The Evolution of the Book

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

The Book of Encompassing Versatility

The Yi did not therefore arise as a complete book, but evolved through many centuries. From one of a number of divinatory manuals, it eventually became not only the oracular book par excellence, but the Classic of Change, the ultimate reference of Chinese wisdom, revered by all philosophical schools.

Initially, there were archives of inscribed bones and tortoise shells, kept in order to record key events and to evaluate the accuracy of the corresponding predictions. Eventually these pieces were grouped and classified, and their inscriptions formed the material of the first divinatory manuals.

The simpler yarrow consultation method gradually replaced the pyromantic practices, and the recourse to the tortoise shell was reserved for special occasions and very important people. In the Zhou Li, Rites of the Zhou, the word yi denotes the science of yarrow divination, and three yi manuals are mentioned, all based on eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams, associated with the three mythical/historical dynasties (Xia, 2207-1766 BC; Shang, 1765-1123 BC; Zhou, 1122-256 BC). The last of these is the Zhou Yi, whose title can be translated as “Changes of the Zhou,” but also as “Encompassing Changes,”, or “Encompassing Versatility,” since the name of the Zhou dynasty means, among other things, “a complete circle, from all sides, universal, encompassing;” and yi means, beside “change,” “easy, simple, versatile.” We have no idea of what that Zhou Yi was like, but it is highly probable that it is the ancestor of the Zhou Yi that has come down to us.

In 771 BC, the Zhou capital moved East to Luoyang. That date marks the end of the Western Zhou and the beginning of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771-256 BC), which saw a progressive weakening of the central power and a general destabilization of the social system. The emperor remained nominally master of the whole country, but in practice rebellious feudatories exerted their power independently of the central government and set up autonomous states warring with each other everywhere. It was a time of great yi, of great upheavals and insecurity, in which individuals were often at the mercy of unpredictable changes. The Huai Nan Zi, an early Han philosophical treatise, gives an impressive description of the final chaotic phase of the Eastern Zhou, the Warring States period (403-256 BC):

In the later generations, the Seven States set up clan differences. The feudal lords codified their own laws, and each differed in his practices and customs. The Vertical and Horizontal Alliances divided them, raising armies and attacking one another. When they laid siege to cities, they slaughtered mercilessly.… They dug up burial mounds and scattered the bones of the dead. They built more powerful war chariots and higher defense ramparts. They dispensed with the principles of war and were conversant with the road of death, clashed with mighty foes and ravaged without measure. Out of a hundred soldiers who advanced, only one would return.…

We can imagine that in these circumstances, in which traditional values were overrun by violence and choice could be a matter of life or death, recourse to the oracle may have often been the only resource. The Huai Nan Zi says that at that time “the tortoise had holes bored in its shell until it had no undershell left, and the divining stalks were cast day after day.”

Already during the first part of the Eastern Zhou epoch, the Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BC), the use of the Yi had moved outside the environment of the courts of high-ranking nobility and had reached a much larger class of consultants, principally consisting of the scholars-officials who were the backbone of the Chinese social system. This shift in users changed the scope of yarrow divination, expanding it beyond the limits of state affairs to include private and existential matters. And with this, also a change in emphasis and interpretation took place, in which ethical concerns acquired a much greater weight. The notion of an ideal user of the book started developing: the jun zi, the noble, became the “disciple of wisdom,” the person who in a consultation does not only seek a personal advantage, but the realization of an intrinsic good, the actualization of dao in action.

The following consultation, related in the Zuo Zhuan, a history of the Spring and Autumn Period, is an interesting testimony of this new ethical concern:

In 530 BC [the feudatory] Nan-kuai plots a rebellion against his ruler. Consulting the I Ching, he obtains the fifth line statement of hexagram 2, K’un, which reads “Yellow skirt, primally auspicious.” Greatly encouraged, he shows this to a friend, without mentioning his intentions. The friend replies: “I have studied this. If it is a matter of loyalty and fidelity, then it is possible. If not, it will certainly be defeated… If there is some deficiency [regarding these virtues], although the stalkcasting says ‘auspicious’, it is not.” Thus Nan-kuai’s improper purpose renders his whole prognostication invalid. His friend’s fundamental assumption is that an act’s moral qualities determine its consequences… Only something that is already moral can ever be “auspicious.” Here we see how developments in sixth-century moral-cosmological thinking change not only the interpretation of a particular line statement of the I, but also the very tasks to which the text could be directed. (Nan-kuai, by the way, disregards this analysis, and within a year he is dead.)

