The Power of the Dragon’s Yang and the Tiger’s Yin

The dragon and the tiger in the Book of Changes


The dragon is a powerfully yang creature, while the tiger, despite connotations of strength associated with yang, is regarded as a very yin creature. In fact the belief that the tiger is extremely yin is responsible for it being hunted almost to the point of extinction, because in China yin blood diseases were thought to be treatable by powdered tiger bone. Probably it is the wiliness and stealth of the tiger that made it yin, or the fact that the White Tiger constellation in the west is opposite the Azure Dragon constellation in the east. The dragon and the tiger have always been traditional enemies.

The dragon and the tiger feature strongly in the I Ching, but they signify very different approaches to change. These two particular pathways I refer to as 'the ascent of the dragon lines' and 'changing like a tiger', concentrating in the former case on hexagram 1, 'The Creative', and, in the latter, on hexagram 49, 'Revolution'.

Each hexagram consists of six lines that are written upwards from the bottom line to the top in response to the tossing of three coins six times or more complex manipulations with yarrow stalks. The fact that the hexagram is constructed upwards contains within it an idea that many students of the oracle don't immediately tend to notice, that change moves upwards in the hexagram line texts too. In other words, when the hexagram deals with a single piece of concrete imagery, the second line shows a more developed stage of the change depicted than the bottom line, and as we go upwards through the lines we see a progression of the change, such that the fifth line is often the best possible manifestation of the change, while the top line frequently overbalances and becomes the point of reversion of the change.

Hexagram 1 consists of six solid yang lines, it is the most yang hexagram. The bottom line shows the dragon in winter, hibernating at the bottom of its pool in the mountains. The Chinese of this line actually reads 'Submerged dragon', though it is most often translated as a 'Hidden dragon'. This immediately calls up a connection to the tiger in the title of the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The hidden dragon there does in fact originally come from the first line of hexagram 1. The phrase 'hidden dragon' later came to mean an Emperor-in-waiting, but in general it is someone of great ability who hasn't yet been recognised. This implies that they can make use of their obscurity to be usefully underestimated, in martial-arts terms. In the first line of hexagram 1 it means a person biding their time, because the conditions are not yet right for emergence. The dragon is still in hibernation, and he is also not yet needed.

The function of the dragon from the earliest times was to bring rain for the spring crops. When he leaves his mountain pool he heads straight for the clouds, is immediately engulfed, and then the dark brooding cloud effectively becomes the cloak of the dragon. The dragon in China is a benevolent creature, a water dragon, flying without wings. By the principle of 'like attracts like', or harmonic resonance as it is termed in Chinese texts, 'Clouds follow the dragon, winds follow the tiger'.

One of the cloud-followed dragons from The Nine Dragons handscroll, painted by the artist Chen Rong in 1244 CE (located in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, USA).


There is a wonderful story from the Song Dynasty of early experimenters hoping to conjure up a storm by rowing out to the middle of a lake and dropping in a tiger bone to anger the dragon. They fortunately took the precaution of tying the bone onto a length of rope but all the same they could not haul it up fast enough to prevent the government buildings from being severely damaged in the instantaneous typhoon they whipped up on an otherwise sunny day.

This story illustrates how the Chinese have traditionally 'aroused the dragon' from its winter hibernation. It is actually through a ritualised act of sympathetic magic. After the crops have been sown, and coming spring days are perhaps more parched than one would like, villagers waited until darkish clouds naturally appeared on the horizon, which they took as a sign. Then they would go up into the mountains to the local 'dragon pool', a tucked-away tarn shrouded in mist, and they would chuck into the water all manner of things the dragon was thought to loathe and detest, such as lumps of iron, which stung its eyes, and, in some reports, 'the shoes of an old woman'. They would lay out a sacrificial feast for the dragon to allay the anger they had aroused in him, but now he was up from his winter sleep he would come thundering out of the water and into the dark clouds, which seemed to cling tight around him drawing in others from afar.

There are reports of people seeing a claw of the dragon or the tip of its tail sticking out of a storm cloud, because generally the dragon rose up so fast no-one could see him except those who were drunk. The second line of hexagram 1 is 'seeing a dragon in the field', probably the first sighting of storm clouds, whereas by the fourth line the dragon is 'leaping up from the depths'. And in the fifth line, we have a 'flying dragon in the sky'. This is a powerful line in the I Ching, just as is 'changing like a tiger' in the fifth line of hexagram 49. They are both pre-eminent positions of power and influence, yet of subtly different types.

