagram texts.)

 Nine in the third place: The superior man strives hard all day long. He keeps vigilance at night. No harm when facing danger.

The third phase endorses the spirit of perseverance and the awareness of potential dangers. The Chinese saying goes that “tree towering over the forest will be blown by gales”. At the top of the lower qian trigram, the superior man begins to excel and draw attentions. He should be alert in this phase, wean of complacency and keep working hard. By so doing, he can avoid pitfalls in the path toward greatness.

   Nine in the fourth place: Soar to the sky or remain in the deep. No harm.

This line suggests a stage when the superior man should prepare himself to take actions should the opportunities arise. No harm will follow if he makes the right choice.

   Nine in the fifth place: Dragon flies in the sky. It is time to see the great man.

   In this phase, the dragon reaches a height that provides enormous space for its motion. It is a metaphor of a man assuming the role of a ruler, his talents being in full display and his career reaching its prime.

Nine at the top: Dragon flying unduly high will have regrets.

The last line lies at the top of the hexagram figure, indicating the zenith where there is no space for further development, like the way the dragon soars to the highest point but could not abase itself to go down. Regrets could rise from the dilemma. In this phase, the excessive yang that breaks the balance may backfire. It warns of regrets if ones insists on taking actions at this stage.

In use when all lines are nine: A flight of dragon without a head. Good omen.

According to the explanation by late Chinese scholar Nan Huai-Chin, this line tells “the opposite message when one is not used by nine.” Only by thoroughly understanding the rules of changes in the hexagram, can one flexibly adapt to different situations. In this case, one can avoid being fettered by the changes but instead find this alternative result.

This line depicts a scene when a group of successful and powerful dragons coexist without an aggressive ruler. It implies that a great man should treat others as equals and cooperate in a peaceful manner, which is the key to avoiding misfortunes.

The qian hexagram represents the fundamental spirit of I Ching — never stop improving yourself. In order to succeed, one should follow the natural law of striving toward betterness. In a life of vicissitudes and uncertainties, one can always rely on his own efforts to win opportunities and make the best of his situations.

Making oneself stronger is the principle of heaven, the spirit of dragon and the defining characteristic of a superior man. In each phase of our life, we should practice this principle, working hard until our true value is realized.

Here we offer an allegory: A little carp dreams of becoming a dragon by jumping over the dragon gate. Following the tips of the carp elders, he floats to the surface, praying for a carp-turned dragon to make a presence and offer him some guidance.

The devoutness and perseverance of the carp eventually touched a dragon, who approaches him in the form of a water snake.

“Why do you wish to become a dragon?” the dragon asks.

“Since I was a little fish, the carp elders have told me that a carp should keep steeling himself so he can jump over the dragon gate before his short life ends,” the carp says. “Isn’t becoming a dragon in the dream of every carp?”

The dragon ponders for a moment and replies, “I see. I held the same belief when I was your age. I can tell you my experience, and you must keep it in mind and put into practice.”

“A carp can turn into a dragon, but having ambitions is not enough, you must also know the way.”

“The carp’s evolution into a dragon has six stages. In the first stage, you should hide in water, focusing on learning knowledge and skills vital to your survival. Keep the dream in your heart but do what you must do at the moment. Do not try to reach what is beyond your grasp.”

“In the second stage, you’ll leave your hidden seclusion and enter the fish world. As a novice, don’t mind your low status or try to attach to the powerful elder fish. Carps who have tried jumping over the dragon gate will be your best teachers.”

“In the third stage, you should practice what you’ve learned in your life and work. Complete every petty task patiently and don’t play petty tricks. Try to maintain good relations with other fish and avoid unnecessary disputes. Remember, working hard will exempt you from blames even if some may mock your good performance.

“In the fourth stage, you can try jumping over smaller reefs. Pick smaller ones to start with and don’t be rash. As you perform the leaps, be careful of preying predators and other jealous fish. Keep a low profile when doing such exercises.”

“In the fifth stage, you can capitalize on winds and waves to jump over reefs as tall as the dragon gates. When you reach this stage, bravely join the flock swimming toward the dragon gate for the final test. Courage, confidence and strong wills will help you succeed.”

The carp is mesmerized, his heart filled with longing. “How I wish I can become the dragon that can fly to the farthest and highest. It will be a wonderful experience.”

“If a dragon flies too high or too fast, things will start working against him and he will soon regret having done so,” the dragon smiles.

“What should he do then?” the carp asks, startled.

“The real strength of the dragon race is that we live in groups without a ruling dragon. No matter how powerful each dragon may be, we do not seek to do others down. We coexist peacefully and cooperate to tide over difficult times. That’s why our race can always have fortune on our side.”

The dragon’s instruction illustrates the spirit of the qian hexagram. Life is a course. With the self-support spirit of the qian hexagram, we make unceasing efforts to move from one success toward another.

The self-support spirit highlights “now.” It asks us to be faithful to today’s work. When things go awry, there must be something wrong with the current conditions, and we must ask whether we’ve tried our best. But knowing what we are uncapable of does not mean we should force ourselves to solve it straight away. We ought not to wrestle with ourselves but instead see and do things in accordance with the natural tendency.

Many people feel stressed out upon words like “perseverance” and “diligence.” They wail, “Oh no, I’m not good enough so I’ve achieved nothing. I make little money but have so many troubles. My life is a mess!”

It is true that enormous agonies can rise from the wish to achieve the goal as soon as possible. It is, however, noteworthy that this phenomenon does not match the spirit of the qian hexagram. A man who sincerely wishes to become stronger will not feel distressed about failing at certain things. We should focus on striving and only repent when we have not tried our best. Meaningless pains will only weaken us and create complications in our pursuit of becoming a stronger and better person.

So the reason we advocate following the nature is to make it easier to succeed.

Another success philosophy implied by the hexagram is “not to control.” Trying to control will only expand our opposite side. Moreover, a man who has learned to respect his own life by focusing on self-improving will also respect the lives of others by not attempting to control them. This is the wisdom of a saint and a fountain of luck. A man who understands this will still be lucky even after his success allows him to look down upon everyone else.


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