The oldest source for the coin method

20140928_100256During the last meeting of the Dutch Yijing group there was confusion about the assignment of the numbers 2 (yin) and 3 (yang) to the sides of Chinese coins. Old Chinese coins have four Chinese characters on one side and the other side is blank or has two Mongolian characters. When I looked for Chinese sources on this I found that there isn’t much agreement on the designation of the numbers, one of my books says that the side with Chinese characters is yang (see picture), and in this lecture Shao Weihua seems to follow the same designation, but there are websites that say otherwise. Curious about the origin of the coin method and wanting to know how the Chinese people in the early times did it I did some digging.

Bent Nielsen says in his book Yi jing Numerology and Cosmology:


Nielsen says that the earliest reference to the coin method is to be found in the commentary of Jia Gongyan 賈公彥 (who lived around 650) to the Yili 儀禮 (儀禮疏). Wanting to know how Jia referred to it I looked in my digital version of the Yili, which incorporates the commentary of Jia Gongyan. I found the following passage:

今則用錢。以三少為重錢, 重錢則九也。三多為交錢,交錢則六也。兩多一少為單錢,單錢則七也。兩少一多為拆錢,拆錢則八也。

In this passage Jia uses the words shao 少, ‘few’ and duo 多, ‘much’ to name the two sides of a coin, but it isn’t clear what is what: is shao the side with the four Chinese characters or is it the other way around? My dictionaries don’t say anything about this either. But when I looked for the word danqian 單錢, which appears in Jia’s passage, the  Hanyu Da Cidian 漢語大詞典 dictionary was helpful:

古代錢筮法術語。謂擲三錢 而成二面一背,象徵少陽之爻。
Technical term from a coin divination method from antiquity. When you throw three coins and you receive two mian 面 and one bei 背 it is called like this. This symbolises a young yang-line.

‘Two mian 面 and one bei 背’. What is mian and what is bei? In this case the dictionaries also assume that this is common knowledge. The Hanyu Da Cidian says that bei is the reverse side of a coin (錢幣反面的專稱), well, that doesn’t help much. Fortunately Jack Chiu helps me out with his book The Secret of Wen-Wang Gua. He says:

Chinese people used to call the side with Chinese characters the Face or Mian 面, and the other side the Back or Bei 背.
(p. 82)

Concluding: the side with four Chinese characters (mian 面) is called duo 多 (probably because this side has ‘many’ Chinese characters?), and the other side (bei 背) is called shao 少 (because this side has no or few Chinese characters). Knowing this we can translate the passage by Jia Gongyan as follows:

bgibabia今則用錢。以三少為重錢,重錢則九也。三多為交錢,交錢則六也。兩多一少為單錢,單錢則七也。兩少一多為拆錢,拆錢則八 也。
Today coins are used. With 3 shao (= the blank side or with two Mongolian characters) one has chongqian, this is 9. With 3 duo (= the side with four Chinese characters) one has jiaoqian, this is 6. Two duo and one shao is danqian, this is 7. Two shao and one duo is chaiqian, this is 8.

If Nielsen is right, and if my sources are correct, then this would be the oldest reference to the coin method.

Hexagram 6, line 4

不克訟. 復即命渝.安貞: 吉.

不克訟: see line 2.

Fu 復: return

Jiming 即命: follow the royal decrees (遵從王命)

Yu 渝: In its ordinary meaning it means ‘change’, but I could not make this fit the pattern of the sentence and its context. This character also occurs at 16-6 and 17-1, and at these occurrences the MWD text uses yu 諭, ‘to tell, inform, explain, notify, instruct’ (from a superior to an inferior, most notably an imperial decree from the emperor to his subordinates – 舊指上對下的文告或指示。亦特指皇帝的詔令; 漢語大詞典, Vol. 11, p. 345). This fits the context of the line text.

安貞: 吉: see also hexagram 2.

At line two the subject loses the dispute and flees without following the orders of the king, thereby putting a death sentence on the people from his district. At line four he complies and by doing so saves the people from his district.

Cannot win the dispute. Returns with the accepted imperial decree and informs his subordinates.
Divination about peace: auspicious.

Hexagram 6, line 3

食舊德, 貞厲 終吉, 或從王事, 无成.

Shi 食: to ‘eat it’ – to speak about it but not putting it into practice (謂言已出而反吞之,不實行).

Jiude 舊德: the virtues and good deeds of the former kings and ancestors.

食舊德 therefore means to talk about the virtues of the ancestors but not putting them into practice. Without the proper conduct based on the teachings of the ancient ones the divination (zhen 貞) will be dangerous (li 厲). The outcome will be auspicious (ji 吉), but in royal assignments there will be no accomplishments (see also hexagram 2, line 3), as you do not have the full support of the forefathers .

Talking about old virtues but not practising them.
To divine will be dangerous.
In the end auspicious.
There is participation in royal affairs,
But no accomplishments.

Hexagram 6, line 2

不克訟.歸而逋其邑人. 三百戶.無眚.

Buke 不克: unable to win (the fight or battle – 不能戰勝)

Song 訟: dispute, lawsuit, accusation

Gui 歸: return, go back. Also loan for kui 愧, ‘ashamed’

Bu 逋: flee, run away

Yiren 邑人: the people from a fief, feud

Hu 戶: measure word for households

Sheng 眚: Same as sheng 省, cut down, reduce; mitigate (a punishment)

Cannot win the dispute. Returns and flees from the people from his fief. Three-hundred households will not be spared.

Hexagram 6, Judgement


About you fu 有孚 see here.

