Wisdom of the East

I have a text file of Part I of the Wilhelm/Baynes I Ching on my laptop, for when I want to throw the coins for the Yijing (which is pinyin for I Ching) on the go. The section for each hexagram starts with the name of the hexagram in Chinese, followed by the English translation that Wilhelm and Baynes gave it. The file for thunder over heaven, for example, begins

34. Ta Chuang / The Power of the Great

So I’m doing the preliminary work on a possible new project, another opera adaptation. I’m having some trouble seeing how to adapt a number about halfway through the first act to my purposes, and so I thought I’d throw the coins this morning to see if it might lead to some ideas. I threw heaven over water, and the file for that hexagram begins

6. Sung / Conflict

Not a very helpful reading (I mean, what did the Yijing think I was going to put in the scene, five minutes of group hug?), but you won’t find a much better description of what makes for a good opera than sung conflict.

Later: A few lines from the oracle for the one moving line in the hexagram were actually uncannily relevant, though in terms of describing the scene in the originally rather than helping me find the drama in it for my version:

Nine in the second place means:
One cannot engage in conflict;
One returns home, gives way.
The people of his [her] town,
Three hundred households,
Remain free of guilt.

The scene in question, in the original libretto at least, does in fact hinge precisely on whether the central character will go somewhere, and she does in fact give way and remain at home, so it’s neatly appropriate. The Chinese third person pronoun is neutral in gender and can mean he, she, or it, so the last sentence could refer to a woman as easily as a man. (Nowadays the three words are written with three different characters, but that’s a 20th-century reform.) Here’s Wilhelm’s commentary:

In a struggle with an enemy of superior strength, retreat is no disgrace. Timely withdrawal prevents bad consequences. If, out of a false sense of honor, a man allowed himself to be tempted into an unequal conflict, he would be drawing down disaster upon himself. In such a case a wise and conciliatory attitude benefits the whole community, which will then not be drawn into the conflict.

This is a fair description of the situation in the original libretto, but in my version of the story, as it’s unfolding, I think I want to flip it around so that the central character insists on staying at home even though the people around her are trying to persuade her to go someplace with them. That seems to be what has to happen in order to make the characterization and the situation work as I’ve been sketching it out so far, but I haven’t found a way to make it quite work in this scene.

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