The I Ching, or Book of Changes, has been one of the two or three most influential books in the Chinese canon. It has been used by people on all levels of society, both as a method of divination and as a source of essential ideas about the nature of heaven, earth, and humankind. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Sung dynasty literati turned to it for guidance in their fundamental reworking of the classical traditions. This book explores how four leading thinkersSu Shih, Shao Yung, Ch'eng I, and Chu Hsiapplied the I Ching to these projects. These four men used the Book of Changes in strikingly different ways. Yet each claimed to find in it a sure foundation for human values. Their work established not only new meanings for the text but also new models for governance and moral philosophy that would be debated throughout the next thousand years of Chinese intellectual history. By focusing on their uses of the I Ching, this study casts a unique light on the complex continuity-within-change and rich diversity of Sung culture.
Originally published in 1990.
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Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching
By Kidder Smith Jr., Peter K. Bol, Joseph A. Adler, Don J. Wyatt
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The I Ching Prior to Sung
Literati in Sung China made claims about the Book of Change that should give us pause. Ch'eng I remarks:
There is not a single thing that those who made the I did not conjoin, from the obscure and bright of heaven-and-earth to the minute subtleties of the various insects, grasses and trees.
His slightly older contemporary Chou Tun-i (1017–1073) asks rhetorically:
How is the I the source of only the Five Classics? It is the mysterious abode of heaven, earth and the spiritual forces.
Shao Yung built his philosophical framework from elements he found in and around the I Ching. Su Shih claimed that
Those who are enlightened bring its tao (way) into practice. For them there is neither coming in nor going out. There is neither inside nor outside. They "flow through the six line-places [of the hexagrams]," and wherever they go "it is fortunate." Even acting as a sage is possible for them.
And Chu Hsi, quoting one of the Appendixes to the I Ching, remarks:
"The I discloses things, completes affairs, and encompasses the tao of all under heaven." This is the general purpose of the I.
Clarifying this, he says:
"To disclose things and to complete affairs" means to enable people to divine in order to understand good and ill fortune and to complete their undertakings. "To encompass the tao of all under heaven" means that once the hexagram lines are set, the tao of all under heaven is contained in them.
These claims challenge modern readers. How can the I Ching contain the tao of everything under heaven? How can this text do, or mean, so many things? While we may never fully share the convictions of Sung literati about these matters, we can begin our own investigation of their claims by asking questions from four familiar perspectives: What is the text of the I Ching? What were its origins? How was it first used? By what methods was it later interpreted? In this way we will move gradually from the I as a readily identifiable set of words to something more problematic, engaging, and powerful.
What is the text? In this sense we can define the I Ching as a closed system, consisting of sixty-four hexagrams and the texts in Chinese that are associated with them. These hexagrams, or six-lined figures, are composed of solid (yang ——) and/or broken (yin ––) lines, one atop the other, for example [??] or [??]. Since each line can be either broken or solid, and since there are six line-places, sixty-four hexagrams can be formed.
Each hexagram has a name. The two examples given above are Ch'ien (Primal Yang [The Creative]) and Fu (Return), the first and twenty-fourth in the sequence. Others are Chun (Sprout [Difficulty at the Beginning]), Shih (Army), T'ai (Peace) and, the last hexagram, Wei-chi (Not Completed [Before Completion]). Each hexagram also has a hexagram statement (t'uan or kua-tz'u) associated with it. That for Ch'ien reads "yüan heng li chen." The original meaning of these words when the I was composed over the early centuries of the first millennium B.C.E. was perhaps "Initial receipt: profitable to divine," indicating that the I could be usefully consulted. But at least as early as the third century B.C.E. this phrase was reread as four qualities: "primal, successful, beneficial, upright." These words have since been combined and interpreted in various ways. Some have directed this phrase of the I away from matters of divination. This rereading represents one of several steps in transforming a specialized divination text into a "classic" (ching) that might eventually support the interest of Sung China's most creative moral thinkers.
The hexagram statement for Fu has changed relatively less in meaning, though its interpretations have also varied, as subsequent chapters will show. It reads:
Return. An offering.
In going out and coming in there will be no illness.
A friend will come without misfortune.
He will turn around and go back on his way (tao).
He will come and return in seven days.
Favorable for having somewhere to go.
These are typical of the hexagram statements. As Arthur Waley has suggested, they contain concrete fragments of late Shang or early Chou life, as well as prognostication phrases like "without fault" or "beneficial whatever one does."
Each line of the hexagram also has a text associated with it; these are called line statements (yao-tz'u). Their language is similar to that of the hexagram statements. For example, the first or bottom line statement of the Ch'ien hexagram reads:
Hidden dragon. Do not act.
One sees a dragon in the field. It is beneficial to see the great man.
The fifth line statement of Fu reads:
Nobly returning, without repentance.
The sixth or top line:
Confused return. Ill fortune. There are calamities and errors. If one were to set troops in motion, it would end in great defeat, bringing ill fortune to the country's ruler. Even in ten years one could not correct it.
