The Tradition

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

The first emperor

The tradition concerning the birth of the Yi Jing is intertwined with the myths of origin of Chinese civilization. According to the traditional narrative, the book came into being through the insights of three legendary Sages, figures belonging to a liminal space between myth and history. The first author is a fully mythical being, Fu Xi, the first emperor, sometimes represented with a serpent body and a human head. The third one, who is supposed to have carried the work to completion, is a fully historical person, although surrounded by a legendary aura: Confucius, the “master of ten thousand generations.” Between them stands the man who is considered the principal author of the book, a figure straddling history and legend: King Wen, the founder of the Zhou dynasty, who ruled China during most of the first millennium BC, the time when the Yi actually came into use.

This illustrious genealogy had considerable cultural and political relevance. When the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) engaged in consolidating the empire by culturally unifying the diverse peoples they were ruling, milestones of the imperial policy were the standardization of writing and the ideological unification of the administration by elevating Confucianism to the rank of official doctrine of the empire. An important step of this program was the canonization of five ancient texts, first and foremost among them the Yi, as jing, classics, i.e. basic reference works for the whole culture. These books thereby acquired a status comparable to that of religious scriptures: they were commented upon and elaborated by scholars of later generations, but their authority and their sacred origins were never doubted for the next two thousand years.

Contrary to the views of modern scholarship, in the traditional account of the origins of the Yi the book developed in a logical progression from trigrams to hexagrams to oracular texts and hermeneutic commentaries. The invention of trigrams is attributed to Fu Xi. The Great Treatise describes this discovery in the following way:

When in early antiquity Bao Xi ruled the world, he looked upward and contemplated the images in heaven; he looked downward and contemplated the forms on earth. He contemplated the patterns on the fur of animals and on the feathers of birds, as well as their adaptation to their habitats. He took as a model, close by, his body, and farther away, things Thus he invented the eight trigrams in order to enter into connection with the divine light’s actualizing-dao and to classify the nature of the myriad beings.

Fu Xi is not here a mythical being with a serpent body, but the first civilizing hero, the one who introduced culture in the natural world. He is called by his appellative of Bao Xi, variously interpreted as Hunter, Tamer of animals and Cook, and a bit later in the same text we are told that

he made knotted cords and used them for nets and baskets in hunting and fishing.

Significantly the invention of the trigrams is connected here with “classifying the nature of the myriad beings.” The word “classify,” lei, has both the connotation of distinguishing and subdividing in rational categories (the beginning of the work of reason) and that of establishing connections and correlations between things on different planes. The eight trigrams are therefore fundamental cosmological categories embracing the totality of “heaven and earth”: as we shall see, they define radii in a Universal Compass, a map embracing concepts belonging to entirely different realms, yet mirroring each other through a web of subtle interconnections.

The Pattern King

The tradition is somewhat ambiguous about whether Fu Xi discovered just the eight trigrams or the sixty-four hexagrams (the old texts often speak interchangeably of the ones and the others, and the same word, gua, refers to both). But generally the invention of the hexagrams, as well as the authorship of the basic oracular texts, is attributed to King Wen, the founder of the Zhou dynasty. We find only two brief allusions to the circumstances of such invention in the Great Treatise:

The Yi came in use in the period of middle antiquity. Those who composed the Yi had great care and sorrow.
The time at which the Yi came to the fore was that in which the house of Yin came to an end and the house of Zhou was rising, that is, the time when King Wen and the tyrant Di Xin were pitted against each other.

“Those who composed the Yi” are King Wen and his son, the Duke of Zhou. Usually the texts of the Tuan Zhuan (Image of the Situation and main text of the Transforming Lines in the Eranos Yi Jing) are attributed to the first and the texts of the Xiang Zhuan (Patterns of Wisdom and Comments on the Transforming Lines in the Eranos Yi Jing) to the second. The “house of Yin” is the Shang dynasty, who ruled over most of China from 1765 BC to 1123 BC. Si Ma Qian (145-86 BC), the first historiographer of the empire, attempts a more detailed account of the genealogy of the Yi in his Shi Ji, Records of the Historian:

The ancients said that Fu Xi, who was simple and sincere, built the eight trigrams of the Yi.
When the Count of the West was imprisoned at Youli, he probably developed the eight trigrams into sixty-four hexagrams.
King Wen, imprisoned at Youli, developed the Zhou Yi.
At the end of his life, Confucius, who loved the Yi Jing, set in order the Tuan, the Xiang, the Xi Ci, the Shuo Gua and the Wen Yen [the first eight Wings].

King Wen’s legend is as follows. The Zhou were originally one of the nomadic tribes roaming the Western border areas of the Shang empire, particularly the Shan Xi, the passes located on the Bronze Road, connecting China with the steppes of Central Asia (the same which became many centuries later the Silk Road). Recruited as military allies, they became vassals of the empire and settled in the plains at the foot of Mount Qi, the “Twin-peaked Mountain.” They became sedentary, and their wealth and power gradually increased thanks to the culture of millet, husbandry and commerce with the neighboring empire.

Around the middle of the twelfth century BC the fortunes of Shang dynasty were declining, while the star of the Zhou was steadily ascending. The emperor Di Yi, worried about the growing power of his Western neighbors, tried to bind them to his house by giving in marriage his three daughters to the crown-prince of the Zhou, Chang, the Shining. Shortly after that, Chang ascended to the throne of the Zhou, and Di Yi was succeeded by his son Di Xin. Chang’s rule was a model of wisdom, while Di Xin “disobeyed heaven and tortured the beings.” The luminous example of his Western neighbor was odious to the tyrant, who had Chang arrested and thrown into a walled cave. In the darkness of this confinement Chang spent seven years meditating on the “great care and sorrow” of the current state of human affairs and on how to bring them back into alignment with “divine actualizing-dao.”

He is the one posterity remembers as King Wen: a meaningful name, which defines him as another fundamental civilizing hero. Indeed wen means both pattern of wood, stone or animal fur and language, civilization, culture, literature, the written symbol as revelation of the intrinsic nature of things. It is a fitting description of the “classification of the nature of the myriad beings” initiated by Fu Xi through the eight trigrams and perfected by the “Pattern King” in his dungeon. In his meditations he started with Fu Xi’s eight trigrams and developed the system further by pairing them into hexagrams and appending a text to each hexagram as well as to the each individual line. These texts, constituting the Tuan, the first two Wings, were later expanded by King Wen’s second son, the Duke of Zhou, who added his own commentary (the Xiang, Third and Fourth Wing) to elucidate his father’s words. Finally to Confucius (551-479 BC) the tradition attributes the authorship of all the remaining commentaries, particularly of the Great Treatise. Thus the authority of the Classic of Classics is solidly founded and firmly meshed with the ideology of the empire; and the Confucian interpretation, occasionally incorporating insights of other schools, becomes the canonical reading of the Yi.

Read on: Modern views of the origins of the Yi