The career path of a person rising from lowliness to power and influence can be mapped directly onto the rising lines of hexagram 1. By the fifth line, we have someone who has 'arrived'. Once they were a hidden dragon, but, confident in their ability, they let nothing put them off their goal in life and gradually they rose, the final stage between leaving the water and entering the clouds probably coming quickly, the kind of instant success that rarely takes into account the hard slog to get there. In the human world it would take at least a decade to 'ascend the dragon lines'.

The final sixth line of hexagram 1 is a dragon who tries to fly too high, who becomes haughty in power and his downfall is only a matter of time, commonly translated as the 'arrogant dragon'. Not a foregone conclusion, if one leaves hexagram 1 via the fifth line, the 'flying dragon', one gets to hexagram 14, 'Great possession'. Reversion inhering in the top line is avoided, power is consolidated, by a certain modesty in power that comes across as 'character'. Power can be sustained at its heights by a little deliberate lowering of oneself even when a flying dragon, rather than getting carried away on the upward surge as with the arrogant dragon. It is the difference between earning a long-term reputation as a person of standing and talent (flying dragon), in contrast to the sudden rise and fall of mediocrities enjoying 'celebrity' (arrogant dragon).

Now let us look at how one 'changes like a tiger'. The immediate difference here is that the change is not outward but inward, it is a camouflaged change that may suddenly come upon a person, without any 'ascent' necessarily being evident, as it always is with the dragon. We see the dragon's rise, it is only hidden from us for a certain time, the moment it begins to move we see it, it appears in weather omens, it forms a whirlpool from the depths, it soars like a rocket (the Chinese supersonic anti-ship FL-7 missile is the Feilong or 'Flying dragon'). But the tiger remains hidden until the very last moment, when it pounces on its prey. The fourth line of hexagram 27 pictures an earlier stage of the tiger's path: 'A tiger is watching – glaring, glaring. It is longing – pursue, pursue.' This line addresses an immense build-up of energy that hasn't found its outlet yet. One holds onto it, glaring like a tiger stalking its prey. Holding back awaiting the right moment is part of its skill. It is knowing one's power, but not being able to make a move yet. A 'crouching tiger' is a good strategic position.

Hexagram 10, 'Treading', is about treading on a tiger's tail, which may or may not bite the clumsy person. The only person who does get bitten, in the third line (a single yin line surrounded by five yang lines), is both blind and lame, hampered. Hexagram 10 arises from a change in the third line of hexagram 1, where the dragon (in the form of a man) is cautiously getting ready to soar. By following the moving line we can deduce that his caution is to avoid treading on the tiger's tail.

It is in the fifth line of hexagram 49, 'Revolution', where we see the true power of the tiger, the full manifestation of the tiger's yin as the 'flying dragon' is the full power of the dragon's yang. Hexagram 49 depicts a full-scale revolution, which in China is regarded as 'changing the mandate of heaven'. The nationalist revolution of 1911, which finished off the Qing Dynasty and with it Imperial China, was rather boldly called 'ending the mandate of heaven'.

In hexagram 49 the change as one rises up the lines begins with talk of revolution, at first just gossip and wishes. No-one can afford to commit themselves to change on that scale on the strength of mere words. They need a human leader to emerge. The call for revolution grows stronger, the leader has not emerged but people feel safer voicing their objection to the current regime, as it feels like a growing current. Then, in the fifth line, the tiger appears. This is a person who suddenly outwardly appears from nowhere with an incredibly strong action, drawing the winds or scatterblown peoples all about him in support. It is entirely an inner change that has permitted this. This person has 'changed like a tiger', much as did King Wu when he attacked and brought down the tyrannical Shang dynasty. The man who stopped the column of tanks on Beijing's Chang'an Boulevard (Avenue of Eternal Peace) near Tiananmen Square on June 5 1989 is a good example of a person who 'changed like a tiger', squaring off to the full force of state yang while still holding his shopping.

These are the two great power pathways in the I Ching, the yin way and the yang way, the tiger way and the dragon way. For some, the dragon may stay hidden all their lives only to rise and fly after their death, as with an overlooked writer or artist who nonetheless remains convinced of their own calling. And those who change like a tiger may do so in the privacy of their own room, understanding something at last of life. Sudden enlightenment after years of meditation can also be changing like a tiger.

Luigi Scapini's metal tiger.


A note on the terms yin and yang

These days solid and broken hexagram lines are referred to as being yang and yin lines, but when the I Ching was first set down, in about the eleventh century BCE, the philosophy of yin and yang hadn't yet come into existence. That came along around the fourth century BCE. Even in the Daodejing yin and yang appear only once (in chapter 42). The earliest way of referring to solid and broken lines is to call them gang, meaning 'firm' or 'hard', and rou, 'yielding' or 'soft', respectively.

[First published in 'Kindred Spirit' 104 (May/June 2010), pp 62–64.]