The line statements have usually been understood as representing variations on the central theme of the hexagram. Readers, however, have construed the precise nature of this relationship in various ways. The basic text of the I Ching consists of no more than these six-line hexagram configurations, the hexagram names, hexagram statements, and line statements. (The other parts of the I will be discussed below.)
What were its origins? There is general agreement that the I originated as a book of divination around the late second/early first millennium B.C.E. Stalks were cast and somehow counted, leading to an eventual prognostication. It has been thought that the I came from the Chou people, who conquered Shang in the mid-eleventh century B.C.E. Indeed, the most common way of referring to the text in the immediately succeeding centuries was as the Chou I, the Change of Chou. The Shang practiced divination by reading cracks in bones. However, some form of divination by counting seems to have developed well before the end of that dynasty. Research in China over the last decade has addressed forty-odd examples of three- and six-numeral groupings, found as part of inscriptions on late Shang and early Chou oracle bones and bronzes. The association with oracle bones suggests divination; several of the inscriptions accompanying the number groupings make this connection explicit. One text on a bronze vessel reads: "Shih [scribe-diviner] Yu Fu made this treasured precious vessel. Divined: 7–5–8." The I may well have grown out of these practices. However, no clear stages of development have been demonstrated. In particular, no Chinese texts have been found that resemble the hexagram and line statements of today's I Ching.
Recently, two American researchers have developed arguments originally suggested by Chinese scholars on the origin and structure of the hexagram and line statements. Both agree that the I underwent a process of editing by scribe-diviners (shih) in the early centuries of the first millennium B.C.E. But one view stresses the multiple nature of its sources, while the other emphasizes the internal logic imparted by its editors. Writing for the first, Richard Kunst states that the I is a collection of "brief, unconnected notes compiled as an aid to diviners who were already familiar with the subject matter." More specifically, "It came into existence as an orally transmitted, organically evolving anthology of omens and their prognostications, popular sayings, historical anecdotes, and wisdom about nature, which were assembled into a manual around a framework of hexagrams and their solid or broken lines by diviners relying on the manipulation of yarrow stalks to obtain oracles." This theory has the explanatory virtue of making it unnecessary to account for seemingly unrelated line statements within a single hexagram. Expressing the other view, Edward Shaughnessy argues that the I "represents the conscious composition of an editor or editors." For example, the line statements of hexagram #52 Ken (Stopping) refer, with one exception, to the parts of the body from feet to head, and the six lines of hexagram #24 Fu unexceptionally describe a "return" that is beautiful, repeated, sincere or confused.
As this research continues, the early history of the I will eventually emerge with greater clarity. As it does, however, it will diverge more and more from Sung views of how and why the I began. Sung writers received, sometimes skeptically, the tradition that the I was the product of four sages: the legendary hero of culture Fu-hsi; King Wen and the Duke of Chou (founders of the Chou dynasty); and Confucius. Certain modern scholars might study the origins of the I so as to better understand the worldview of late Shang and early Chou. Sung scholars, however, like some other modern readers, studied it as evidence of sagely wisdom in the context of their own search for universal values. Thus as historians we may be separated from Sung figures not merely by a different set of facts but by a fundamentally different set of questions. What these earlier questions were, and how the I was made to speak to them, are the subjects of the subsequent sections.
How was it first used? We possess a few glimpses of early readers consulting the I Ching about matters of great personal and political importance: battles and rebellions, aristocratic marriages, sons and heirs, etc. These come from the Tso-chuan, a history of the Spring and Autumn period (722–481 B.C.E.) that was itself assembled in the late Warring States. They demonstrate the extent to which the meaning of the I has always changed as the needs and applications of its users changed. Taken together they also suggest the process through which the I evolved into a text that Han authorities were persuaded to canonize in 136 B.C.E.
The Tso-chuan shows people struggling to make sense of an extremely difficult text. Indeed, in a number of cases interpreters get into arguments over its proper reading. We may recognize some of their other reactions as well: uncertainty, frustration, occasional dismissal — but primarily respect for the text. It is clear from these accounts that use of the I was fully integrated with other institutions of Spring and Autumn culture. When, for example, a ruler of the state of Ch'i seeks an auspicious prognostication to sanctify his incestuous marriage, a battle of interpretation ensues that draws upon current moral and religious practices, social expectations, and the ministerial right to criticize, involving as well court politics and a ruler's intimidation of his diviners. Thus using the I text for prognostication did not produce a simple answer from a transcendent source but was instead conditioned by these sorts of social pressure.
The Tso-chuan material also shows how the I developed from a divination text into a book through which major moral issues could be addressed. The nature of this process is suggested by the case of Nan-k'uai, who in 530 B.C.E. plots a rebellion against his ruler. Consulting the I Ching, he obtains the fifth line statement of hexagram #2 K'un, which reads "Yellow skirt, primally auspicious." Greatly encouraged, he shows this to a friend, without mentioning his intentions. The friend replies: "I have studied this. If it is a matter of loyalty and fidelity, then it is possible. If not, it will certainly be defeated. ... If there is some deficiency [regarding these virtues], although the stalkcasting says 'auspicious,' it is not."
