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The Ancient Chinese Book of Changes: I-Ching (易經) by the I-Ching Master Mount Leigh

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The Book of Changes, known in Chinese as Zhou Yi (周易) or Yi Jing (易經), is one of the oldest of the Chinese Classics (Ch. Jing 經). The Chinese term Yi 易 is often rendered as "Change", yet Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127 CE-200 CE), an ancient scholar on the I-Ching, explained that the term Yi 易 includes three basic underlying concepts:


1. Simplicity (Ch. Jian 簡), in modern colloquial Chinese the term Yi 易 means "simple" or "easy".

2. Variablity (Ch. Bian 變), in modern Chinese the term Bian 變 means "change"

3. Immuability; literally:"un-change" or "no-change" (Ch. Bu Yi 不易)

Translated directly, the Yi Jing (易經) can therefore be rendered as "Classic of Changes".

Traditionally Chinese believe that the divinatory and cosmological principles, on which the I-Ching are based, were first revealed by the gods to the legendary ruler Fu Xi (伏羲 other version: Fu Hsi), who was supposed to have lived between 2800 and 2737 BC. Those divinatory principles are known as the "Eight Trigrams" (Ch. Ba Gua 八卦). They constitute the basic "molecules" on which variations of all later Chinese oracular practices are based.

1. ☰ the Creative Force, Sky: Qian 乾
2. ☱ the Joyous, Lake: Dui 兌
3. ☲ the Radiant Sun, Fire: Li 離
4. ☳ the Arousing, Thunder: Zhen
5. ☴ the Gentle, Wind: Xun 巽
6. ☵ the Abysmal, Water: Kan 坎
7. ☶ the Calm, Mountain: Gen 艮
8. ☷ the Receptive, Earth: Kun 坤

This arrangement is known as the "Trigrams of the primordial heaven" (Ch. Xiantian Ba Gua 先天八卦), basically tracking changes before they manifest in the physical universe, perhaps comparable to what the late quantum physicist David Bohm (1917-1992) called "the implicate order".

Another arrangement of the Trigrams is the co-called arrangement (order) of King Wen of Zhou (周) aka "Trigrams of the later heaven" (Ch. Houtian Ba GuaZhou Yi 後天八卦). It basically tracks changes after they become manifest in the physical universe (or perhaps multiverse). This arrangement is extensively used in ancient Chinese astrology, astronomy, divination, geomancy, geography, strategy, chronology and medicine. The I-Ching's other popular Chinese name as fortunetelling manual: Zhou Yi (周易), reveals the closeness with the Trigram arrangement by [[Wikipedia:King Wen of Zhou |King Wen of Zhou ]]

Richard Wilhelm, one of the most eminent early translators of the I-Ching writes about the Eight Trigrams:

« These eight trigrams were conceived as images of all that happens in heaven and on earth. At the same time, they were held to he in a state of continual transition, one changing into another, just as transition from one phenomenon to another is continually taking place in the physical world. Here we have the fundamental concept of the Book of Changes. The eight trigrams are symbols standing for changing transitional states; they are images that are constantly undergoing change. Attention centers not on things in their state of being - as is chiefly the case in the Occident - but upon their movements in change. The eight trigrams therefore are not representations of things as such but of their tendencies in movement. »
« These eight images came to have manifold meanings. They represented certain processes in nature corresponding with their inherent character. Further, they represented a family consisting of father, mother, three sons, and three daughters, not in the mythological sense in which the Greek gods peopled Olympus, but in what might be called an abstract sense, that is, they represented not objective entities but functions. »

Modern scholars inside and outside of China doubt however that the Eight Trigrams are the exclusive invention of one or a few (ancient Chinese) individuals -- mythic or real. Those scholars base their research on ancient Chinese divination techniques using oracle bones from the early Shang dynasty (1766 BC - 1050 BC) as well as divination inscriptions on ceremonial bronze vessels from the Zhou dynasty (1050 BC - 221 BC). Those scholars conclude that the system underlying the I-Ching is but a compendium of ancient Chinese and non-Chinese divinatory concepts and astrological knowlege that reach back to the dawn of human civilisation.

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Archeological evidence from 4th to 3rd century BC China shows that the earliest versions of the I-Ching were not written in book-form with ink on paper, but on small vertical bamboo tablets (Ch. Zhu Jian 竹简) tied together. 1994 fragments of such a specimen were unearthed at Jingmen City in central China's Hubei province, the territory of the ancient feudal Chinese kingdom of Chu. This version of the I-Ching has become known as the "Bamboo I-Ching of Chu" (Ch. Chu-Jian Zhou Yi 楚简周易).

In 1975 -- in central China's Hunan province, neighboring Hubei -- archeologists unearthed a tomb containing the mummy of a feudal lady. In her tomb was included a unique version of the I-Ching, written with ink on silk. This I-Ching has now become known as the "I-Ching Silk-Book Version" (Ch. Boshu Yijing 帛書易經). Archeologists dated it to the year 168 BC.

In ancient China the I-Ching basically served two purposes: A philosophic or religious one -- as a classic canon of cosmologic pricnciples. And a practical one -- as oracular divination text. In this respect the I-Ching was not only used in traditional fortune telling but also in political and strategic decision making, such as in warfare.

Ancient Chinese historiographic texts such as the "Chronicle of Zuo" (Ch. Zuo Zhuan 左傳) from the 4th Century BC sometimes offer detailed descriptions of feudal lords, courtiers or generals consulting the I-Ching (at that time only available in its bamboo-tablet version) to decide on complicated battle tactics or intricate political ploys.


The German Lutheran missionary Richard Wilhelm (1873-1930), mentioned here above, stayed in China during early 20 th Century C.E. His I-Ching translations have become the most widely read non-Chinese version of the Book of Changes.

Wilhelm was in prolonged contact with the oral tradition at the very end of the last Chinese imperial dynasty (1644-1911), via his teacher Lao Nai-hsuan.:

« The Book of Changes is unquestionably one of the most important books in the world's literature. Its origin goes back to mythical antiquity, and it has occupied the attention of the most eminent scholars of China down to the present day [i. e. around 1920]. Nearly all that is greatest and most significant in the three thousand years of Chinese cultural history has either taken its inspiration from this book, or has exerted an influence on the interpretation of its text. Therefore it may safely be said that the seasoned wisdom of thousands of years has gone into the making of the I Ching. Small wonder then that both of the two branches of Chinese philosophy, Confucianism and Taoism, have their common roots here. [...] »
« In the course of time, owing to the great repute for wisdom attaching to the Book of Changes, a large body of occult doctrines extraneous to it - some of them possibly not even Chinese in origin - have come to be connected with its teachings. The Ch'in and Han dynasties saw the beginning of a formalistic natural philosophy that sought to embrace the entire world of thought in a system of number symbols. Combining a rigorously consistent, dualistic yin-yang doctrine with the doctrine of the "five stages of change" taken from the Book of History, it forced Chinese philosophical thinking more and more into a rigid formalization. Thus increasingly hairsplitting cabalistic speculations came to envelop the Book of Changes in a cloud of mystery, and by forcing everything of the past and of the future into this system of numbers, created for the I Ching the reputation of being a book of unfathomable profundity [..] »