I Ching Summary

I Ching (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Derived from ancient divination traditions, the I Ching or Yi Jing (eighth to third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1876; also known as Book of Changes, 1986) identifies recurring situations arising from the dynamic interaction of yin (darkness) and yang (light); considered the fountainhead of traditional Chinese philosophy, the work began to exert a substantial influence on Western thought in the twentieth century, particularly with respect to philosophy of mind.

Authorship and Context

The I Ching holds the preeminent position in Chinese literature, with only the Dao De Jing (late third century b.c.e.; The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality, of "the Old Philosopher, Lau-Tsze," 1868; better known as Dao De Jing) as a serious rival in terms of influence. Tradition accords it the highest position of the Five Confucian Classics--I Ching, Shu Jing (classic of history), Shi Jing (classic of poetry), Chun Qiu (spring and autumn annals), and Li Ji (Book of Rites, 1885)--not only for its antiquity but also for its breadth of wisdom, according to legends derived from semidivine sages. In Lunyu (late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e.; Analects, 1861), Confucius sets the book above all others and states that, at age seventy, he would need fifty more years to begin to penetrate its wisdom. The work was considered so essential to Chinese tradition that the first Qin emperor spared it from the general burning of the books in 213 b.c.e. During the Han Dynasty (207 b.c.e.-220 c.e.) that followed, the work was singled out as an ur-text comprehending the whole of Confucianism and was even cited, erroneously, as a source for the other classics.

Yet despite millennia of scrutiny by literary scholars, the book itself remains very much a mystery and, like its own mantic utterances, seems to defy straightforward critical investigation. The original date and authorship of the text are impossible to establish because it has grown by the steady accretion of exegesis into a complex, multilayered work. Though ultimately derived from the divination practice for which it is still used, the I Ching--referred to by diviners simply as the Oracle--has come to encompass a whole cosmology based upon natural transformation. In the West, this oracular aura still clings to the work. The Jesuit scholars who introduced the I Ching to Europe had not only their orthodoxy but also their sanity questioned for their trouble. Minds no less than Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who tried to explicate the work in terms of binary mathematics, have been baffled in the attempt to open it to a Western audience. Only in the twentieth century, with the attention of thinkers such as Carl Gustav Jung, has the philosophic depth of the work generally come to be appreciated in the West.

The traditional source of the I Ching is not, in the strict sense, literary, but rather takes the form of eight trigrams, lineal forms comprising combinations of broken and unbroken lines. These trigrams each have symbolic names and natural associations, as shown in the table, "The Eight Trigrams of the I Ching." Tradition attributes these symbols to Fu Xi (third millennium b.c.e.), the legendary first emperor credited with the introduction of agriculture, herding, fishing, and writing. Legend asserts that the sage ruler discovered the trigrams on the back of a turtle as it rose from the waters of the Yellow River; from these patterns he intuited the law of change evident in the course of the seasons and the movement of the heavens. Most likely the product of ancient divination lore, the eight primary trigrams illustrate the essential situations within the natural cyclic process of growth and decay.

Over time, this simple system was considered insufficient to represent the complexity of change, and the eight original trigrams were doubled and permutated into the sixty-four hexagrams that remain the foundation of the I Ching. While this amplification may have taken place as early as the fabled Xia Dynasty (c. 2200-1766 b.c.e.), a few tantalizing references to lost works that include hexagrams date from the Shang Dynasty (1384-1122 b.c.e.). The first written version of what forms the kernel of the I Ching is usually attributed to King Wen (also known as Wenwang, flourished twelfth century b.c.e.), a historical figure whose son founded the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 b.c.e.). According to tradition, King Wen, a model governor of a small province, was unjustly jailed by the Shang emperor (who forced Wen to eat his son's flesh in order to show his loyalty). Wen avoided execution by performing hexagram divination for the imperial court and, during his confinement, purportedly rearranged sixty-four hexagrams into their present order and for each one wrote a brief commentary. These Tuan texts--often referred to as judgments or decisions--form the basis of the I Ching.

