The Chinese I Ching, or Book of Changes, is one of the oldest and strangest of all books, a masterpiece of world literature, a divination manual, and a magnet for the deranged and the obsessive. In Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, novelist and philosopher Will Buckingham puts the I Ching to work, using it to weave together 64 stories of chance and change, each flowing from one of the I Ching’s 64 hexagrams. Moving between myth, fable, and travel writing, the collection offers an attempt to make sense of the maddening, changeable book that is the I Ching, with tales of inventors and fox-spirits, ancient poets and nonexistent rulers, kleptomaniac pensioners and infernal bureaucrats. Like the I Ching itself, this new Book of Changes is a puzzle, a conundrum, and a journey of many transformations, where nothing is quite what it seems.
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About the Author
Will Buckingham is a novelist, philosopher, and children’s author whose published works include Cargo Fever; The Descent of the Lyre; Finding Our Sea-Legs; Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling; and The Snorgh and the Sailor. He is a senior lecturer in creative writing at De Montfort University in Leicester, England.
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Sixty-Four Chance Pieces
A Book of Changes
By Will Buckingham
Earnshaw BooksCopyright © 2015 Will Buckingham
All rights reserved.
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In part, we owe the continued existence of the I Ching to China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang. The historian Sima Qian tells of how the emperor burned all the books in the kingdom, buried hundreds of scholars alive, and built a great wall at the edges of the empire. Only three classes of books were saved from the fires: books on agriculture, medical works, and divinatory texts, amongst them the I Ching. The name of the first hexagram, qian, is often translated as 'creative' or 'active'; it is contrasted with the second hexagram, kun, which can be translated 'receptive' or 'passive'. According to the Commentary on the Attached Phrases, qian and kun are like the opening and closing of a door: they set the bounds between which all change takes place. In this tale, I have reimagined the story of Qin Shihuang, thinking in particular of the line-statement associated with the third line of hexagram one: 'the nobleman acts ceaselessly until the day's end, and in the evening is on guard against dangers: there will be no blame.'
* * *
The snow started to come down soon after sunset. The young scholar Li Si, having left the state of Chu behind, was travelling abroad, unmoored like a boat adrift in the stream. A storm from the west blew in, the snow turned to sleet, and the wind tugged at his robe so that his bones shivered. And when at last exhaustion got the better of him, Li Si saw the hut by the side of the road, little more than a few planks of wood, a roof of woven grass, a floor of trodden earth. He pushed open the door and went inside. It was cold and smelled of human shit. Li Si crouched down, made himself a fire, and with the composure of a sage unfurled his books of bound bamboo strips, and sat reading the words of Confucius, tracing the letters by the flickering light of the flames.
When he was too tired to read any more, he placed the book down, gazed into the flames and thought of home. He was so lost in nostalgic dreaming that he did not see the spark that leapt from the fire; and there is no way of knowing how much of the history of the world has hinged upon that moment when the fire popped and a pinprick of heat kindled on the fragile bamboo. It was only when he felt the hairs begin to burn on the back of his hand that Li Si was dragged away from thoughts of home by the sight of his bamboo books ablaze. But by then it was too late. In a moment, wisdom became no more than soot and ash.
Unable to sleep, for the remainder of the night Li Si remained watching the fire; and by the following grey dawn, when the mud of the road was dusted with a light covering of white, he looked upon the world with a renewed vigilance, and knew that he could not give his life to something so easily ruined.
Much later, whilst he was in the city of Xianyang, employed in the service of the state of Qin, the emperor called for him. Qin Shihuang seemed agitated as he sat upon his throne, his face pale in the flickering light. For months now, the scholars had been protesting that the emperor's rule was nothing compared to that of the former kings Yao, Shun and Yu, that he failed to follow the Four Books and the Five Classics, that he squandered metal and labour in the construction of huge bells to sound at dawn and dusk, that he was dissolute and unfilial.
