The Yi Jing ("Book of Changes" or "Classic of Changes" (often spelled I Ching) is the oldest of the Chinese classic texts, and is notable for describing an ancient system of cosmology, philosophy and divination that is at the heart of many Chinese cultural beliefs. While the text has existed in some form for over two thousand years, it truly entered philosophical currency when the Neo-Confucians began to use it as a source for an indigenous Chinese metaphysical system vis-a-vis the cosmology of Buddhism.
Though the Yi Jing is often cryptic to the point of obscurity (especially when translated from the Classical Chinese), the text (and the active commentarial tradition surrounding it) is an important exemplar of the earliest cosmic and philosophical thought in the Orient. The text features passages that prestage the development of many doctrines fundamental to overall Chinese worldview, including the related ideas of Qi, the five elements (wu xing), and the mutually generative symbiosis of Yin and Yang. Moreover, the text also stresses, through its emphasis on change, the fundamentally interconnected and contingent nature of material existence - a philosophical perspective that is a virtual constant in Chinese thought. However, in addition to its evident cosmological importance, the text remains an ever present part of Chinese daily life as well, with people of all social classes continuing to have their fortunes told using the ancient hexagram method (or a variant upon it) defined in the Yi Jing.
The Chinese terms 易 (yì) and 經 (jīng) are translated into English as follows:
- When used as an adjective, 易 (yì) means "easy" or "simple," while as a verb it implies "to change."
- The word 經 (jīng) means "classic" or "text," which is derived from the character's original meaning ("regularity" or "persistency"), implying that it describes an Ultimate Way that will not change over time.
The complex of meanings contained in this two-word title are profound. They have (at least) three implications:
- Simplicity - the root of the substance. The fundamental law underlying everything in the universe is utterly plain and simple, no matter how abstruse or complex some things may appear to be.
- Variability - the use of the substance. Everything in the universe is continually changing. By comprehending this one may realize the importance of flexibility in life and may thus cultivate the proper attitude for dealing with a multiplicity of diverse situations.
- Persistency - the essence of the substance. While everything in the universe seems to be changing, among the changing tides there is a persistent principle, a central rule, which does not vary with space and time.
As evidenced by the profound ideas conveyed by the title itself, it is practically impossible to arrive at an unbiased translation that could preserve the original concepts intact - especially given the conceptual malleability inherent in the classical Chinese idiom. However, given the simplest meanings of each of these characters, it seems reasonable to follow convention and refer to the text as the "Book (or Classic) of Changes," where change is understood as a universally constant principle describing the fundamental operation of the world.
In traditional Chinese historiography, the principles of the Yi Jing were said to have originated with the mythical sage king Fu Xi (伏羲 Fú Xī). This legendary ruler, who was thought to have lived from the 2852 B.C.E.-2738 B.C.E., was reputed to have had the 8 trigrams (八卦 bā gùa) revealed to him supernaturally. For this discovery, he was (and still is) esteemed as a culture hero. By the time of the legendary King Yu (禹 Yǔ), the eight trigrams had supposedly been developed into 64 hexagrams (六十四卦 lìu shí sì gùa), a structure that corresponds with the received version of the text. However, it was not until the time of King Wu of Zhou, who toppled the Shang Dynasty, that the most perspicacious interpretation of these symbols was derived. His brother Zhou Gong Dan (the famed "Duke of Zhou") is said to have written a text entitled Yao Ci (爻辭 yáo cí, "Explanation of Horizontal Lines") to clarify the significance of each horizontal line in each hexagram. It was not until then that the whole content of I Ching was understood, which subsequently allowed the philosophically potent ideas contained therein to profoundly influence the literature and government administration of the Zhou Dynasty (1122 B.C.E. - 256 B.C.E.).
Later, during the time of Spring and Autumn period (722 B.C.E. - 481 B.C.E.), Confucius is credited with the writing of the Shi Yi (十翼 shí yì, "Ten Wings"), the earliest surviving commentaries on the Yi Jing. By the time of Han Wu Di (漢武帝 Hàn Wǔ Dì) of the Western Han Dynasty (circa 200 B.C.E.), Shi Yi was often called Yi Zhuan (易傳 yì zhùan, "Commentary on the I Ching"), and together with the I Ching they composed Zhou Yi (周易 zhōu yì, "Changes of Zhou"). These combined texts became canonized, to the extent that all later views were seen as explanations only, not exhausting their fecund source material.
