Who Wrote the Yijing (易經)?

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The received ‘traditional’ view of the development of the Yijing, or ‘Classic of Change’, is that the legendary sage (and emperor) Fu Xi (伏羲) – who is thought to have lived during the third millennium BCE – and to have been responsible for inventing writing, proper housing, marriage, herding, netting, weaving and cooking meat.  He is also accredited (in the Great Treatise part of the Ten Wings), with inventing the eight trigrams (八卦 – Ba Gua), and he did this by looking upward and contemplating the expanse of the divine-sky, and by looking downward and studying the myriad forms of earthly existence.  He understood how the birds and beasts existed – each in their own particular niche of nature – and formulated eight three-lined structures comprised of broken and straight-lines.  In this way, or so Fu Xi thought, he was able to communicate with the spirits (above) in such a manner that brought ‘order’ to the earth.  The Great Treatise also specifies that Fu Xi then invented the 64 hexagrams by extrapolating all the possible correlations of combining the eight trigrams into hexagrams.  It is said that because of Fu Xi’s genius, many innovations and inventions arose from the further contemplation of the hexagrams.  This is the legend that appears to ‘logically’ interpret the origins of the Yijing as an unfolding of binary mathematics that began with a single straight-line and a single broken-line, that then formed into bigrams, trigrams and hexagrams.  This model of apparent and ancient mathematical sophistication was presented alongside the story of a divine sage-emperor, who is considered responsible for its generation.  Fu Xi is both a cultural and mathematical genius, who created the foundations of Chinese culture.  However, even a cursory examination of historical fact sheds considerable doubt on this story, even if it is still true that China developed a very early civilisation, and that the Yijing is a work of considerable mathematical import.

Although Fu Xi is said to have lived during the third millennium BCE, the Chinese characters that spell his name – ‘伏羲’ – are not known to have existed prior to the time of the Shang Oracle Bones (c. 1200–1045 BCE), or the Zhou Bronze Inscriptions (1134-256 BCE).  The ideogram ‘伏’ (fu2) does not appear on the Shang Oracle Bones, but does appear on the Zhou Bronze Inscriptions, whereas the ideogram ‘羲’ (xi1) does not appear on either the Shang Oracle Bones or the Zhou Bronze Inscriptions.  Considering the reverence with which Fu Xi is later regarded within Chinese culture, it is logical to assume that his name did not in fact exist during the Shang or Zhou Dynasties – or such a respected and famous person would surely have been mentioned by previous dynasties.  This suggests that the legendary character of Fu Xi is a much later construct within Chinese culture, far removed in time from the epoch he was assumed to have existed within.  Fu Xi appears to be a later cultural construct designed to convey a ‘new’ way of looking at the Yijing.  Therefore, Fu Xi was not the ‘actual’ or ‘real’ founder of the Yijing, but rather a broad mythological manifestation of an ‘ideal’ founder, conducive to the later Confucian habit of eulogising everything ‘old’ and ‘ancient’, and ascribing sagehood to those who lived before.  In this regard, it is interesting to note that two out of three Chinese scholars (from various time periods) did not ascribe the founding of the Yijing to Fu Xi:

1) Sima Qian (145-86 BCE) – stated that it was King Wen (1152–1056 BCE)

2) Zheng Xuan (127-200 CE) – stated that it was Shen Nong (c. 2,500 BCE)

3) Wang Bi (226-249 CE) – state that it was Fu Xi (c. 2,600 BCE)

Two Han Dynasty scholars – Sima Qian and Zheng Xuan – ignore Fu Xi altogether, with only the much later ‘Three Kingdom Period’ scholar Wang Bi paying it any attention.  This must imply that during the Han Dynasty, either the legend of Fu Xi was unknown, or if known, considered too improbable to be true.  On the face of it, Sima Qian appears the more level-headed of the three scholars, with the other two (Zheng Xuan and Wang Bi) preferring the obviously ‘legendary’ route.  Whether or not King Wen actually wrote the Yijing is still a matter of some considerable debate, but this theory at least involves a real person who is known to have existed, even if it transpires that the Yijing simply evolved in discernible stages over various time-periods, with layers of legend and logical sophistication added at later dates – but projected backwards so that they appear to have been present from the beginning.  As everything evolves from the simple toward the complex, it is obvious that the opposite notion that people (or time-periods) in the past were ‘perfect’ and arrived ready-made in that state, this is a Confucian ideal probably developed during and after the Han Dynasty.

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