This ethical approach to the Yi was particularly emphasized in the Confucian school. As we have mentioned, the tradition attributes to Confucius (551-479 BC) all the essential commentaries to the Yi. This claim is almost certainly a fabrication of later Confucian scholars. But Confucius may very well have been deeply interested in the Yi – since he was very interested in the ancient culture in general and his country of Lu was an important repository of the traditions of the Zhou. Many anecdotes are told about his devotion to the Yi. Si Ma Qian, e.g., says that Confucius so much perused his copy of the Yi that he had to replace the bindings of the bamboo strips three times (books at that time consisted of thin bamboo strips tied together).

The only explicit reference to the Yi in the works of Confucius is a quotation of the third line of hexagram 32, Persevering:

The Master said: “The people of the South have a saying: he who does not persevere cannot be a diviner nor a physician. How well said! He who does not persevere in virtue receives embarrassment and shame.” The Master said: “Nevertheless, I do not practice divination.”

These words possibly hint at what may have been Confucius’ real contribution to Yi scholarship: a reading of the texts valuing their ethical and educational function over the oracular aspect. This is well in accord with a note contained in the so-called yi shu, “lost texts,” of the Mawangdui silk manuscript (about this manuscript see below):

Confucius loved the Yi in his old age. At home, he had it on his bedside table; while traveling, he had it in his bag. Zi Gong asked him: “Master, do you also believe in yarrow divination?” Confucius answered: “It is the word of the ancients: I am not interested in its use, I enjoy its texts… I observe the ethical meaning… Between the divining scribes and me, it is the same path, but traveled to different destinations.”

If such is indeed the case, then Confucius must have contributed to shape the new approach to the Yi which fully emerged a few centuries later, under the Han, when the Yi became a book to be read and pondered, rather than consulted; from a manual of divination it turned into a summa of the wisdom of the ancients and a general map of the cosmos.

The canonization of the Yi

The feudal strife of the Eastern Zhou period came to an end in the last decades of the third century BC, when the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC) rose to power and brought the whole country under a single unified administration, building “a centralized state wielding unprecedented power, controlling vast resources and displaying a magnificence which inspired both awe and dread among its subjects.”

The rule of the Qin was short lived, but marked a great turning point in Chinese history. When it collapsed, it left to the Han (206 BC – 220 AD) an important legacy: the idea of empire and the governmental structure to embody it. “For almost four centuries under the Han the implications of this great fact were to work their way out in all aspects of Chinese life… [a process that] in several fundamental respects shaped the intellectual tradition of China until modern times, and not of China only but of Korea and Japan as well.”

The Han worked gradually to rebuild the great web of central government that had disintegrated with the fall of the Qin, unifying, organizing and standardizing the vast area and the diverse peoples under their control. A central aspect of this unification was the establishment of a common Chinese cultural identity, which in its general outlines was to last for the next two thousand years.

An important step was the standardization of the written language. Even today in China a variety of local dialects are spoken, in which words have widely different sounds (beside that, the same sound in Chinese corresponds to many different words). People belonging to far away regions do not necessarily understand each other when they speak. But they do understand each other when they write. The ideographic language creates a bridge between them and allows them to recognize each other as belonging to a common cultural mold.

Confucian thought played a leading part in the Han unification of culture. Parallel with the expanding function of government, there was a broadening of intellectual interest and a growing concern with questions of cosmology and the natural order. It was the conviction of Han philosophers that when the government was in tune with the laws of Heaven prosperity resulted, while strife and famine prevailed if that was not the case. Equally important, in an agricultural society, was the attunement to the concerns of the Earth (irrigation, land usage, flood control and so on); and so the notion of a necessary harmony between Heaven, Earth and Man became a pivotal idea in Chinese thought. The great Han design of organizing all knowledge into a coherent whole including the natural world and human society was therefore, beside an intellectual pursuit, an important political task. Confucianism, with its emphasis on traditional wisdom and its focus on perfecting human nature through rites, music and literature, was ideally suited to this task. The final product of the Confucian education was the scholar/sage, the learned man endowed with a refined moral sense, whose natural field of action was in government service. During the Han this class of scholarly officials grew to a position of dominance over the entire social system, replacing the feudal aristocracy of former times. Public service was based on a system of competitive examinations which, in times of peace at least, assured the dominant position of the scholars in the bureaucracy.