Western ("Modernist") view
In the past 50 years, a "modernist" history of the Yi Jing has been gradually developing, based on source criticism and research into Shang and Zhou dynasty oracle bones, as well as Zhou bronze inscriptions and other sources. These reconstructions, as exemplified in S. J. Marshall's The Mandate of Heaven: Hidden History in the I Ching (2001) and Richard Rutt's Zhouyi: The Book of Changes (1996), question the traditional chronology as improbable. Those researching the text have been helped immensely by the discovery of intact Han dynasty era tombs in Mawangdui near Changsha, Hunan province. One of the tombs contained more or less complete second century B.C.E. texts of the Yi Jing, the Dao De Jing and other works, which are mostly similar, yet in some cases significantly divergent from the "received," or traditional, texts previously seen as being canonical.
The tomb texts include additional, previously unknown commentaries on the Yin Jing, some of which are attributed to Confucius. All of the Mawangdui texts are many centuries older than the earliest known attestations of the texts in question. When talking about the evolution of the Book of Changes, therefore, the modernists contend that it is important to distinguish between the traditional history assigned to texts such as the I Ching (felt to be anachronistic by the Modernists), ascriptions in commentaries that have themselves been canonized over the centuries along with their subjects, and the more recent scholarly history, bolstered by modern linguistic textual criticism and archaeology. Many hold that these perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, though, for instance, many modernist scholars doubt the actual existence of Fuxi, think Confucius had nothing to do with the Book of Changes, and contend that the hexagrams predated the trigrams. Modern textual scholarship, comparing poetic usage and formulaic phrasing in this book with that in ancient bronze inscriptions, has shown that the text cannot be attributed to King Wen or Zhou Gong, and that it likely was not compiled until the late Western Zhou, perhaps ca. the late ninth century B.C.E. Likewise, rather than being seen as the work of one or several legendary or historical figures, the core divinatory text is now thought to be an accretion of Western Zhou divinatory concepts. As for the traditionally attribution of the Shi Yi commentaries to Confucius, scholars from the time of the eleventh century C.E. scholar Ouyang Xiu onward have doubted this, based on textual analysis, and modern scholars date most of them to the late Warring States period, with the some section perhaps being as late as the Western Han period.
The Yi Jing's text consists of a set of predictions represented by a set of 64 abstract line arrangements called hexagrams (卦 guà). Each of these figures is, in turn, composed of six stacked horizontal lines (爻 yáo), where each line is either Yang (an unbroken, or solid line) or Yin (a broken or open line with a gap in the centre). With six such lines stacked from bottom to top, there are 26 or 64 possible combinations, yielding the 64 hexagrams and their respective predictions.
These hexagrams are conceptually subdivided into two three-line arrangements called trigrams (卦 guà), such that there are 23 (hence 8) possible trigrams. The traditional view was that the hexagrams were a later development and that they emerged from each possible combination of the two trigrams. However, in the earliest relevant archaeological evidence, groups of numerical symbols on many Western Zhou bronzes and a very few Shang oracle bones, such groups were already typically appearing in sets of six. Though a few trigrams have been discovered, they unilaterally belong to a later date (see, e.g., Shaugnessy 1993).
Though many different arrangements of the hexagrams have been proposed throughout the years, the King Wen sequence (attributed to the Zhou dynasty monarch) is the one utilized in most contemporary editions of the book.
As mentioned above, the solid line in each hexagram represents yang, the creative principle, and the open line represents yin, the receptive principle. These principles are also represented in a common circular symbol (☯), known as taijitu (太極圖), but more commonly known in the west as the yin-yang (陰陽) diagram, expressing the idea of complementarity of changes: when Yang is at top, Yin is increasing, and the reverse. The conceptual relationship between the taijitu and the eight trigrams explains the frequent occurence of both symbols on the Ba Gua compasses used in Chinese geomancy (feng shui).
In the following lists, the trigrams and hexagrams are represented using a common textual convention, horizontally from left-to-right, using '|' for yang and '¦' for yin, rather than the traditional bottom-to-top. In a more modern usage, the numbers 0 and 1 can also be used to represent yin and yang, being read left-to-right.