Thus Nan-k'uai's improper purpose renders his whole prognostication invalid. His friend's fundamental assumption is that an act's moral qualities determine its consequences. The I will advise on which of several equally proper courses of action is best, but only something that is already moral can ever be "auspicious." Here we see how developments in sixth-century moral-cosmological thinking change not only the interpretation of a particular line statement of the I but also the very tasks to which the text could be directed. (Nan-k'uai, by the way, disregards this analysis, and within a year he is dead.)
In the case of Nan-k'uai we can see a perennial tension between two views of what determines future events, human action or a fate decreed by heaven. Nan-k'uai believes the I will give him knowledge of the latter. His friend, however, insists that humanity and heaven — the latter both as fate and as the source of morality — are not so set apart. The I, then, in giving information about heaven, also speaks of human actions. As we will see, Sung literati also used the I Ching in their attempts to redefine that relationship.
The Tso-chuan also gives evidence of a use for the I that stands outside formal divination. This is to cite its hexagram or line statements in conversation, much as one might cite any well-known text. Here, in contrast to those uses in which the I is valued for its access to heaven, it is valued as a part of the human cultural tradition, whose evidence it preserves. Thus in 513 B.C.E. a historian cites the I as proof that men of yore once tended dragons.
More strikingly, in 603 B.C.E. a youth confides his political ambitions to the prince of Cheng. Later the prince remarks: "Covetous and without virtue — it's in the Chou I at the top line of Feng hexagram [#55]. He will not get beyond that." This line statement of Feng in today's I Ching reads in part, "He locks his door ... and for three years he is not seen. Inauspicious." And indeed, the Tso-chuan reports that "after a year the people of Cheng killed him." Here a prediction is made without stalks being cast. Thus the I moves farther still from its origin in a formal ritual context. Such usage depends on the text being so widely known that the prince of Cheng can invoke a particular statement simply by noting its place in the Feng hexagram. Toward the end of the Spring and Autumn period this method of using the I becomes increasingly common. In the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. we find people citing it in suasion, in medical prognosis, and even to help analyze the outcome of a battle. Thus the I becomes used in ways that increasingly resemble other contemporary texts.
By what methods was it interpreted? How does one move from mute hexagrams and laconic texts to meaning? The earliest surviving accounts to answer this in a systematic way are known as the Ten Wings (shih-i). These consist of seven texts in ten sections dating from the late Warring States and early Han (third and second centuries B.C.E.). Though only three of these will be discussed below (marked with an asterisk), it will be useful to set out all seven in table format here.
However they may differ, all Wings begin with the unstated assumption of the I's coherence, both as text and as change. Not only is the I itself coherent, it reproduces in certain ways the coherence of heaven-and-earth. Thus the questions posed in the late Warring States differ in an important way from those of the late Spring and Autumn. Seventh- and sixth-century B.C.E. readers attempted to determine the meaning of individual lines, usually deliberating specific courses of action. The Wings however set out to understand the I as the system of heaven-and-earth. Thus the text becomes useful for structuring thought about the present, not just as a tool to know the future.
The first of the Ten Wings we will examine is the T'uan-chuan, or "Commentary on the hexagram statements." As its name suggests, the T'uan-chuan usually begins by quoting and glossing the text that is attached to the hexagram. Regarding hexagram #24 Fu, it says:
"Return. Successful." The firm comes back.
In acting, proceed (hsing) with compliance so that "going out and going in are without distress. Friends come and it is without fault."
"Reverting and returning to tao; in seven days comes the return": the heavens proceed (hsing).
"It is beneficial whatever one does": the firm grows. Does not Fu make apparent the mind (hsin) of heaven-and-earth!
In explaining each phrase, these glosses provide a context in which to read hexagram statements. This context is moral ("proceed with compliance") and cosmic ("the mind of heaven-and-earth"). Indeed, the implication is that moral behavior parallels cosmic processes, and that the pattern of both can be found in the I. Thus human behavior and heavenly movement are described with the same word, hsing (act or proceed).
Combining these, the T'uan-chuan for hexagram #30 Li (Attachment/ Brightness [The Clinging, Fire]) remarks:
Li is "attachment." The sun and the moon are attached to the sky. The various grains, grasses and trees are attached to the earth. The double brightness [of Li] is attached to correctness and so transforms and completes all under heaven.
The soft [second line] is attached to the centrally correct and is therefore "successful."
Excerpted from Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching by Kidder Smith Jr., Peter K. Bol, Joseph A. Adler, Don J. Wyatt. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One The I Ching Prior to Sung, 7,
Chapter Two The Sung Context: From Ou-yang Hsiu to Chu Hsi, 26,
Chapter Three Su Shih and Culture, 56,
Chapter Four Shao Yung and Number, 100,
Chapter Five Ch'eng I and the Pattern of Heaven-and-Earth, 136,
Chapter Six Chu Hsi and Divination, 169,
Chapter Seven Sung Literati Thought and the I Ching, 206,
Appendix The Fu Hexagram, 237,
About the Authors, 267,