How the Mawangdui Yijing (易經) Differs from the Received Version

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The Mawangdui (馬王堆) version of the Yijing (Classic of Change) was discovered in China in Changsha, Hunan province in 1973, in a Han Dynasty royal tomb, the occupant of which (Li Cang) had died in 168 BCE. It was not written upon bamboo strips, but rather upon two silk panels.  According to the US academic Edward Shaughnessy, this text might have been written around 190 BCE (due to the avoidance of certain characters in the ‘taboo’ imperial name of emperor Liu Bang [r. 202-195 BCE], but including a character found in the imperial name of emperor Hui, Liu Ying [194-188 BCE]). Whatever the case, as a complete text, it cannot be older than the time of Confucius – as it carries his philosophical statements. The preservation was generally good, and the text was able to be read by modem Chinese academics and eventually translated into English (although there was some damage of the characters along the folded seams).  Around the time the Mawangdui tomb was sealed (in 168 BCE), the Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian (145-186 BCE) knew of the received version – and mentioned every part known today except for the 10th Wing (which indicates that it was added after the lifetime of Sima Qian).  It is clear from modern Chinese scholarship, that the Yijing developed from the Zhouyi, and did so in observable layers (dealt with in my other articles). The traditional story of the origination of the Yijing is the product of much later Confucian myth-making, but nevertheless, the text itself is of an ancient origination (being at least three thousand years old), and probably based on some type of earlier archaic collective memory formulated in the distant past. However, whilst Sima Qian was busy confirming the existence of the Yijing during his life-time, the Mawangdui tomb demonstrates that at least one other version of the Yijing existed (one that Sima Qian was evidently unaware of).

The Mawangdui Yijing differs from the received version in the following ways:

1) There are 64 hexagrams, but the Mawangdui order differs from the received version. They are arranged according to 8 palaces, with each palace comprised of 8 hexagrams containing the same upper trigram

2) The Mawangdui Yijing possesses 34 hexagrams that have different names to those found in the received version.  These hexagrams use phonetical ideograms that sound similar to those found in the received version, but which carry completely different meanings.

3) Around half of the line commentaries contain notable differences.

4) The Ten Wings section either has entire sections missing (such as the order of the succession of hexagrams found in the 9th wing), or sections that are incomplete. The ‘Images’ (contained in the 3rd and 4th wings) are missing, as is the final paragraph of the 8th wing which describes the attributes of the trigrams.  The 5th and 6th wings are present, but a few passages in the 6th wing are missing.

5) In the ‘Great Treatise’ (大傳) version of the received text (i.e. the combined commentaries of the 5th and 6th wings), it is stated that ‘taiji’ (太極) is the central and defining concept that serves as the foundation and regulation of existence.  However, within the Mawangdui equivalent of the ‘Great Treatise’ (translated as the ‘Appended Statements’), the principal of ‘taiji’ is replaced with that of ‘Great Endurance’ (大恆 – Da Heng).

6) The trigrams are neither present, and nor are they identified in the Mawangdui version, implying that the use of trigrams did not become associated with the Yijing until a later date (although this information is contained in the 8th wing of the received edition).

7) Much of the question and answer section contained in the Mawangdui Yijing, does not appear in the received version.

8) There are some Chinese ideograms used in the Mawangdui Yijing text that are difficult to read in China, and the meaning of which continue to remain obscure.

Whatever Sima Qian was reviewing as the ‘received’ version of the Yijing (which the later Tang Dynasty would have engraved onto stone tablets), it is likely that it did not include the use or mention of the trigrams. As well as the 10th wing being absent, other aspects of the Ten Wing commentaries might also have been lacking at this time.  This can be ascertained from the fact that the earlier Zhouyi says absolutely nothing about the theory or function of trigrams, and suggests that the ‘science’ of trigrams developed at a later date, presumably through the logic and reason of the Han Dynasty (and later) Confucian School.  However, other aspects of the Mawangdui Yijing – such as the hexagram and line commentaries – compare favourably with the received version.  Finally, it is recorded that in 279 CE, the tomb of King Xiang of Wei was discovered (according to the History of the Jin Dynasty). King Xiang died in 296 BCE, and buried with him was a copy of the Yijing that was ‘older’ than the Mawangdui Yijing, but which was said to be exactly the same in structure and design as the ‘received’ version.

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