King Wen's son Wuwang eventually overthrew the Shang emperor, thereby establishing the Zhou Dynasty. Upon Wuwang's death, his brother Zhougong, known as the duke of Zhou, acted as regent until Wuwang's heir attained his majority. A model of the cultivated Chinese gentleman, the duke of Zhou continued his father's studies into the I Ching and is traditionally recognized as the author of the Yao texts, commentaries corresponding to each line of the hexagrams. Whether either King Wen or the duke of Zhou was actually the author of the text attributed to him remains open to critical debate. Some linguists suggest that the Tuan and Yao texts are so deeply embedded in oral traditions of Shang divination practice that they must predate the culturally less sophisticated Zhou. However, others note the lack of oceanic and coastal imagery in the texts as evidence that they originated among the landlocked Zhou. Moreover, while the texts may represent a compilation of ancient oral divination traditions, the consistency of vocabulary and symbols suggest either a single editor or, more likely, a group of court scribes working under imperial auspices. The Zhou Dynasty left a definitive enough impression upon the text that in this form it is still commonly referred to as Zhou Yi; it would take almost a millennium before a subsequent incarnation of the text would become established in the Confucian canon and acquire its present name. The influence of the Zhou Dynasty also seems responsible for the ethical nature of the Tuan and Yao texts, which are more in character with the staid, moralistic Zhou than the relatively decadent Shang, whose leaders, in addition to divination, practiced human sacrifice and mass burials. The texts also seem to reflect the profound changes in the social system introduced by the Zhou rulers, who replaced the divine monarchy of the Shang with a feudal arrangement based on subjugation of everyone--including the emperor--to the Mandate of Heaven. Lastly, the Zhou Yi betrays the patriarchal bias of the Zhou Dynasty: It reverses the Shang order of the first two hexagrams, giving primary place to the creative (associated with Heaven and father) rather than the receptive (associated with Earth and mother).

Next to King Wen, the name of Confucius is most often associated with the composition of the I Ching. Tradition ascribes to him the authorship of the Ten Wings, or appended commentaries on the Zhou Yi text. These sections are considered ancillary to the primary text but nevertheless have achieved canonical status. There are actually only seven distinct commentaries, though the first three have two sections (making a total of ten). The seven commentaries of the Ten Wings are the Xiang Zhuan (commentary on the images, or lineal forms of the hexagrams), Tuan Zhuan (commentary on the judgments), Wen Yan (commentary on the words of the text), Za Gua (miscellaneous notes on the hexagrams), Xu Gua (commentary on the sequence of the hexagrams), Shuo Gua (discussion of the trigrams), and Xi Ci Zhuan (literally, the commentary on the appended judgments, but more commonly referred to as the Great Commentary). All of these works seem to be of a much later date than the Zhou Yi, and most appear to have a congregate nature as anonymous hands added layer upon layer of close reading of the primary texts.

Of these appended commentaries, the Great Commentary not only has been the most influential but also most directly bears the stamp of Confucius. Although Confucius may have authored the document, it seems more likely that a record of his statements on the text--much like those recorded in Analects--was used by disciples such as Zi Xia to give the document its present form. At once a justification and explication of the I Ching, the commentary interprets the work's cosmological symbolism in terms of an ethical humanism that, no doubt, would have been quite foreign to the Shang diviners who perfected the hexagram system. It assembles and analyzes a sequence of particular hexagrams--with titles such as Conduct, Duration, Increase, Decrease, Oppression, and Gentleness--as guideposts for the individual's self-development. The commentary is particularly Confucian in its nostalgic emphasis on the Zhou ideal of the "superior person" (junzi), who is virtuous, modest, reflective and, above all, submissive to the natural and social orders. The Great Commentary is quick to interpret the Tuan and Yao texts in terms of the decay of the contemporary social order--a preoccupation that directs some scholars to place its composition well after the death of Confucius in the tumultuous Warring States period (475-221 b.c.e.). In accordance with its Confucian origin, it seems to favor the yang lines of the hexagrams (representing light, masculinity, hierarchy, and rationalism) at the expense of the yin (representing darkness, femininity, organic unity, and intuition). Perhaps the best example of such hyperrationalism is its insistence that the shape of certain hexagrams served as archetypal images for technological innovations such as fishing nets (hexagram 30, the Clinging) and the plow (hexagram 42, Increase).

Because the I Ching escaped the burning of the books in 213 b.c.e., it became a central focus of the reemergent philosophic traditions during the Han Dynasty. Although the Confucian tradition remained the dominant approach, other traditions such as the Misfortune School linked the sequence of the hexagrams to a Daoist system of divination. Perhaps the most sustained philosophical inquiry to arise from the I Ching has concerned teleological...

(The entire section is 4446 words.)