There are eight possible trigrams (八卦 bāguà):
|Trigram Figure||Binary Value||Name||Nature||Direction|
|1||||| (☰)||111||Force (乾 qián)||heaven (天)||northwest|
|2||||¦ (☱)||110||Open (兌 duì)||swamp (澤)||west|
|3|||¦| (☲)||101||Radiance (離 lí)||fire (火)||south|
|4|||¦¦ (☳)||100||Shake (震 zhèn)||thunder (雷)||east|
|5||¦|| (☴)||011||Ground (巽 xùn)||wind (風)||southeast|
|6||¦|¦ (☵)||010||Gorge (坎 kǎn)||water (水)||north|
|7||¦¦| (☶)||001||Bound (艮 gèn)||mountain (山)||northeast|
|8||¦¦¦ (☷)||000||Field (坤 kūn)||earth (地)||southwest|
Hexagram Lookup Table
The first three lines of the hexagram, called the lower trigram, are seen as the inner aspect of the change that is occurring. The upper trigram (the last three lines of the hexagram), is the outer aspect. The change described is thus the dynamic of the inner (personal) aspect relating to the outer (external) situation. Thus, hexagram 04 ¦|¦¦¦| Enveloping, is composed of the inner trigram ¦|¦ Gorge, relating to the outer trigram ¦¦| Bound. Using this knowledge, it is possible to find any hexagram in the table below, by noting which trigrams it is constructed from.
As mentioned above, the text of the I Ching describes each of the 64 hexagrams, with later scholars appending commentaries and analyses to each. The majority of editions of the text comprise the "original" text and some of the more common (or popular) commentaries. The 64 hexagrams are as follows:
Though the hexagrams are seen to possess "natures" or "characters" (as evidenced by the names given to them), they are understood as mere mnemonics for the particular states of qi that each are thought to represent. The philosophy behind this centers around the ideas of balance through opposition and acceptance of change.
As mentioned in the introduction, the Yi Jing (despite its hallowed place in the annals of philosophy) was first and most popularly a divination manual. Indeed, it has long been used as an oracle, with a variety of different means of "casting" one's reading (i.e. yarrow stalks, flipping coins, counting the cracks in bones or pieces of stone (the oracle bone method)). In each case, the randomly-generated number is converted into a hexagram, which is seen as representing the flow of energies (qi) in to and out of the situation in question. As such, each hexagram is understood to represent a description of a state or process.
When a hexagram is cast using one of the traditional processes of divination, each of the yin or yang lines will be indicated as either moving (that is, changing), or fixed (that is, unchanging). Moving (also sometimes called "old," or "unstable") lines will change to their opposites, that is "young" lines of the other type—old yang becoming young yin, and old yin becoming young yang. When interpreting one's fortune, both hexagrams are considered (the initial casting and the "derived" figure (generated through the transformation of old lines)), as this is understood to provide a more detailed insight into the situation being explored.
As eloquently explained by Richard J. Smith:
The sixty-four hexagrams of the I-ching and their constituent trigrams and individual lines, together with written decisions (t'uan), appended judgments (hsi-tz'u or hsiao-tz'u) and commentaries, reflected and explained various predestined situations evolving out of natural patterns and processes of eternal cosmic change. According to the "Great Commentary" (Ta-chuan or Hsi-tz'u chuan), the I-ching served as a kind of medium that allowed the person consulting it to establish a spiritual link with heaven and to be able [to] divine the future by means of the tortoise shell and milfoil stalks, through the interpretation of omens, by observing the planets and stars, and by means of numerical devices such as the "Yellow River Chart" (Ho-t'u) and "Lo River Writing" (Lo-shu) (Smith, 147-148).
Gradations of binary expression based on yin and yang (such as old yang, old yin, young yang or young yin) are the heart of the hexagrams. Intriguingly, later philosophers did not abandon this divinatory manual, treating it instead as a source of insight into the fundamental workings of the universe. As argued by Wing Tsit-Chan,
the important point is that the universe is not just a well-ordered state of existence in which all things are correlated and man and Nature form a unity, as envisaged by the Yin Yang School. What is more, it is a continuous change, for things are forever interfused and intermingled. The universe is a realm of perpetual activity (Chan, 263). In this way, despite the text's irrefutable divinatory origins, it was understood to provide a deep and valid description of the nature of reality. The understanding of the transformations of yin and yang popularized by the text proved to be one of the most enduring elements of the Chinese worldview, "influencing fields as varied as mathematics, science, medicine, martial arts, philosophy, history, literature, art, ethics, military affairs and religion."
Intriguingly, all major religio-philosophical schools in China have some claim on the text. The Daoists inherited the entirety of this cosmology, where the doctrine of a naturally changing world can be seen eloquently argued for in the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi. Likewise, their interest in promoting longevity through the manipulation of qi led them to internalize these teachings, which gave rise to Daoist alchemy. Conversely, the Confucians also have strong connections to the text, as
- The Wings or Appendices are attributed to Confucius.
- It is one of the Five Confucian Classics.
- The study of the I Ching was required as part of the Civil Service Exams.
- It does not appear in any surviving editions of the Dao Zheng (Daoist canon).
