In some of the line descriptions in the Wilhelm-Baynes translation an open circle or square appears. These are considered to be ruling lines. The constituting ruler (square) is supposed to convey the essential idea of the hexagram, irrespective of whether that line depicts mean-spirited people or a disagreeable situation; whereas the governing ruler (circle) will always portray noble action or auspicious events (at least in theory, hexagram 47/5 doesn't seem a particularly pleasant situation). If the constituting and governing rulers are the same, just a circle appears.
Both types of hexagram ruler (guazhu) are essentially an interpretation and quick guide, and the system of rulers depicted in Wilhelm-Baynes is not the only one although it is the only one I will deal with here. The constituting ruler doesn't have a great deal of practical use, although it is sometimes interesting to see how it differs from the governing ruler, hexagram 12 being a good example of this, the constituting and governing rulers giving different ways of looking at the same situation. In hexagram 10 the constituting ruler, the third line, is the one in which the tiger bites the man – the worst consequence of treading on the tiger's tail – the man escaping being bitten in the judgment.
All ruling lines are developments from the judgment, as indeed are all the lines, but as the decision on which line is a ruler is an interpretation there is room for disagreement. For instance, in hexagram 48 the fifth line is rightly in my opinion the governing ruler, but why is the second line not the constituting ruler, given the emphasis in the judgment on the importance of making sure the jug does not break?
That said, the ruling lines are mostly well-chosen as represented in Wilhelm-Baynes and certainly over the years I have found (and continue to find) the governing ruler (circle) useful when receiving an unchanging hexagram, reading this line, uppermost if there are two, as if it were a changing line. When you receive a governing ruler as a sole changing line, or most emphasised, it indicates you have mastery of the situation (to determine where emphasis should be placed, see How to interpret changing lines). If you receive changing lines that do not include ruling lines the rulers are not relevant and are not read.
Let me 'explain' by showing you a few things to notice.
Notice that governing rulers are often in the second or fifth position (the second and fifth lines are at the centre of the lower and upper trigrams), unless it is a hexagram such as 15, which has five yin lines and one yang line, and, as you might expect, the yang line in that case, in the third position, is the governing ruler, just as the fourth is in hexagram 16, the fifth in hexagram 8, the top line in hexagram 23, and the bottom line in hexagram 24. In all five of these hexagrams with a single yang line and five yin the yang line is the sole ruling line. But now notice that in hexagram 7, which has its single yang line in the lower trigram in the second place, there are two rulers, one obviously in the second place, but also one in the fifth place.
The various lines are associated with offices, such as the minister in the fourth position and the prince in the fifth. You'll notice that a lot of auspicious oracles occur in the fifth line; the fifth line in 51 out of the 64 hexagrams is a governing ruler. Third lines, by contrast, often contain ominous oracles, and are very rarely ruling lines. Hexagram 15, where the third line is the sole yang line among five yin lines, is the only hexagram where the third line is the governing ruler and one of the few hexagrams where all of the lines contain good oracles. The third line is a constituting ruler only in hexagrams 10, 41, 54, 58, and 61.
Bearing in mind the prevalence of ruling lines in the middle of upper and lower trigrams, and 'the one ruling the many' when there is a single yang line and five yin lines, you have a couple of good rules of thumb for examining the structure of the hexagrams in terms of yin and yang lines in relation to where the declared ruling lines fall, and thus understand something of this manner of looking. But let's expand it with some more observations. For example, hexagrams 9, 10, 33 (but not 34), 43, 44, 57, and 58 have an interesting self-explanatory pattern of constituting rulers (square), namely they are the yin lines, while other lines govern. This gives hexagram 58 four ruling lines, the maximum number; hexagram 42 also has four. (Hexagram 61 should have four rulers as well, the second line should be marked as a governing ruler as well as the fifth in Wilhelm-Baynes but the circle has been omitted. The ruling lines in Wilhelm-Baynes follow Li Guangdi [1642–1718]. It seems likely to be a typographical error rather than Wilhelm departing from source according to his own interpretation, given the great favourableness of the second line.)
