Modern Views of the Origins of the Yi

(from the The Original I Ching Oracle, Watkins, London, 2005, Introduction)

Bones and tortoise shells

Modern scholarship tells a very different story about the origins of the Yi. In this reconstruction the book does not emerge from the philosophical reflections of a few individual Sages, but from the divinatory practices of many generations of shamans. The texts did not come at a later date as elucidation of the patterns of lines, but the other way around: divinatory statements came first, and they were later compiled and classified through a symbolic system (or a number of symbolic systems), which eventually evolved into the patterns of lines of the Yi.

The first discovery of jia gu wen, divinatory inscriptions on tortoise shells and cattle bones, dates from a little over a century ago (1899). It has been described as the most important finding in modern Chinese historiography. These inscriptions are an almost daily record of all kinds of natural and social events of the Shang (1765-1123 BC) and early Zhou dynasty. They constitute a vast reservoir of information, which is still far from being completely interpreted and classified. In 1995 Wang Dongliang cited 160.000 pieces identified, from which a repertory of 4500 words had been compiled, not even half of them deciphered.

The practice which generated these inscriptions was a form of pyromancy, divination by fire. The Shang shamans applied heat through glowing hard wood rods to specific points of animal bones (particularly scapulae of bovines) or tortoise shells, and in a state of trance read the patterns of cracks thus produced as messages from the world of gods and spirits. The resulting oracular statements were often recorded in abbreviated form on the bones or shells themselves, and these physical supports were kept for future reference, eventually constituting real divinatory archives.

As far as the Yi is concerned, the essential problem historians are confronted with is how this vast collection of disparate statements having to do with specific times and circumstances evolved into a well-organized book, with a universal system of signs and corresponding oracular texts applicable to all situations. A final answer will have to wait for a more thorough understanding of the available material to emerge and maybe also for future discoveries. But the existing evidence is sufficient for tracing at least some hypothetical lines of development.

Léon Vandermeersch has proposed an evolution marked by three stages: cattle bone divination, tortoise divination and yarrow stalk divination.

Originally divination may have been an occasional practice accompanying the offering of sacrifices. Cracks spontaneously produced by fire in the bones of sacrificial victims were read as indications of the acceptance or rejection of the offering by gods and spirits, and therefore of success or failure of specific enterprises. Human concern about the future eventually brought about a reversal of the roles of the sacrifice and the ensuing divination: from an accessory quest, the pyromantic interrogation of the victim’s bones became the main goal of the process and the sacrifice only a means to that end.

That shift in emphasis brought about the transition from the so-called proto-scapulomancy to scapulomancy proper. It was a shift in meaning and in technique. Pyromantic cracks started being understood as images of transformation processes in a larger context of universal movements; and shamans no longer confined themselves to simply reading what the sacrificial fire had left for them to read, but started preparing the bones in specific ways in order to obtain clearer pyromantic patterns. With the emergence of the divinatory purpose as primary, a significant attitude change took place, a shift from an original transcendent religious orientation to an immanent “divinatory rationalism”:

The work of fire happening through the diviner’s ember rather than on the priest’s altar favors the representation of an immanent dynamism over the representation of a transcendent divine will. Literally as well as metaphorically, divination moves away from the altar.

This shift was further emphasized by the tortoise shell replacing the bovine scapula as the medium par excellence of pyromantic divination. This “great progress in divinatory thought,” writes Vandermeersch, went hand in hand with “the development of symbolic thought.” Indeed in China the tortoise is a powerful cosmological symbol, with its round back representing the heavenly vault, its flat square ventral shell the earth and the soft flesh of the animal the human world between heaven and earth. The adoption of the tortoise shell as support for divination therefore mirrored the intent of viewing the single incidents of individual consultations in the context of a larger cosmological frame: divination no longer revealed the will of the gods, but the subtle laws of transformation of the cosmic dynamism. It was at this stage that divinatory records started being collected in archives of inscribed tortoise shells. And with this development the oracular formulas started taking on a life of their own, increasingly independent from the circumstances of the original consultation. They gradually assumed a more stereotyped form and were eventually collected in divination manuals, the ultimate example of which is the Yi.

