Demystify the Origins of the Yijing (易經)

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The ‘Yijing’ (易經) is commonly known in the West as the ‘Book of Changes’, but this designation is incorrect.  Literally speaking, ‘Yijing’ means ‘Change Classic’, with its older Chinese name being ‘Zhouyi’ (周易), or ‘Zhou Changes’.  As a ‘jing’ (經) is an authoritative text believed to contain a sublime wisdom that cannot be improved upon (assumed to have been written by an enlightened or immortal sage), to refer to it as a ‘book’ (書 – Shu) is inadequate, as a ‘book’, from the traditional Chinese viewpoint, can in theory be written by anyone (even if such texts contain vast knowledge).  Suitable English language translations are ‘Classic of Change’ (Yijing), or ‘Changes of Zhou’ (Zhouyi).  Referring to the Yijing as a ‘book’ demeans and relegates its historical placement within Chinese cultural thought as a ‘special’ text, the profound content of which is beyond works of ordinary or mundane literature.  Within the context of Chinese thought (both ancient and modern), the title of a philosophical text is very important and conveys a strength beyond the literal meaning of the words used to convey the meaning.  This is because language, and its usage in China, is considered to contain a psychological and physical ‘force’ that has the power (through bad, poor, or deficient phrasing and unclear thinking) to bring chaos to the world, or through correct phrasing and clear-thinking, to bring or maintain order to the world.

This attitude toward language is exactly the same today within Mainland China as it was around three thousand years ago, when the oracle that evolved into the Yijing was being formulated during the era of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1134-771 BCE), although modern archaeological finds in China suggest that earlier dynasties did in fact utilise similar primitive divination oracles.  The speculation is that these earlier oracles may have been conceptually and historically linked to the Zhouyi of the Zhou Dynasty.  As the majority of people in ancient China were illiterate, the Zhouyi was the sole property of the King and his Court (including notable aristocrats), and was administered by a cadre of specially trained shamans.  The Zhouyi texts, such as the hexagram names, judgements and associated line statements, suggest a reasonably developed, but still primitive feudal society (dominated by a doctoral ruling house) that had not yet developed agriculture as a mainstay of society.  Hunting, herding, fishing, gathering plants, going on long journeys (by land and water), going to war, consulting a wise or powerful person, or arranging marriages are mentioned far more regularly than planting or growing crops (which although mentioned in a relatively few cases, do not occupy a position of central concern within the Zhou society of its time). If agriculture had been prominent during the Western Zhou Dynasty, logic dictates that the cycles of nature, planting, harvesting and rotating (and fertilising) fields would have featured more readily in a body of literature that developed during that time. Of course, if the Zhou had ‘inherited’ certain archaic oracle divination texts from earlier dynasties, and assuming that these texts would have manifest the redundant concerns of those earlier times, it would have been in the best interest of the Zhou to have ‘updated’ the text, and yet systemic agriculture remains obscure at this time.

The shamans used a codified ‘language’ as a means to ‘consult’ a divine and all-knowing spirit that existed in the sky (from at least the late Shang Dynasty, a process that continued into the Zhou Dynasty).  Ox scapulae and turtle plastron were the preferred material to etch a request or a question upon.  A hot poker was applied to the bone in question, and the resultant rising smoke, it was believed, carried the message into the ‘divine-sky’. The divine entity ‘answered’ the enquiry by making the bone ‘crack’ into various patterns, patterns that only the shamans could correctly ‘interpret’. The derived answer or ‘judgement’ was then etch onto the bone next to the question, and over-time a vast library of ‘divinations’ was built-up.  This saw a process of clarification carried-out by the shamans when they began to associate ‘specific’ patterns of cracked bone with particular questions and definite answers.  This filtering process culminated in a ‘fixed’ and ’pre-determined’ text that eventually led to the demise of permanent shamans.  With the correct education, anyone could consult the Zhouyi, but as most people could not read, it remained primarily a text of aristocratic concerns.