窒惕: Many assume that zhiti 窒惕 forms a fixed phrase, and I follow that same route although this is by no means an established fact – we do not find this phrase in other books so we don’t have any reassuring references for it. But this passage consists of several set phrases: 有孚, 中吉, 終凶, 利見大人 and 不利涉大川, which makes the possibility that zhiti is a fixed phrase very likely (Lu Deming 陸德明 suggests the text should be punctuated differently: as “有孚窒.” and “惕中吉.”). But we can only guess at its meaning. To make matters more complicated the variant texts all give other characters for this phrase:

MWD: 洫寧
GD: 懥6-0-GD
XP: 懫惕

Let us start with zhi 窒 and its variants. There is a common theme, some sort of overlap, in some of the meanings that these characters have. I have singled these out:

窒: perverse behaviour; disagreeable character (乖戾;執拗)

Zigong said, “Surely even the better person must have hatreds? Confucius said, “He has hatreds. He hates those who point out what is evil in others. He hates those who dwelling in low estate revile all who are above them. He hates those who love deeds of daring but neglect propriety. He hates those who are active and venturesome, but are violent in temper.

(Lunyu 論語, tr. Arthur Waley)

洫: ruin, corrupt (敗壞). Also a loan for yi 溢, ‘excessive, overdo, go beyond the normal limit’.

懥: anger, resent, hate (憤怒;憤恨)

When you are angry, you cannot be correct.
(Daxue 大學, tr. Charles Muller)

The Kangxi Zidian 康熙字典 says that 懫, which is used in the Xiping Stone Classics 熹平石經 version of the Yijing, is a variant of 懥.

The general idea that speaks to me here is that of outrage, going over the limit, undesired behaviour. This has to be 惕: ‘watched out for’, you have to be watchful and alert, but the anger also has to be ning 寧, ‘pacified, calm down’, as the MWD text puts it.

Although anger and outrage is to some extent justified it should not be taken to the limit, nor should it be used all the way.

There is blessing and protection.
To temper anger halfway is auspicious. At the end is inauspicious.
Advantageous to see the great man.
Not advantageous to wade through the great river.

Hexagram 5, line 5 & 6

line 5


Waiting with wine and food. The divination is auspicious.

line 6

入于穴. 有不速之客三人來敬之. 終吉.

Ru 入: in old texts often used with the meaning of ‘to accept’ (taxes, tribute or a gift; 古文字通假字典, p. 766-767). This meaning of ru is used in several bronze inscriptions, like the Song 頌 bronzes:

又膳夫山鼎、頌鼎、頌壺、頌毀有 “反入堇章” 語,即受冊命者 “返納瑾璋” 於王。
The shanfu 膳夫 Shan Ding, Song Ding, Song Hu and Song Gui have the phrase “he returned and accepted a jade tablet”, that is he who received the emperor’s order to confer titles of nobility on his relatives “returned and accepted a jade tablet” from the king.
(古文字通假字典, p. 767)

A shanfu served the king personally, “taking out and bringing in” royal commands for administrative or military purposes.
(Maria Khayutina, Studying the Private Sphere of the Ancient Chinese Nobility through the Inscriptions on Bronze Ritual Vessels, in Chinese Concepts of Privacy, p. 87)

The term for the jade scepter (…) refers not to just any jade ornament, but to one that symbolized the delegation of authority in the archaic period.
(David W. Pankenier, Caveat lector: comments on Douglas j. Keenan, ‘astro-historiographic chronologies of early china are unfounded’ in Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 10(2), 137-141 (2007) )

Edward Shaughnessy translates 反入堇章 as “he returned and brought in a jade tablet” (The Cambridge History of Ancient China, p. 299), but to my knowledge a jade scepter was given by a superior to its subject and not the other way around.

Bu su 不速: uninvited; unexpected.

Ke 客: distinguished guests .

Jing 敬: use gifts to show appreciation or pay respect (以禮物表示謝意或敬意).

Acceptance (of gifts) at the hole. There are three uninvited visitors coming to pay respect with this. In the end auspicious.

Hexagram 5, line 4


Xue 血: loan for xue 洫, the irrigation ditches between fields; a small water channel. (古代漢語通假字大字典, p. 769)

鄒漢勳 Zou Hanxun (1805 – 1854) also follows this hypothesis,  arguing that the fourth line is at the start of the upper trigram Water ☵ (see 古代漢語通假字大字典).

Chu zi 出自: ‘coming from, going out at':

The wife with the boy in her arms came forth from her room…
禮記 – Liji

The viands came forth from the room on the east…
春秋繁露 – Chun Qiu Fan Lu

O sun; O moon,
Which come forth from the east!
詩經 – Book of Poetry

I go out at the north gate…
詩經 – Book of Poetry

Xue 穴: water course, drain, originating with a hole in a hill or mountain. The Erya 爾雅 explains the word guiquan 氿泉, a spring coming out of a hillside, as:

A spring coming out from the side. Xuchu 穴出 means zechu 仄出, ‘coming out from the side’.
爾雅 – Er Ya

Waiting at the ditch coming forth from a hole (in the hillside).


Hexagram 5, line 2

需于沙. 小有言. 終吉.

Sha 沙: the sandy river shore. Lu Deming’s 陸德明 Jingdian Shiwen 經典釋文 says that Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 used zhi 沚, ‘islet’. 

The Shanghai Museum MSS has 5-2-1. The 古文字通假字典 says that 5-2-2 is a known variant of 沙 in bronze inscriptions and in the Baoshan texts (p. 508; see also 包山楚簡文字編, p. 141), so 5-2-1 is most likely a variant of 沙. The 土 component indicates the earth aspect of the meaning.

小有言: see this article.

Waiting at the river shore.
The common people will have criticism.
In the end auspicious.