- The major commentaries were written by Confucians or Neo-Confucians.
Finally, the text has also been shown to have influenced Chinese Buddhism, as Fa-tsang, patriarch of the Hua-yen school, is believed to have drawn upon the Yi Jing in developing his own philosophal position (Lai, 1980)
In this way, it seems evident that the Yi Jing was at the heart of Chinese thought, serving as a common ground for the Confucian, Daoist and (to a lesser extent) Buddhist schools. Though the text was partly forgotten due to the rise of Chinese Buddhism during the Tang dynasty, it returned to the attention of scholars during the Song period. This reassessment was primarily prompted by the challenge of Buddhist metaphysics, as the orthodox Confucian position was relatively silent on such philosophical issues. The Yi Jing, long recognized as a scriptural classic, provided the Song Neo-Confucian thinkers with a deep and malleable cosmological schema, which allowed them to synthesize classical Yin-Yang thought and Buddhist cosmology with Confucian and Mencian ethics. This newly created syncretism, expressed most forcefully by Zhu Xi, was persuasive enough to become Imperial orthodoxy for over six hundred years.
- Anthony, Carol K. & Hanna Moog. I Ching: The Oracle of the Cosmic Way. Stow, Massachusetts: Anthony Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. ISBN 1890764000. The publisher's internet address is www.ichingoracle.com.
- Benson, Robert G. 2003. I Ching for a New Age: The Book of Answers for Changing Times. New York: Square One Publishers.
- Blofeld, J. 1965. The Book of Changes: A New Translation of the Ancient Chinese I Ching New York: E. P. Dutton.
- Huang, A. 1998. The Complete I Ching: the Definitive Translation From the Taoist Master Alfred Huang. Rochester, NY: Inner Traditions.
- Hua-Ching Ni. 1999. I Ching: The Book of Changes and the Unchanging Truth, 2nd edition. Los Angeles: Seven Star Communications.
- Legge, J. 1964. I Ching: Book of Changes, With introduction and study guide by Ch'u Chai and Winberg Chai. New York: Citadel Press.
- I Ching, The Classic of Changes. The first English translation of the newly discovered second-century B.C.E. Mawangdui texts by Edward L. Shaughnessy, Ballantine, 1996. ISBN 0345362438.
- Wilhelm, R. & C. Baynes. 1967. The I Ching or Book of Changes, With forward by Carl Jung 3rd. ed., Bollingen Series XIX. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press (1st ed. 1950).
- Lynn, Richard J. 1994. The Classic of Changes, A New Translation of the I Ching as Interpreted by Wang Bi. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231082940
- Wei, Wu 2005. I Ching, The Book Of Answers. Power Press ISBN 0943015413 New revised edition, interpreted by Wu Wei. Appears to follow the Wilhelm and Baynes translation real well, leaving out the sometimes confusing mechanics. Would be handy to use in conjunction with Wilhelm and Baynes when divining for the lay person.
- (易一名而含三義：易簡一也；變易二也；不易三也。 commented on by Zheng Xuan (鄭玄 zhèng xúan) in his writings Critique of I Ching (易贊 yì zàn) and Commentary on I Ching (易論 yì lùn) of Eastern Han Dynasty).
- The chapter names used below are taken from the R. Wilhelm translation.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Chan, Wing-Tsit. "The Philosophy of Change." in Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963. 262-270.
- Herbie Brennan, 1973. "The Syncronistic Barometer." Analog (August 1973).
- Lai, W. 1980 "The I-ching and the Formation of the Hua-yen Philosophy" Journal of Chinese Philosophy 7 (1980): 245-258. Online article, D. Reidel Publishing. Accessed: 2007-01-04.
- Marshall, S. 2001. The Mandate of Heaven: Hidden History in the I Ching. New York: Columbia University Press
- Reifler, Samuel. 1974. I Ching: A New Interpretation for Modern Times. New York: Bantam New Age Books. ISBN 0553278738
- Rutt, R. 1996. Zhouyi: The Book of Changes. Curzon Press.
- Shaughnessy, Edward L. (1993). “I ching 易經 (Chou I 周易),” in Loewe, Michael (ed.) Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. (Early China Special Monograph Series No. 2), Society for the Study of Early China, and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, ISBN 1557290431, 216-228.
- Smith, Richard J. "Divination in Ch'ing Dynasty China" in Cosmology, Ontology, and Human Efficacy: Essays in Chinese Thought, Edited by Richard J. Smith and D. W. Y. Kwok. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993. ISBN 0824811436.
- Wu, Chung, The Essentials of the Yi Jing, St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2003. ISBN 157788278.
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