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The hinese text I Ching (Classic of Changes), exemplifies the process by which great and enduring philosophical and religious texts (classics) evolve in one cultural environment and are then transmitted to, and often transformed by, other environments. (I Ching is the Wades-Giles transliteration that became, and still is, widely used; Yijing is the more recent pinyin transliteration. The I Ching is also commonly translated in English as the Book of Changes.) Originating in China as a primitive divination text three thousand years ago, the I Ching found its way to many parts of eastern Asia from about the sixth century CE onward. Beginning in the seventeenth century, it traveled to Europe and eventually the Americas. Today, translated into several dozen languages, the I Ching continues to be consulted by millions of people throughout the world.
What sort of a text is the I Ching, and how did it come to exert such a pervasive global influence? The ancient “basic text” consists of sixty-four six-line symbols known as “hexagrams” (gua). The theory of the I Ching is that these hexagrams represent the basic circumstances of change in the universe and that by consulting the text with a reverent spirit, one can select a hexagram that will provide guidance for the present and the future.
Each hexagram has a name (guaming) that refers to a physical object, an activity, a state, a situation, a quality, an emotion, or a relationship; thus Ding (Cauldron), Dun (Retreat), Meng (Youthful Ignorance), Yu (Enthusiasm), Song (Conflict), Tongren (Human Fellowship), and so forth. In addition, each hexagram possesses a short, cryptic description of several words, called a “judgment” (tuan or guaci). Finally, each line of every hexagram has a brief written explanation (yaoci) of that line’s developmental position and symbolism. Through a sophisticated analysis of line relationships and other variables, a person could not only “know fate” (zhiming) but also “establish fate” (liming)—that is, devise a successful strategy for dealing with any cosmically mandated situation.
The “Ten Wings”
During the early Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) a set of poetic commentaries known as the “Ten Wings” became permanently attached to the I Ching, and the text received imperial sanction as one of the five major Confucian classics. These Ten Wings—particularly the so-called Great Commentary (Dazhuan or Xici zhuan)—articulated the I Ching’s implicit cosmology (a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of the universe) and invested the classic with a new philosophical flavor and an attractive literary style. The worldview of this amplified version of the I Ching emphasized correlative thinking, a humane cosmological outlook, and a fundamental unity between heaven, Earth, and people. For the next two thousand years or so the I Ching held pride of place in China as the “first of the [Confucian] classics.”
In the fashion of classic texts in other major civilizations, the I Ching had a profound effect on Chinese culture from the Han dynasty to the end of the imperial era (1912 CE) in areas such as philosophy, religion, art, literature, political life, social customs, and even science. Thinkers of every philosophical persuasion—Confucians, Daoists, and Buddhists alike—found inspiration in the language, symbolism, imagery, cosmology, epistemology (the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge), ontology (a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being), and ethics of the I Ching. The I Ching also inspired a landslide of artistic and literary productions and provided an analytical vocabulary that proved extraordinarily serviceable in a wide variety of realms. During premodern times Chinese “scientists” used hexagram symbolism and I Ching-derived numerology (the study of the occult significance of numbers) and mathematics to explain a wide range of natural processes and phenomena in fields of knowledge that are today’s physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, meteorology, and geology.
The I Ching’s great prestige and multifaceted cultural role in China commended it to a number of civilizations on the Chinese periphery—notably, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Tibet. In all of these environments the I Ching enjoyed an exalted reputation and was employed in a variety of cultural realms. Not surprisingly, through time the I Ching came to be used and understood in ways that reflected the particular needs and interests of the “host” environment, and in the process the I Ching became less of an alien “Chinese” document and more of a “domestic” one. Thus, for example, its symbolism came to be used in Japan to express distinctively Japanese sensibilities, such as those connected with the tea ceremony and flower arranging. This process of domestication also allowed a scholar such as Jiun Sonja (1718–1804), who claimed that “every word of the Ekikyo [I Ching] is interesting and significant,” to argue that “the whole book has been completely borrowed [by the Chinese] from us [the Japanese]” (Ng 2000, 107).
Similar processes of appropriation and adaptation took place in the West. A group of seventeenth-century Jesuit priests known as “Figurists” made the earliest effort to bring the I Ching to the attention of Europeans (and at the same time to bring the Bible to the attention of the Chinese). The most prominent among these priests was Father Joachim Bouvet (c. 1660–1732). A significant part of the Figurist mission was to show, by fancy philological footwork, that the Bible and the I Ching were umbilically related. Thus, for instance, the three unbroken lines of the Qian (Heaven) trigram indicated an early Chinese awareness of the Trinity, and the hexagram Xu (Waiting), with its stark reference to “clouds rising up to Heaven,” symbolized the “glorious ascent of the Saviour.” Bouvet’s correspondence with the German mathematician Wilhelm Gottfried von Leibniz (1646– 1716) led Leibniz to see striking similarities in the configuration of the “broken” and “unbroken” lines of the hexagrams in the I Ching and his own binary mathematical system.
In more recent times efforts to find a place for the I Ching in Western culture have continued unabated. During the 1960s in particular, translations of the book appeared in many parts of the Western world (and elsewhere), embraced by countercultural enthusiasts alienated from their own political, social, and philosophical traditions and searching for fresh answers to timeless or pressing questions. Meanwhile, creative thinkers in the arts and the sciences have used the I Ching either as inspiration or as a transcultural validation of their own original ideas.
Influence on the West
The I Ching thus influenced many realms of modern Western life, from the psychology of Carl Jung to the architecture of I. M. Pei. The choreographers Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Carlson have found inspiration in the I Ching, as have such noted composers as John Cage and Udo Kasemets. It has been a significant element in the art of people such as Eric Morris and the writings of a wide range of Western authors, including Philip K. Dick, Allen Ginsberg, Octavio Paz, Raymond Queneau, and Fritjof Capra. In the realm of “pop” culture the I Ching has served as a vehicle for the expression of an array of ideologies, outlooks, and orientations, from feminism (A Woman’s I Ching) to sports (Golf Ching).
We may assume that the I Ching will continue to inspire creativity, in both East and West, for the same reasons it has inspired creativity in the past: its challenging and ambiguous basic text, which encourages interpretive ingenuity; its elaborate numerology and other forms of symbolic representation; its utility as a tool of divination; its philosophically sophisticated commentaries; its psychological potential (as a means of attaining self-knowledge); and its reputation for a kind of encyclopedic comprehensiveness. For those people who take the text seriously and approach it with intellectual depth and psychological insight, it will no doubt remain a stimulating document; then again, those people of a shallower intellectual or psychological disposition may put the I Ching to more superficial uses. In the words of a Chinese proverb, “The shallow man sees [the I Ching’s] shallowness, while the deep man sees [its] depth.”
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