When the Zhouyi was gathered together and standardised to form 64 ‘symbols’ (卦 – Gua), the interpretations of the shamans (which had ‘intuitively’ emerged from their imaginations) were no longer required.  The established early text contained an entire raft of answers to 64 possible situations, and through the moving six lines of commentary, innumerable permutations.  This is not to say that the Zhouyi began its existence with hexagrams (or six-lined structures), or trigrams (three-lined structures) as many believe.  Trigrams were probably added much later, and there is some debate in China (and the West) as to whether the earliest ‘Gua’ were comprised of pentagrams (or five-lined structures).  There is no reason for the Gua to be hexagrams, and a five-lined structure would have been more in keeping with the five phases of qi transformation (五行 – Wu Xing), and the five planets known to have existed in ancient Chinese astrology.  Whatever its origins, what was eventually developed (primarily through the genius of later Confucian scholarship), was a self-contained manual of psychological and physical guidance.  The Yijing of the Han Dynasty, for instance, no longer required the ‘divine-sky’ to be consulted through an elaborate shamanic ritual, but rather the onerous became placed entirely upon the text itself.  Whatever method was used to ‘divine’ a reading, it was aimed in principle at the text itself.  This has remained the case up until the present time, with various interpretations of the Yijing being prevalent in both Mainland China and the West.

Although now linked to DNA, RNA, astronomy, astrology, psychology, quantum physics, Buddhist meditation, Daoist meditation, Confucian wisdom, primary and advanced mathematics, medicine, martial arts, engineering, history, spirit oracles, travel, space exploration and even dating, the dialectical fact remains that the root texts of the Zhouyi-Yijing derive from the socio-economic realities directly associated with the Western Zhou Dynasty. The ‘mysterious’ aspect of the Zhouyi began and ended with the ‘imagination’ of the early shamans, but is today often augmented (and re-invigorated) through the imaginations of those that seek to ‘re-invent’ the Yijing for the 21st century.  This is not to say that the achievement of the development of the early Zhouyi (and later Yijing) are not significant or considerable, or that the Yijing should not be used to break new paradigmatic ground, but rather the ‘mythic’ quality of how the post-modern world interfaces with an ancient ‘pre-modern’ text needs to be seriously re-assessed in the light of modern (secular) scholarship, as it can be reasonably argued that by the time the Han Dynasty (and later) Confucian scholars had ‘transformed’ the Zhouyi text into the received Yijing – Zhou Dynasty mythology had already been replaced with a robust Confucian logic that replaced the reliance upon a disembodied spirit, with an emphasis upon the science of the Yin-Yang School (which developed around 300 BCE).

This ‘new’ Confucian logic was probably responsible for the arrangement of the received 64 hexagrams defined through trigrams and bigrams, all of which derived from a single unbroken (yang) line, and a single broken (yin) line.  This Confucian logic also invented a ‘new’ (rational) mythology not present in the early Zhouyi, that saw ancient sages devising the oracle thousands of years ago, a process which suggested that the trigrams and hexagrams were present from its very inception.  This demonstrates the Confucian habit of ‘venerating’ the past due to the belief that an ‘idyllic’ cultural reality once existed within China, that was both sublime and enlightened in its antiquity.  This is the projection of Confucian genius back into the past, using the vehicle of mythology, and creating an assumed history that never existed in reality.  This is an interpretation of the past premised upon an existential Confucian world-view, that maintained contemporary order through clarity of thought and correctness of behaviour.  This is how the ‘received’ Yijing ‘mystifies’ and ‘obscures’ its own history.  Understanding this reality only serves to enhance the study of Yijing history, and does not demean it in anyway.  Part of the process of bringing order from chaos, is the ability discern ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’.  There is no need to ‘mystify’ the received Yijing for it to have a purpose and relevant presence in the post-modern world, or indeed, modern Communist China.

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