革 -Of the character 'ge', the Yiijing, ancient military texts and moral concepts

This is the sequel to an earlier post on 'gaige kaifang', in which I start to examine 'gaige kaifang' by focussing on the character 革 (ge).

My choice to begin the analysis of a concept  from a single character was inspired by various earlier discussions, ranging from attempts to find possible, different interpretations of on-going trends in Chinese law, to more abstract discussions about the 'friend/enemy divide', attempts to construct an effective reading technique for Chinese texts, and so on. 

It may be argued that 'gaige kaifang', as a concept, is outdated because it is not at the centre of current policy debates, and therefore plays a largely rhetorical, or else a ceremonial function. Ceremonies and rituals, whether they be political ceremonies and rituals or ceremonies and rituals of the civil variety, however, play a lasting and important role in marking the passage through different stages of an organization, and in shaping its identity.

In this post I am focussing on the literal meaning of 革, to avoid constructing an individual interpretation, and then projecting it onto one of the fundamental (and overlooked) structures of Chinese political and legal thought. While examining ge within composites such as geming 革命 is a possibility, I believe that such an examination would separate 革 from the context of gaige kaifang, reform and opening up. 

If concepts are embodied in symbols - physical objects functioning as receptacles of the meaning(s) infused on them, and if values and structures of thought are performed - in the sense that they are expressed through the everyday actions and behaviors of those who abide by those values and move within those structures of thought, then gaige kaifang is one of the most important concepts that have shaped China into what China is today.

Burberry store in Beijing.
Image courtesy Reuters

As opposed to what China used to be in the past

Food Coupon - Cooking oil.
Image courtesy of

...and 革 ge is the core of reform and opening up. As I wrote earlier,   革 ge belongs to Chinese tradition. While characters that in the XIX Century were used to construct new words in the political and legal vocabulary were infused with new meaning, ge did not undergo the same process of reinterpretation. The Mathew's Dictionary, the standard Chinese dictionary generations of Western scholars have used to learn the meaning of Chinese characters, gives the following translations for 'ge': 

(i) a hide deprived of its hair
(ii) human skin
(iii) the wings of a bird
(iv) to remove 

Modern language dictionaries list two main meanings for the same character:

(i) change
(ii) removing/removal/to remove

Ge appears in a variety of classical texts, ranging from the Book of Changes, to texts attributed to the School of Military Thought (bingfajia). In the Commentary to the Figures (象) to the Book of Changes, one of the five canonical texts which originated before China's unification in 221 B.C., ge is appended to the figure of hexagram 49, and glossed as follows:

The Commentary to the Figure says: Ge, water and fire extinguish each other, two women live under the same roof, but their wills are at odds. It is said: ge. 
[translation mine, comments and corrections welcome]

James Legge gave the following explanation of ge:

The character called Ko or Keh it is used here in the sense of changing. Originally used for the skin of an animal or a bird, alive or dead, it received the significance of changing at a very early time. Its earliest appearance, indeed, in the first Book of the Shu, is in that sense. How the transition was made from the idea of a skin or hide to that of change is a subject that need not be entered on here. The author had before him the subject of changes occurred - called for - in the state of the country; it may be on the greatest scale. The necessity of them is recognized, and hints are given as to the spirit and manner in which they should be brought about. [here, at page 168]

This explanation seems to be coherent with how ge was used in other classical texts. Ge appears in the Art of War, in the Wuzi, and elsewhere in the seven canonical military texts of ancient China, always with the meaning of 'hide'. In ancient China, war chariots were protected by leather, and soldier armors were made of leather, therefore. Therefore, the word ge/leather came to designate chariots and armors, and was used to refer to soldiers and to armies. It is in this second sense that ge can be found in all military texts. In other texts, as the Li Ji, Tang Gong I, ge designated the hides of a water buffalo, or the hides of animals. 

How "the transition was made from the idea of hide to that of change" could be a matter of common sense. Ge designates a very concrete object - the skin of an animal, specifically the skin of hairy, furry or feathery animals. Once such a skin is processed, by removing the air, fur or feathers, the membrane that is on the inside, and by tanning it, the skin turns into leather. Turning a skin into leather involves changing the skin by substantially altering its texture, color, and feeling. There exists a visible difference between the animal hide, and the end product. Those who used ge in their writings to refer not to war chariots and armors but to change, were familiar with the sight of animal skin, the process of turning them into leather, and the resulting change.

Ge is used to designate change in various texts, as the Han Dynasty's Fa Yan:  
Someone asked: is it the Dao to follow tradition or not? Yangzi said: if tradition is appropriate, then follow it. If not, then change it. 
 the Lun Heng:

In case the nature of creatures could be changed (变), it ought to be possible that metal, wood, water, and fire were also altered (革)
the Book of Lord Shang:

(...) therefore, if the law is fixed, and not altered (), then (...)
and other texts I am not examining here. The continuity in meaning from the Lun Heng to contemporary usages of ge in compounds as gaige / reform - which conveys the idea of changing old ways to make room for new ones - is striking.

There is one substantial difference between ge and other words and concepts I have referred to in earlier posts, as well as in a soon to be published volume on the concept of Justice. Most of the words that compose the vocabulary of law, and politics, in China possess a moral connotation. This is the case of words as 'superior man' (君子), 'commoner' (小人), the words used to convey different aspects and conceptions of justice, as well as those referring to the absence of justice - as 冤. Each one of these words expresses a moral concept.

A partial exception may be the word yi 义 justice-righteousness. In its ancient version yi represents the head of a sheep above a hand holding a spear.   The most immediate allusion may be to the practice of making sacrificial offerings to heaven and earth, the spirits of the land, of grains etc - a religious connotation. 

Ge is devoid of moral or religious connotations because it designates an object, which is processed and altered to produce something different, such as clothes for the emperor, protections for war chariots, or for foot soldiers. Ge does not only designate these objects, but also the process of change that produced them. To the ancient peoples,  skinning an animal and tanning its skin were beyond any moral judgment - activities needed to go safely into battle, and to wear the appropriate clothes in winter. More than to morality or religion, ge may be connected to notions of necessity...[to be continued]

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