In daily life, we often use the phrase “七上八下”（qī shàng bā xià, literally “seven up, eight down”) to describe the feeling of “being agitated”. “我的心七上八下的” (wǒ de xīn qī shàng bā xià de) for instance means “I’m in an unsettled state of mind.” However, most do not know where this saying comes from and why it, of all numbers, uses “seven” and “eight”. In order to answer this question, we need to trace it back to its origins.
Believe or not, the usage of the idiom stems from I Ching, “the Book of Changes”, one of the oldest Chinese classic texts. When thinking of the I Ching, some Chinese consider it a book of divination. At the time that King Wen of the Zhou Kingdom (周文王) wrote the Gua Ci (卦辞, commentary on the Hexagrams), he was imprisoned. In order to avoid the further prosecution by the last king of the Shang Dynasty, King Zhou (商纣王), King Wen had to use divination words as a cover, resulting in the wonderful wisdom book I Ching seeming mystical and hard to understand. However, once you uncover its veil, you will find that it’s very interesting and not that complex at all.
The phrase “七上八下” is also related to the theory of Yin and Yang, and if you understand why we use this idiom, you can consequently understand Yin and Yang.
First of all, let us take three coins to play a game. When we toss all of them, there will be four possible combinations. We assign the value “3” to each “head” we get, and “2” to each “tail”. The total will be six, seven, eight and nine. If all coins show “heads”, that makes 3+3+3=9; two heads and one tail would be 3+3+2=8; one head and two tails will result in 3+2+2=7, and finally three tails will make 2+2+2=6.
In the I Ching, the number “6” represents Old Yin (老阴, Lǎo Yīn), “7” Young Yang （少阳, Shǎo yáng）, “8” Young Yin (少阴, Shǎo yīn), and the number “9” stands for Old Yang (老阳, Lǎo yáng). From young Yang to old Yang, Yang reaches its top and changes into Yin. The beginning Yin is called Young Yin, and when Young Yin continues to develop, it turns into Old Yin – a cycle that goes on and on.
The theory is probably better explained and illustrated by the progression of a day: In the morning, the sun rises; we call it Young Yang (少阳).
In the afternoon, the matured sun is very hot; we call it Old Yang (老阳).
At dusk, Yang decreases and Yin increases: Young Yin rises (少阴).
By midnight, it gets very cold: Yin reached its peak, and this is known as Old Yin (老阴).
From the picture below, we can see Young Yang rising (7), and Young Yin sinking (8), thus we’ve reached the transitory state of “七上八下”. Because this represents the start of a new cycle of change, it carries the meaning of being “unsettled.”
The I Ching Book of Changes tells us Yang and Yin can transform into each other depending on the circumstances. Yang can change into Yin, and Yin can change into Yin.
If you’re curious to learn more about the I Ching, you can watch the TV program “The Wisdom of I Ching” which was a lecture series by Professor Zeng Shiqiang of Taiwan Normal University. In the 150 episodes, he teaches the I Ching in great detail.
Master image courtesy of fcscholars and screen captures from the TV program “The Wisdom of I Ching.”