It is clearly possible to make a good guess as to which are the ruling lines on being presented with any hexagram figure. So does this mean that the rulers are decided solely on structure without taking the text into account? Or does the flavour of the text actually coincide with structurally-determined rulers? In most cases, the latter seems to be true, which implies that the original allocation of the text to certain lines probably took into account, at least to some extent, the structure of the six-line figure. This means that the later-developed concept of ruling lines could be seen as formalising something inherent in the marriage of the hexagram figure and its text, and that the play of broken and unbroken lines was suggestive of meaning from the earliest times. (The technical terms for these lines in the Tuanzhuan are not yin and yang but 'yielding' [rou] and 'firm' [gang], sometimes translated as 'soft' and 'hard'.) A perceived prevalence of auspicious texts in second and fifth positions, however, is not particularly suggestive of trigrams existing from the beginning. All the evidence suggests trigrams were developed later than hexagrams, appearing first in the Warring States period, and the story that King Wen 'combined the trigrams' came even later, from Sima Qian (145–86 BCE).
Notice now what happens in a hexagram with five yang lines and one yin line. The yin line is a ruler, though in four cases it is the constituting ruler and in only one case is it a lone governing ruler (whereas in the six hexagrams with five yin lines and a single yang line, five of the six have just that yang line as sole governing ruler). Note the pattern in hexagram 13. The second place, being the only yin among five yang lines, is the obvious governing ruler, but there is a second governing ruler in the middle of the upper trigram as well, in the fifth place. This pattern is seen also in hexagram 7 (the complement of hexagram 13), where the only yang line, in the second place, is governing ruler but there is an additional one in the fifth place. Contrast this with hexagram 14, the inverse of hexagram 13, which has its only yin line in the fifth place. This line is governing ruler and no other, suggesting that its presence in the upper trigram is sufficiently balanced. The same is seen in hexagram 8 (complement of 14), where the lone yang line in the fifth place is the sole governing ruler.
Clearly the idea of 'the one ruling the many', which holds well when the one is yang and the many are yin, needs a little back-up when the one is yin (except when the single yin is in the fifth place, which shows that this position has inherent strength).
Now look at hexagrams 1 and 2, 29 and 30, 51 and 52, 57 and 58. In these hexagram pairs upper and lower trigrams are the same. Except for the 57 and 58 pair, the patterns are self-evident. Symmetry might suggest that either the second line of hexagram 57 should be a governing ruler, or the fifth line of hexagram 58 shouldn't be. Personally, I think it would be a better balanced pair in the latter case. There really is no sound reason for making 58/5 a governing ruler and I myself would strike that one out as a poor choice on Li Guangdi's part. It is quite clear this hexagram is governed by the second line alone.
Remember that change moves upwards in a hexagram just as the hexagram itself is built from the bottom upwards, such that the more developed situation will appear above a less developed situation, which may have some bearing on why the fifth line is governing ruler much of the time. Though the second line is also central in its trigram it is less developed; one cannot rule the many so well from here as from the fifth position (again, look at hexagrams 7 and 8, 13 and 14). The top line is rarely a governing ruler, this place is often seen as going too far and so will often be an inauspicious line, though it is always auspicious when it is a governor, namely in hexagrams 20, 22, 23, 26, 27, 50, and 52, for fairly obvious reasons looking at the structure. Sometimes the top line can be sublime, such as in hexagram 18.
As for the origin of the concept of ruling lines, Wilhelm-Baynes gives the impression that it comes from the Tuanzhuan ('Commentary on the Decision', a text in two parts comprised of the first two of the 'Ten Wings'):
'The ruler of the hexagram can always be determined from the Commentary on the Decision.'
– Wilhelm-Baynes (3rd edition), p 364
In fact the Tuanzhuan doesn't mention any individual lines and the ruler(s) of the hexagram certainly cannot be determined by consulting this text, although it appears from his own commentary in Book III that Wilhelm had persuaded himself this was possible, indulging in some rather tortuous explanations. Only in hexagrams 5 and 25 does Wilhelm's 'Commentary on the Decision' even mention rulers and in the first case on p 411 the reference to 'ruling line' is an interpretation without basis in the original text and in the second case on p 510 the reference to 'the ruler within' is vague in meaning.
Though ruling lines sound complicated when described as above, the general principles are soon absorbed and one starts to look at hexagram figures with an intuitive sense of the interplay of the lines. This perhaps was the main purpose in developing this line of thought, to train the mind to see the dynamics of the lines rather than to lay down a set of definitive hierarchical relationships.
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