A central endeavor in this process of cultural unification was the canonization of the books which were to constitute the base of all learning and particularly of the public examination system. To this effect two great gatherings of Confucian scholars were held at the presence of the emperor himself, the last one in 79 AD in a hall of the imperial palace in Luoyang called “the White Tiger Hall.” The results were compiled and published in a book called Bo Hu Tong, Discussions in the White Tiger Hall, establishing the orthodox interpretation of the five jing, the classics, and setting the base of a vast system of correlative thinking (see below, Correlative Thinking).

The Yi Jing, or Book of Changes, complete with its Ten Wings, was the first of the classics, and was taken as a description of the metaphysical structure of the whole of “heaven and earth.” The other four classics were: the Shu Jing, Book of Documents, recording the experience and wisdom of the “earlier kings,” model for all later rulers; the Shi Jing, Book of Songs, repository of a tradition of folk songs and ceremonial hymns; the Li Ji, Book of Rites, the ultimate authority in matters of procedure and etiquette;. and the Lü Shi Chun Qiu, the Spring and Autumn Annals, a collection of moral and political lessons in the guise of historical narrative.

From this time onward the influence of the Yi Jing on Chinese culture kept growing. As the first of the classics, it was no longer just a book of divination: it was a tool for structuring thought in all fields, a standard reference for any theory claiming authority. Its influence extended into philosophy, ethics, politics, medicine, esthetics. And, since the openness of its texts allowed many different interpretations, the concise and cryptic oracular core of the book became enveloped in a body of scholarly commentaries.

Philosophical and oracular tradition

The philosophical reflection on the Book of Yi culminated in the vast and elaborate exegetic work of the Neo-Confucian school, during the Sung dynasty (960-1279). But meanwhile the divinatory use of the book was never lost. And with it survived an oracular tradition much closer to the shamanic origins of the Yi. This approach surfaced in a particularly clear form with the sixteenth century philosopher Lai Zhi De.

Lai claimed that the Neo-Confucian school, by focusing exclusively on the discursive meaning of the texts and on their implications for “moral principle,” had lost sight of the images, which were the true soul of the book. The Book of Yi, said Lai, consists essentially of pre-verbal symbols, its texts are verbalizations of intuitively perceived images. And it can reproduce the natural order of things because it has been generated spontaneously, just like natural phenomena. “The sages,” Lai wrote, “did not apply their minds to set it forth.”

Therefore these texts, unlike those of the other classics, have no concrete referents. They do not point to any fact or principle, and they cannot be taken as a “definitive outline” of moral action. They acquire a specific meaning only when they answer a specific question, in a concrete life situation.

Lai saw this openness of the Yi Jing texts as closely connected with the all-encompassing nature of the oracle. The Xi Ci claims that the Yi embraces the totality of heaven and earth. But, if each line in the book corresponded to a single occurrence, 384 lines would account for only 384 occurrences. How could then the Yi, Lai argued, “be the one and all of heaven and earth”?

The Palace Edition

The oracular and the commentary texts of the Ten Wings were finally collected in a canonical form in the Palace Edition of the Yi Jing by the emperor Kang Xi in 1715. That edition became the standard reference for all later Chinese publications, and is the text on which the present translation is based.

The Mawangdui manuscript

In 1973 silk manuscripts, including a version of the Yi and one of the Lao Zi were found in a Han tomb dated 168 BC. It was a crucial discovery, affording insights into the evolution of those great works at a date far antecedent anything available up to that point.