'What,' the emperor asked Li Si, 'are we to do?'
And, reminded of that distant night as he travelled from the state of Chu, Li Si told him about the hillside hut, about the spark, and about how easily words written on bamboo can be destroyed. The emperor asked him the meaning of his story, and in reply Li Si proposed a solution to the emperor's problems so perfect and elegant and terrible that it could only have been conceived by a philosopher. 'On the fringes of the empire,' he said, 'we must build a wall so that we are untroubled from outside. And within this wall, we should burn the books of the scholars, so that we are untroubled from within. There will be no more talk of Yao or Shun or Yu ...'
The emperor hesitated, twisting the hairs of his beard between his fingers. Outside the throne room, moonlight pooled in the courtyard. 'Let it be done,' he said.
Li Si smiled. 'Very well,' he said. 'But let us spare books on agriculture, for the people need to eat. Let us spare books on medicine, because bodies fall sick and need healing. And let us spare the I Ching, because ...'
'Because?' the emperor asked, leaning forward intently.
The philosopher sighed, and waved his hand as if casting around for a reason. 'There is no possibility that is not reflected in the pages of the Changes,' he said. 'If we destroy this book, we destroy the possibility of our success.'
The emperor did not smile. 'But if we destroy this book, we also destroy the possibility of my downfall.'
The flames from the oil lamps snapped in the breeze. The two men stood motionless for a while. Then Li Si found the courage to speak again. 'Let us build a wall, but let there be spaces in the wall, so the empire has room to breathe and does not suffocate under its own patch of sky. Let us burn the books, but let us spare the Changes, because greatness comes not from fleeing danger, but instead from turning danger to one's advantage.'
The emperor sighed and sat back in his throne. Nothing was ever as perfect, as absolute as he desired. There were always concessions, exceptions, special cases.
The oil lamps flickered. Li Si's face was in shadow: the emperor could not read his expression. He dismissed the minster with a gesture.
Through all the nights that followed, the fires burned so strongly in the city of Xianyang that the birds, believing it to be day, sang from dusk until dawn. The scholars were led away to the frontiers bound in ropes of plaited leather, so they might heap piles of earth to make walls and ramparts. And the emperor sat on his throne gazing at the flickering oranges, reds and golds of the sky, a single book of bound bamboo upon his lap, a clutch of yarrow stalks in his hand.
* * *
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Clustering around the first hexagram are connotations of sunlight, of the heavens and of activity. In contrast, the second hexagram, kun, is all about the Earth, shade, receptivity, waiting. The text of the second hexagram simmers with images: mares; hoarfrost underfoot; tied up sacks; yellow robes; dragons warring in the fields, spilling their dark blood upon the soil. And yet, if the story in the previous chapter came to me fully-formed, without any great struggle, when it came to kun, for a long time I was at an impasse. I struggled and failed, and struggled again and failed again, the images stubbornly refusing to coalesce into anything like a story. 'First it is lost,' the text reads, 'and then it is attained ... stillness augurs good fortune.' It was only after several years, one frosty morning as I sat at my desk, that these images gathered together as if of their own accord and the following story emerged. Invention is not just a matter of activity; it also requires the ability to wait. The fourteenth century writer Lu Juren said that the point at which stories and poems arise is 'the border between hard work and laziness.' Our minds are not our own. Sometimes they need to be put out to graze, so that they find their own way. So, if you were to ask how I came by this story, I would say: I took the images from the hexagram — the hot breath of the mares in the fields, the yellowed robes, the hoarfrost underfoot — and I left the rest to the myriad transformations of things.
* * *
She had been alive a long time. At the last count, it was thirteen hundred and thirty-one years; but that was already long ago, and she had long given up counting. It was not that she had not grown old, it was only that, on the night before her one hundred and seventeenth birthday, a night that should have been the night of her death, there settled over her a kind of frost, and somehow she failed to die.
