Taoism Week!

I Ching hexagrams

Commentary on the I Ching
Japan (1809)

Brian Browne Walker
The I Ching or the Book of Changes: A Guide to Life’s Turning Points

US (1992)

A diagram of I Ching hexagrams owned by German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. It was sent to Leibniz from the French Jesuit Joachim Bouvet.
China/Germany (1701)

Today we’ve been talking about Taoist scriptures: the Tao Te Ching and the writings of Zhuangzi. But there’s another, weirder text we haven’t mentioned: the ancient divination manual of the I Ching / Yijing / 易经 / The Book of Changes.

This is the oldest of the Chinese classics in existence. Some folks claim it dates back to 1100 BCE; others are more conservative and claim it was only compiled back in the 800s BCE. This thing’s so old, its supposed author, Fuxi, is sometimes depicted as a half-snake demigod.

An ancient painting of Nu Wa and Fu Xi (right) unearthed in Xinjiang.
China (mid-700s)

The book consists of 64 chapters, each devoted to a hexagram - i.e. a combination of six broken and unbroken lines; the oldest depiction of binary numbers in existence. These represent the interplay of yin and yang, positive and negative:


Using divinatory practices (e.g. drawing yarrow sticks, flipping coins, or just opening the damn book), you’re supposed to figure out which number you’ve got, consult the corresponding chapter, and figure out what it means for your specific situation. And good luck with that, because the symbols are pretty damn obscure. Whatever you want to see in there, you’ll see. Have fun with it.

For centuries, scholars within and beyond China have been studying it, trying to make sense of it - the Song Dynasty folks kind of gave up and decided it was more useful as a springboard for other philosophical questions. The early European views are especially interesting:

[German inventor of calculus] Leibniz, who was corresponding with Jesuits in China, wrote the first European commentary on the I Ching in 1703, arguing that it proved the universality of binary numbers and theism, since the broken lines, the “0” or “nothingness”, cannot become solid lines, the “1” or “oneness”, without the intervention of God.

This was criticized by Hegel, who proclaimed that binary system and Chinese characters were “empty forms” that could not articulate spoken words with the clarity of the Western alphabet. In their discussion, I Ching hexagrams and Chinese characters were conflated into a single foreign idea, sparking a dialogue on Western philosophical questions such as universality and the nature of communication.

In the 20th century, Jacques Derrida identified Hegel’s argument as logocentric, but accepted without question Hegel’s premise that the Chinese language cannot express philosophical ideas.

The Westerners who most famously played around with the I Ching, however, were the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and the American composer John Cage.

Jung was inspired by the text to create his theory of synchronicity:

Using the oracle with his patients in psychotherapy Jung could remember a great deal of meaningful answers. He recalled the story of a patient stuck between ambivalent feelings related to a girl he wanted to ask out (actually the patient suffered from a mother complex). The response of I Ching was hexagram # 44, entitled Coming to Meet, which worn saying: One should not marry such a maiden.

But how this book manages to give us such inspired answers, asked himself Jung? And he answered: …A certain curious principle that I have termed synchronicity, a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to that of causality. Since the latter is a merely statistical truth and not absolute, it is a sort of working hypothesis of how events evolve one out of another, whereas synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance.

Translation of I Ching by Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes, with foreword by Carl Jung
UK (1949)

Whereas Cage was inspired by the I Ching to embrace chance in his compositions, resulting in notoriously strange works:

John Cage
Music of Changes

US (1951)

I’ve gotta confess, though - unlike the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi, the I Ching is not an easy read. And I personally find the whole Western embrace of it as a source of Eastern wisdom kind of creepy.

But hey - if you wanna try it, go for it. You can make a consultation online now. You guys may be a lot more enlightened than I am.

yellowfur had a birthday last week and I didn’t know until two days after the fact, then finals and work and stuff happened that kept me from submitting a Fuxi in a timely manner like everyone else.

But, hey, better late than never, right? Happy birthday, suikuzu!

This was also a chance to exercise my coloring and hard blending skills some more. It’s rather subdued, but I’d say this is my best drawing to date…and yet I know I can still do better!

It’s also on dA, for your convenience.

Nüwa and Fuxi represented as half-snake, half-human creatures.

Nüwa (traditional Chinese: 女媧; simplified Chinese: 女娲; pinyin: Nǚwā, also Nügua) is a goddess in ancient Chinese mythology best known for creating mankind and repairing the wall of heaven. Depending on the source, she might be considered the second or even the first Chinese ruler, with most sources not putting her on the role, but only her brother and/or husband Fu Xi.

In Chinese mythology, Fu Xi or Fu Hsi (Chinese: 伏羲; pinyin: fúxī), also known as Paoxi (simplified Chinese: 庖牺; traditional Chinese: 庖犧; pinyin: páoxī), mid 29th century BCE, was the first of the Three Sovereigns (三皇 sānhuáng) of ancient China. He is a culture hero reputed to be the inventor of writing, fishing, and trapping. However, Cangjie is also said to have invented writing.