The Mawangdui text of the Yi differs from the canonical one (the Palace Edition) in a number of interesting ways. First of all, the graphic representation of the hexagrams is different, having [paleo7.jpg] and [paleo8.jpg] in place of the whole and the opened line. These are variations on the paleographic form of the numbers seven and eight – and at the same time they are remarkably similar to the final form (——— and — —) of the whole and the opened line. Therefore we can regard the Mawangdui hexagrams as a bridge, a kind of “missing link,” between the numeric “proto-hexagrams” recorded on tortoise shells and oracle bones and the canonical hexagrams.

Second, the names of thirty-five out of sixty-four hexagrams are different, in spite of the fact that overall the oracular texts are remarkably similar to the canonical version.

Third, the order of the hexagrams is different. The Mawangdui order is a systematic sequence obtained by keeping the upper trigram fixed and varying the lower trigram according to a regular rotation. In this way it resembles much more the order of a hexagram table than that of the canonical book. Wang Dongliang interprets this fact as an indication that, at the time of the Mawangdui manuscript, divination was still the prevailing use of the Yi and philosophical speculation was not yet the dominant mode. The canonical sequence is “philosophical” in the sense of reflecting a developmental process in which the principles of the cosmos and of the human world are derived from each other according to an internal logic not directly connected with the structure of the signs. The Mawangdui sequence, on the other hand, with its logical arrangement based on the structure of the signs, seems to have the eminently pragmatic purpose of facilitating the search for a given hexagram, i.e. it seems to be tailored to the needs of yarrow stalk consultation.

Finally, the Mawangdui text consists basically of only two sections, corresponding to the Tuan (i.e. the Image of the Situation and the main text of the Transforming Lines) and to the Xi Ci, the Additional Texts. Therefore the classic organization of the book in Ten Wings must not have been yet in existence at that time. Instead of the remaining eight Wings, the Mawangdui manuscript includes an assortment of commentaries in the form of dialogues between Confucius and his disciples (conventionally called yi shu, “lost texts.”).

The Yi Jing comes to the West

The first glimpses of the Yi Jing reached the West by way of Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some of these missionaries had a keen interest in the spirit of the Chinese people they had come to convert, deeply studied their culture and tried to approach them on their philosophical terms, frequently incurring the wrath of the Vatican. One of them, Matteo Ricci, is still remembered in the name of an outstanding contemporary sinological institute.

The early Jesuit missionaries brought to Europe fragments of the Classic of Classics; complete translations came only in the nineteenth century. And it was still a missionary, the German Richard Wilhelm, who finally introduced the Yi Jing to the West in a way that won the minds and souls of intellectuals, and eventually also those of a large public of readers and users.

Wilhelm’s translation was published in Jena in 1923. It stands out from all previous ones for a radically different attitude toward the Yi Jing. Wilhelm regarded it as a book of spiritual guidance of universal value. He wrote in his preface:

After the Chinese revolution [of 1911], when Tsingtao became the residence of a number of the most eminent scholars of the old school, I met among them my honored teacher Lao Nai-hsüan. I am indebted to him… also because he first opened my mind to the wonders of the Book of Changes.

Wilhelm not only steeped himself in Neo-Confucian philosophy, but took it on as a personal spiritual path; and, having first traveled to the East as a missionary of Western religion, eventually he came back to the West as a missionary of Eastern wisdom. His translation moves from this committed and participatory stance. He endeavored to make the ancient book accessible to the Western mind by translating it as a discursive text in a Neo-Confucian philosophical perspective. His translation is a remarkably readable, poetic and profound text.

Carl Gustav Jung was deeply struck by the “formidable psychological system” the book embodied, and he wrote a foreword for it, which no doubt contributed considerably to its popularity. He also asked Cary F. Baynes, an American student of analytical psychology in Zurich, to undertake an English rendering of Wilhelm’s German translation. The English translation took quite some time to complete (meanwhile Richard Wilhelm had died in 1930). When the Wilhelm-Baynes translation was published in the Bollingen Series in 1950, it rapidly caught the attention of a large audience.

Since then the Yi Jing has become popular in the West, and numerous translations and commentaries have been published, at all levels of quality and depth (see Bibliography). Many of the works by Westerners are translations of previous translations, quite a few of them of Wilhelm’s classic translation.