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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...

(The entire section is 4,446 words.)