Her deathlessness was attained without any elixir of immortality, without long hours in meditation and mortification of the flesh, without any retreat to the mountains. And although a singular circumstance, it could in no way be considered an achievement. Her life had been no different from any other. It was only that, when it came to death, it was as if she had missed the boat, if it is indeed the case, as certain sages have maintained, that the journey to the other world is by boat and not by horse or by camel or — who knows? times change — by helicopter. So she went on living into her one hundred and eighteenth year, and into the year that followed, and again into the year after that.
She had been married three times, to three men. The first, a drinker, a good-for-nothing and a thief, was caught stealing a bronze drinking cup of little worth from a local dignitary. He was tried, sentenced, tied in a bag with snakes and scorpions, and thrown in the river. The second husband was better. He was so good that when he walked it was as if his feet did not make contact with the dust of the ground. She had loved him at first, but goodness makes a poor bedfellow. She was relieved when he eventually left their home, put on a saffron robe, and departed in pursuit of some monkish goal or other. Then there was the third husband. He had what they call a noble bearing. His warrior's heart simmered in his breast like a pot of hot stew. He was there, briefly and passionately, and then he rode out to the fields where two armies clashed like dragons, and blood flowed under the impassive stars. He did not come back.
After that, she was too old for husbands. She lived quietly in her small house, set a little apart from the village on the banks of a small stream, surrounded by unploughed fields. She watched things grow in spring and wither in autumn. She felt the sun on her face in the summer and the bitter snow in winter. Years, decades, slipped away like water.
There was nothing exceptional about her, other than that death had withdrawn its attention from her. At first she waited expectantly for the time of her dying; then she railed against death for its coy refusal to attend to her; then she attempted to entice it with sweet prayers; but in the end she forgot all about it, as if it were another lover or husband, long departed. Only occasionally, in spring, when the trees put forth new shoots, did she think to herself: how strange that I am still alive.
I was the last living person to meet her. This was three, perhaps four decades ago. Now I am old, and my memory is not what it was. But back then, I was travelling in the provinces in late winter, wandering here and there, enjoying the final days of my youth. I was soon to be starting a new job, and I knew this freedom would come to an end, that I should savour it because it might never come again.
One evening, on what turned out to be the last night of winter, I came to a house by the side of a small stream. A tree bent its branches over the water. In the distant fields I could see a mare, stamping her foot. I was lost and cold. My watch had stopped. A light came from the house. These things I am telling you are notsymbols pointing to hidden truths, they are simply what I saw, things I am recording as faithfully as I am able.
I knocked on the door and she answered, a frail figure with a stick and a shawl. She invited me in, gave me water, prepared a place for me to sit, and offered me food. Over dinner, I told her I had aspirations to become a writer, and when I asked if I might stay the night, she said I could, but only on the condition that I listen to her story. It would not take long, she said, for although the years were many, there was nothing much of incident to be told. When her story was done, she said, I should write it down, so that others might read it.
I agreed to do as she asked, so she opened a bottle of firewater, filled two sturdy glasses, and as we drank she told me all there was to tell. I listened until the night was well advanced, until the fire was burning low in the metal stove, until the firewater was finished. Then, in the silence that followed, I looked out of the window at the constellations burning in the sky, and saw the dragon beginning to nudge its horns over the horizon while the mare out in the fields whinnied and then fell silent.
The woman said she was tired and wished to retire for the night. I lay down by the warm stove on a mat of woven rushes, and I slept.
I found her the following morning. Her body was cold and frosted in her bed. There were no relatives to inform. We were far from police stations, hospitals and morgues. So I laid her in the ground, hard with hoarfrost, as the mare in the field stood watching, her head hanging low. Then I went on my way, spring sunshine beginning to break through the mist.
* * *
3. Difficulty at the Beginning
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It was with the Jesuit missionaries that the I Ching first appeared in the West; but when those subtle and learned thinkers peered into the obscure mirror that is the I Ching, it was the truths of the Bible that they saw. They believed that after the great flood, Noah's son Shem travelled East to China, carrying with him the original knowledge once possessed by Adam in the Garden.
