I Ching Pandemic Edition: Hexagram 13 – Seeking Harmony

by Bob Schwartz

An ancient Chinese maxim says, “People in the same boat help each other, sharing weal and woe.”

I have been regularly consulting the I Ching during these strange days. The I Ching embodies the wisdom of thousands of years, from a civilization that has seen it all. Bright days and dark, order and chaos, wise men and fools, humility and arrogance, life and death. They have learned that we do not escape the truth of everything changes.

This is what the I Ching says today.

The Complete I Ching: The Definitive Translation by Taoist Master Alfred Huang




Wilhelm translates Tong Ren as Fellowship with Men, and Blofeld translates it as Lovers, Beloved, Friends, Like-Minded Persons, Universal Brotherhood. In Chinese, tong means similar, alike, the same. Ren means person or people. When the two characters are put together as a unit, it means to treat people alike. In ancient China, tong ren also meant people with the same interests. Herein, Tong Ren is translated as Seeking Harmony. It has the connotation of forming alliances. To break through a tough situation, people need to work together in harmony, as in an alliance.

The ideograph of the first character, tong, consists of three parts. The first part looks like an upright rectangle without the bottom line, symbolizing a door frame or a house. Within the house, there is a single horizontal stroke representing the number one. Underneath this is a little square symbolizing a mouth. In ancient China, people were counted by mouths. For instance, if someone wanted to know how many people there were in your family, they would ask “How many mouths are there in your family?” The three parts of the ideograph come together to depict a group of people gathered together as a single unit. Here, the mouth indicates that they are thinking or speaking as one. The Chinese can feel the harmony in the group. The ideograph of the second character, ren, suggests a person standing.

SEQUENCE OF THE GUA: Events cannot remain hindered; thus, after Hindrance, Seeking Harmony follows.

The image of this gua is Heaven above, Fire below. Heaven suggests ascension. The flame of fire moves upward. Fire approaching Heaven gives an image of people with the same interests working together in harmony. There is only one yielding line, at the second place. The ancient sage saw this as a picture of harmony; the one at the second place treated the other five elements at different places equally, with the same attitude. An ancient Chinese maxim says, “People in the same boat help each other, sharing weal and woe.”

According to the I Ching, however, there is no absolute sameness. The ancient sages passed on the secret of obtaining harmony, that is, seeking common ground on major issues while reserving differences on minor ones. Tong Ren teaches that the wise classify people according to their natures, not for the purpose of treating them differently, but to seek common ground. If there is common ground, each one is able to act in harmony with the others. The ancient Chinese dreamed day and night that the world would belong to the majority and the government would serve the common interest of its countrymen. This is Seeking Harmony.


Seeking harmony among people,
Prosperous and smooth.
Favorable to cross great rivers.
Favorable for the superior person
To be steadfast and upright.


Seeking Harmony.
The yielding obtains the proper place.
It is central
And corresponds with Qian, the Initiating.
This is Seeking Harmony.

Seeking Harmony says:
Seeking harmony among people.
Prosperous and smooth.
Favorable to cross great rivers.
It is because Qian, the Initiating,
Is progressing and advancing.

Brilliance with strength,
Central and corresponding.
This is the correct way for the superior person.
Only the superior person is able
To convey the wills of all under Heaven.


Heaven with Fire.
An image of Seeking Harmony.
In correspondence with this,
The superior person makes classifications of people
According to their natures
And makes distinctions of things
In terms of their categories.


The Decision says, “Seeking harmony among people.” This is the main theme of the gua. Seeking harmony should be done with absolute unselfishness and among the majority. This was the ancient lofty ideal of a world of harmony. Seeking harmony among people, in Chinese, is tong ren yü ye. Tong ren means seeking harmony. Yü means at, in, or among. And ye is the place beyond the suburbs. Thus, most English translations give ye as “the open.” However, ye also means the folk or the people, as contrasted with the government. Considering the theme of this gua, it is more suitable to employ people for ye. In this way, it brings more sense to the Decision: “Seeking harmony among people. Prosperous and smooth.”

The outer gua is Qian (Heaven), symbolizing firmness and strength. With this quality, it is favorable for a person to cross great rivers, to overcome difficulties. The inner gua is Li (Fire), symbolizing a quality of inner brightness. In this situation, the host is the yielding line at the second place. It plays a leading role. It is a yin element at a yin place, central and correct. Thus, Confucius’s Commentary on the Decision explains that the yielding obtains the proper place and corresponds with Qian. This yin line in the center of the lower gua indicates that one at this place possesses a high morality and is gentle and sincere, humble and modest, and willing to seek harmony with other people. It corresponds to the solid line at the fifth place, which is also central and correct. These two lines symbolize an ideal condition where the time is auspicious, the situation is favorable, and the people are in harmony. This ideal situation results from the circumstance of overcoming hindrance.

Tong Ren reveals the truth that if people deal with each other in a spirit of equality, then peace and advancement are possible. Otherwise, there will be conflict and obstruction. The first three lines of this gua represent the fact that from sameness differences originate. The next three lines tell us that sameness derives from differences. Thus, at the fifth line, people are at first weeping and full of regret and then laughing to celebrate the victory. In ancient times, people called the piping time of peace the Great Harmony.

This gua symbolizes the historical incident in which King Wen formed alliances with neighboring clans to battle the rebellious Rong clan. King Wen proclaimed that seeking harmony with people of other clans would be prosperous and smooth. The Duke of Zhou recounts how there was no hindrance in seeking alliances with different clans, yet seeking alliances exclusively within his own clan caused isolation and brought about unfavorable results. At the very beginning, the alliance took defensive action by placing troops on a high hill and hiding fighters in the bushes. For three years there was no trouble. Later, the alliance besieged Rong’s city walls. After great struggles it was victorious. What began with weeping ended with laughing. At last, the alliance gathered in Zhou’s countryside. There was no regret about the struggles that resulted in success.