This is the third of a series of articles on the I Ching, or Yijing, the Book of Changes, an ancient oracle, a divinatory book that played a key role in Chinese culture and became for the Chinese a map of 'heaven and earth', of the totality of existence. Much of this material is contained in the Introduction to the Eranos Yijing1. To that book the reader is referred for a deeper discussion of the concepts here presented.
Origins of the Yijing. The tradition
The texts of the Yijing speak through images, we have seen, and "rolling the oracle words in our heart" is the key to unlock the access to levels of inner knowledge that we possess, without knowing we do. These images belong to the realm the Iranologist Henry Corbin called mundus imaginalis.
But where do these texts come from? They come from a remote antiquity and we have two quite different – although both fascinating – accounts of their origins, according to Chinese tradition and according to modern scholarship.
The tradition concerning the birth of the Yijing is intertwined with the myths of origin of Chinese civilization. According to the traditional narrative, the book came into being through the insights of three legendary Sages, figures belonging to a liminal space between myth and history. The first author is a fully mythical being, Fu Xi, the first emperor, sometimes represented with a serpent body and a human head. The third one, who is supposed to have carried the work to completion, is a fully historical person, although surrounded by a legendary aura: Confucius, the "master of ten thousand generations." Between them stands the man who is considered the principal author of the book, a figure straddling history and legend: King Wen, the founder of the Zhou dynasty, who ruled China during most of the first millennium BC, the time when the Yijing actually came into use.
The first emperor
Contrary to the views of modern scholarship, in the traditional account of the origins of the Yijing the book developed in a logical progression from trigrams to hexagrams to oracular texts and hermeneutic commentaries. The invention of trigrams is attributed to Fu Xi. The Great Treatise describes this discovery in the following way:
When in early antiquity Bao Xi ruled the world, he looked upward and contemplated the images in heaven; he looked downward and contemplated the forms on earth. He contemplated the patterns on the fur of animals and on the feathers of birds, as well as their adaptation to their habitats. He took as a model, close by, his body, and farther away, things Thus he invented the eight trigrams in order to enter into connection with the divine light's actualizing-dao and to classify the nature of the myriad beings.2
Fu Xi is not here a mythical being with a serpent body, but the first civilizing hero, the one who introduced culture in the natural world. He is called by his appellative of Bao Xi, variously interpreted as Hunter, Tamer of animals and Cook. A bit later in the same text we are told that
he made knotted cords and used them for nets and baskets in hunting and fishing.
The Pattern King
The tradition is somewhat ambiguous about whether Fu Xi discovered just the eight trigrams or the sixty-four hexagrams (the old texts often speak interchangeably of the ones and the others, and the same word, gua, refers to both). But generally the invention of the hexagrams, as well as the authorship of the basic oracular texts, is attributed to King Wen, the founder of the Zhou dynasty. We find only two brief allusions to the circumstances of such invention in the Great Treatise, the most extensive of the classical commentaries:
The Yijing came in use in the period of middle antiquity. Those who composed the Yijing had great care and sorrow.
The time at which the Yijing came to the fore was that in which the house of Yin came to an end and the house of Zhou was rising, that is, the time when King Wen and the tyrant Di Xin were pitted against each other3,4.
"Those who composed the Yijing" are King Wen and his son, the Duke of Zhou. The "house of Yin" is the Shang dynasty, who ruled over most of China from 1765 BC to 1123 BC. Si Ma Qian (145-86 BC), the first historiographer of the empire, attempts a more detailed account of the genealogy of the Yijing in his Shi Ji, Records of the Historian:
The ancients said that Fu Xi, who was simple and sincere, built the eight trigrams of the Yijing.
When the Count of the West was imprisoned at Youli, he probably developed the eight trigrams into sixty-four hexagrams.
King Wen, imprisoned at Youli, developed the Zhouyi.
King Wen's legend is as follows. The Zhou were originally one of the nomadic tribes roaming the Western border areas of the Shang empire, particularly the Shan Xi, the passes located on the Bronze Road, connecting China with the steppes of Central Asia (the same which became many centuries later the Silk Road). Recruited as military allies, they became vassals of the empire and settled in the plains at the foot of Mount Qi, the "Twin-peaked Mountain." They became sedentary, and their wealth and power gradually increased thanks to the culture of millet, husbandry and commerce with the neighboring empire.
Around the middle of the twelfth century BC the fortunes of the Shang dynasty were declining, while the star of the Zhou was steadily ascending. The emperor Di Yi, worried about the growing power of his Western neighbors, tried to bind them to his house by giving in marriage his three daughters to the crown-prince of the Zhou, Chang, the Shining. Shortly after that, Chang ascended to the throne of Zhou, and Di Yi was succeeded by his son Di Xin.
Chang's rule was a model of wisdom, while Di Xin "disobeyed heaven and tortured the beings."5,6 The luminous example of his Western neighbor was odious to the tyrant, who had Chang arrested and thrown into a walled cave. In the darkness of this confinement Chang spent seven years meditating on the "great care and sorrow" of the current state of human affairs and on how to bring them back into alignment with "divine actualizing-dao."
He is the one posterity remembers as King Wen: a meaningful name, which defines him as another fundamental civilizing hero. Indeed wen means both pattern of wood, stone or animal fur and language, civilization, culture, literature, the written symbol as revelation of the intrinsic nature of things. It is a fitting description of the "classification of the nature of the myriad beings" initiated by Fu Xi through the eight trigrams and perfected by the "Pattern King" in his dungeon. In his meditations he started with Fu Xi's eight trigrams and developed the system further by pairing them into hexagrams and appending a text to each hexagram as well as to the each individual line. These texts, constituting the Tuan, the first two of the ten Wings or sections of the oracular texts, were later expanded by King Wen's second son, the Duke of Zhou, who added his own commentary (the Xiang, Third and Fourth Wing) to elucidate his father's words.
Finally to Confucius (551-479 BC) the tradition attributes the authorship of all the remaining commentaries, particularly of the Great Treatise. Thus the authority of the Classic of Classics was solidly founded and firmly meshed with the ideology of the empire; and the Confucian interpretation, occasionally incorporating insights of other schools, became the canonical reading of the Yijing.
1 Rudolf Ritsema and Shantena Augusto Sabbadini, The Original I Ching Oracle or the Book of Changes, Watkins, London, 2005, 2018.
2 Xi Ci, II, 2, Wilhelm-Baynes translation, adapted.
3 Xi Ci, II, 2, Wilhelm-Baynes translation, adapted.
4 Xi Ci, II, 7 and 11.
5 Xi Ci, II, 2, Wilhelm-Baynes translation, adapted.
6 Ban Gu (39-92), Han Shu, chapter 30.