At the very beginning of the eighteenth century, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz — who had a strong interest in the new knowledge that at that time was flowing from China — wrote to the Jesuit missionary Father Joachim Bouvet. In his letter, Leibniz outlined for Bouvet the system of binary logic that he was developing. In reply, Bouvet sent Leibniz an image of an ordering of the hexagrams of the I Ching devised by the eleventh century scholar Shao Yong.
When Leibniz saw Shao Yong's scheme he was astonished, for in the series of figures laid out on the page before him, with their broken and unbroken lines, he saw an exact parallel of his binary system. And so the philosopher began to dream of a universal language of thought, a science that, perfect and perfectly rational, could account for all things through the combination and recombination of the simplest possible elements: shuffling zeroes and ones, being and nothingness.
The name of the third hexagram, zhun, is often translated as 'difficulty at the beginning'. It is here, for the first time, that the broken and unbroken, yin and yang, lines that make up the hexagrams begin to interact, and once they do, disorder begins to spread through the system of the I Ching, like ripples through a pond, a subtle dynamic of creativity and receptivity, action and stillness. From here on in, anything might happen.
Beginnings and re-beginnings always involve something out of the ordinary, a grain of difficulty or of indeterminacy, that unforeseeable swerving of a single atom which the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius called the clinamen. To make use of the I Ching is to play at the boundaries between order and disorder. Nothing is born from order or disorder alone. For the arising of anything at all — solid bodies, stars, worlds, animals, human beings, poems, stories, in short, that mass of phenomena that the Chinese designate as wanwu, or the ten thousand things — both order and disorder are necessary. There is no life without uncertainty, without glitches and instabilities, without the bugs in the computer code, without chance elements, the unforeseeable and the unexpected.
* * *
Leibniz slept. Dreaming of a world that streamed in a perfectly ordered series of zeroes and ones; dreaming of an emperor who spared a book written only in broken and unbroken lines; dreaming of innumerable drops of water containing whole universes, inside each universe innumerable drops of water, inside each drop more universes; dreaming of a broad field where a mare whinnied and a woman waited for a long-postponed death; dreaming of men and women seated before strange machines capable of bringing all the world's knowledge within their grasp; dreaming of a perfect language beyond words. And when he woke, he reached for his wig, the very first thing a philosopher must do on waking, brains being more inclined to thought when they are warm.
The philosopher noticed that the winter chill was gone, that the sun was touching the rooftops, that the wind was beating against the wall outside, that it was spring. He rubbed a hand over the bald skin of his head, settled his wig in place — a little lopsided for it was still early and his faculties were not yet as sharp as they might be — and he picked up his pen.
Father Bouvet's letter lay to one side, thumbed and re-thumbed. A grid of sixty-four symbols, not unlike a chessboard, these same symbols encircling the grid like the sixty-four points of a clock belonging to a god who had eternity to measure.
It was precisely then, his wig still aslant, that he saw it, if only for a moment: a vision given to him in a single instant, a vision that trembled beneath every one of the ninety paragraphs of his treatise, endlessly reflected in that infinite regress of droplets containing worlds containing droplets containing worlds, a vision so troubling and strange, that it is quite beyond the capacity of any story to contain it. Writing, it has been said, does not fully convey speech; speech does not fully convey meaning. So how much better it would be if we could hear Leibniz himself tell of this vision, how much better still if we could succumb to the same vision ourselves. But Leibniz is long gone, and visions are hard to summon. We must work with what we have. We must relate the tale, hoping that it suffices.
Excerpted from Sixty-Four Chance Pieces by Will Buckingham. Copyright © 2015 Will Buckingham. Excerpted by permission of Earnshaw Books.
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Table of Contents
Appendix: On Consulting the I Ching,
Key to the Hexagrams,
Index of Themes, Personages and Works,