The yarrow stalk oracle

Classic texts talk about yarrow divination and tortoise divination as two parallel techniques, and occasionally discuss how their responses are to be integrated when both are applied to the same query. The archeological evidence is insufficient to definitely decide whether there was filiation of the yarrow technique from the tortoise one. But Vandermeersch claims that there is good reason to think so. One of the arguments in favor of this view is an etymological one: the radical of the ideogram gua, “hexagram” or “trigram,” is the “reclining T” which is thought to depict a tortoise shell crack. And the same is true for the words zhan and zhen, both meaning “to divine” and referring to yarrow divination and to tortoise divination without distinction.

According to tradition, the yarrow stalk consultation procedure was invented by a diviner of the early Zhou dynasty, a historical person about whom we know very little, called Wu Xian, the Conjoining Shaman. His name, once again, is meaningful, since his technique created a bridge between the wild oracular statements of the ancient shamans and the rational philosophy of yin and yang. About this invention Vandermeersch writes:

Ancient Chinese historians did not know that trigrams and hexagrams, as we know them, did not exist under the Shang-Yin; thus they thought that Wu Xian invented a random procedure to select a gua. Now we know that gua are much more recent, and we understand that what Wu Xian invented was a random procedure for the selection of a [standardized] set of tortoise shell cracks.

In fact, a common pattern in the bone and tortoise shell inscriptions are columns of strange signs, vaguely reminiscent of hexagrams (although the number of lines is not necessarily six). The “line” signs belong to only a few types, which have been identified as numbers written in paleographic form. Some numbers, e.g. 1, 5, 6, 7 and 8, recur with particular frequency. We do not know what these numbers refer to, but a plausible guess is that they are codes for specific types of cracks. Indeed actual cracks were also often vertically aligned (we must remember that in mature scapulomancy shells and bones were prepared so that they would crack at specific points). And these coded crack configurations may well have been associated with standard oracular responses.

Once the tortoise oracle had developed this abstract symbolic form, it was no longer necessary to engage in the cumbersome ritual of pyromancy. Any random procedure to select one of the coded configurations (and the associated divinatory formulas) would do. Very naturally then at this stage the yarrow stalk procedure came into play as a simplified method to achieve the same results as standardized scapulomancy.

[Figure 1] Evolution of divinatory techniques in ancient China

Neolithic proto-scapulomancy – crude burning of unprepared omoplates (left) – irregular star-shaped cracks on the other side (right)

Yin epoch scapulomancy (14th-11th century BC) – use of tortoise ventral plates – preparation by incision before burning – standardized ‘reclining T’ cracks on the other side (right)

Proto-achilleomancy (end of Yin – beginning of Zhou epoch, 11th – 10th century BC) – fragment of tortoise shell with numerical hexagrams; the numbers represent canonical types of cracks, selected by a random procedure

Numerical achilleomancy (middle of the 1st millennium BC) – rationalization of the number system used in the numerical hexagrams

Canonical achilleomancy (end of the 1st millennium BC) – algorithmic hexagrams made of odd-valued yang monograms and even-valued yin monograms

To obtain the Yi Jing divination system as we know it, only two more steps were needed:

  • the types of lines/cracks are reduced to four, coded by the numbers 6, 7. 8 and 9, and the even or odd character of the number gets connected with the philosophical notions of yin and yang;
  • the number of lines/cracks is standardized at six.

Quoting Vandermeersch once again:

We can follow the great developmental phases of Chinese divinatory techniques from Neolithic proto-scapulomancy, based on the crude burning of residual bones of bovine holocausts, to the system of the Yi Jing. These phases are: first, the remarkable standardization of scapulomantic diagrams; then, the typological classification of these standardized forms; finally, the algorithmic coding of the system in terms of even and odd numbers. Throughout this process the same logic operates: it is a logic of rationalization of the formal structures of the diagrammatic, numerical or algorithmic configurations produced by divinatory techniques, taken as coded representations of the hidden cosmic connections existent between all phenomena in the universe. As Granet noted so well, Chinese thought works according to a logic of correspondences. The history of divination is an admirable illustration of how this logic works…

Read on: The evolution of the book