Probably the most cryptic lines of the 周易 Book of Changes, it reads:


yuan2 heng1 li4 zhen1

This is the Judgement to the very first hexagram, 乾卦 The Creative. The same characters also appear under other hexagrams, in different contexts (but in the same order).

#4. 蒙卦:亨。[...]。利贞。

#18. 蛊卦:元亨,利涉在川。[...]

#49. 革卦:[...],元亨,利贞

and more...

Since this phrase appears at the beginning of the text, it looks like a tone-setting introduction, which is then echoed by other parts of the text, an invisible thread running through the chapters of the book.

One of the most famous translations, by the German scholar and sinologist Richard Wilhelm is:

"[The Creative] works sublime success. Furthering through perseverance."

The reason I'm not fully content with Wilhelm's translation is that:

  1. We actually read a translation of the translation. Wilhelm used to write in German.
  2. There is disagreement about how to split the phrase (i.e. where to place punctuation), and there are commenters, like Kerson Huang, who offer wildly different interpretations.

I would like to gather more points of view, also from (past or contemporary) Chinese scholars, whose works are rarely published in the West.

1 Answer 1


As with many ancient texts, this line can not only have different meanings, but also there have been different reasons for people to interpret it differently throughout history. Therefore, it is probably not helpful to say one translation is "correct" and another is "incorrect" but rather just understand that there have been multiple variations of understandings of this line throughout the past.

I did find this paper by 杨 平 Yang Ping from Zhejiang Foreign Language University that discusses different ways this line can be interpreted in Chinese, as well as translations that have been used in the past. In the beginning, the author talks a bit about how the use of punctuation could alter the meaning of this phrase significantly, but then they go on to explain more explicitly different ways this line could be understood.

This author suggests that there are three major ways this phrase has been understood by Chinese scholars and English translations have also followed these three major lines of thinking for understanding by emphasizing divination, morals, or philosophy.

Divination Translation

Those that emphasize divination say that since the ZhouYi is mostly used for divination, the word "zhen" refers to the character that denotes oracle bone readings and offerings and translate it accordingly. English translations like this include

  • Redmond: "Qian Heaven(The Creative)begins with an offering; beneficial to divine."
  • Shaughnessy: who translated "元亨" as original receipt and "利贞" as beneficial to divine
  • Rutt "Supreme offering. Divination Favourable."

Moral Translation

Around the Spring and Autumn period, people became more interested in moral ethics and philosophy and these four characters became the basis for what is known as the "four virtues." The earliest evidence of a moral interpretation like this is in the Zuo Zhuan. Examples that use this interpretation include:

  • Legge "Khien (represents)what is great and originating, penetrating, advantageous, correct and firm"
  • Wilhelm "The creative works sublime success/furthering through perseverance" *Lynn "Fundamentality, prevalence, fitness and constancy"
    *Lee "What is great and originating,” “What is penetrating,” “What is advantageous,” “What is correct and firm."

Philosophic Translation

A more modern scholar, Cheng Zhongying has argued that this is not just a book of divination, but rather a book of Chinese philosophy promoting a way of life. As such, he has translated these four characters as "creation,prospering,facilitating,preserving." This adaptation has also been accepted into English translations in the following:

  • Minford "Supreme Fortune.Profitable.Steadfast" in one place, and "Supreme Fortune.Sacrifice Received.Profitable Augury" later in the book.
  • 1
    I wish I could upvote this more than once. Excellent write-up, and very interesting paper by Dr. 杨平, thank you, you made my day
    – blackgreen
    Jun 30, 2020 at 20:16

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