Zhu Xi (author), Joseph A. Adler (translator and editor), The Original Meaning of the Yijing: Commentary on the Scripture of Change, Columbia University Press, 2020, 387 pgs.
The Yijing 易經 (I Ching, Book of Changes), is considered the first and most profound of the Chinese classics, widely accepted as expressing the most important insights concerning the nature and patterns of the Way or Dao. The book’s graphic core of 64 hexagrams is thought to originate in the 11th century BCE, during the early Zhou dynasty, and its earliest written material to the 9th century BCE. The 64 six-line diagrams were derived by combining an original set of eight trigrams in all possible pairs. The hexagram lines are stacked vertically, with lines that are either solid and unbroken, signifying yang, or broken into two parts, signifying yin.
The hexagrams respond to diviners’ questions, and the premise of the Yijing is that the hexagrams, either solely or in combination, can represent all possible configurations of change. Diviners’ questions are traditionally posed in a complicated ritual involving 49 yarrow, or milfoil, stalks, but they may also be asked while throwing a set of three coins six times, one for each line. “Changing lines” occur when a broken line is indicated as becoming unbroken, or vice versa, and they give rise to a divinatory response of two, rather than one, hexagrams. Each hexagram represents a classic or archetypal natural or social situation in which the questioner may be involved, and two-hexagram responses mean 4,096 (642) possible combinational archetypes can emerge. By interpreting the patterns obtaining at any given time, the idea is that the questioner’s capacity to successfully adapt to change is enhanced.
Later in the Zhou dynasty, King Wen named the hexagrams and added short texts for each of them, and the Duke of Zhou subsequently added short texts for each hexagram line. The hexagrams and these layers of text constitute the core book called Zhouyi [“Zhou Changes”], but the full Yijing also includes the appendices or “Ten Wings” that were added during the Warring States period (480–222 BCE) and the early Han dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE). There are in fact only seven such appendices or “wings”—three are each divided into two parts that are counted separately—and they are traditionally attributed to Confucius (551–479 BCE), although scholars have long considered this inaccurate.
The appendices vary in significance, but their assimilation into the text brought about the tension between the pre-existing idea of the Yijing as a divination manual (that is, a source of oracular wisdom) and the alternative notion that it should be considered a source of philosophical wisdom. While the original Zhouyi was a Zhou-era guide for kings and nobles regarding affairs of state, the later addition of the Ten Wings introduced a moralistic Confucian perspective to the text. For example, the Confucian term “superior person”, meaning the morally “noble” or “enlightened” person, appears 15 times in the core Zhouyi text, but 87 times in the Ten Wings. By the beginning of the first millennium, the Yijing had become, in addition to its divinatory role, a handbook for living wisely and in accordance with the “laws of nature” as understood in the Confucian tradition.
Like classic works in all traditions and cultures, hundreds of scholarly and other commentaries have been written on the Yijing over the centuries. Among the most significant of the commentators was Zhu Xi (1130–1200), the most influential Chinese philosopher since Confucius and the 4th century BCE philosopher, Mencius. Zhu Xi synthesised the major existing interpretive approaches to the text and integrated them into his own “Neo-Confucian” philosophical system of moral self-cultivation. The book translated by Joseph A. Adler is Zhu Xi’s Zhouyi benyi 周易本義, which was completed in 1188. Despite its name, this is Zhu Xi’s interpretation of the “original” (or “authentic” or “fundamental”) meaning of the Yijing rather than only the core Zhouyi, and Adler’s annotated translation includes for the first time in any Western language the commentary in full.
The Zhouyi benyi begins with two parts according to the traditional division of the book’s chapters: Part A gives the text for and discusses hexagrams 1–30 while hexagrams 31–64 are dealt with in Part B. Adler’s approach is not entirely faithful to that of Zhu Xi, who kept the Ten Wings separate from the hexagram texts. Adler follows most other commentators in holding that such an approach “[sacrifices] readability and usefulness”, and instead he collates Zhu Xi’s accounts of the first five appendices with the hexagram texts. These five appendices include the commentaries on Yijing “judgments” and images that are the most Confucian parts of the Ten Wings.
Also included in the Zhouyi benyi and in this volume, but separately from the accounts of the hexagrams, are three texts with commentary by Zhu Xi: Appendices 6 and 7 of the Ten Wings, the “Treatise on the Appended Remarks” (Xici zhuan), which was a huge philosophical influence in the Song dynasty (960–1279) revival of Confucianism that Zhu Xi systematised; Appendix 8, the “Treatise Discussing the Trigrams” (Shuogua zhuan); and Appendix 10, the “Commentary on Assorted Hexagrams” (Zagua zhuan).
Although the idea that Confucius was the author of the Ten Wings was being openly challenged in Zhu Xi’s time, he accepted the traditional attribution to Confucius to support his own reconstruction of the Confucian tradition. In his eloquent and insightful introduction to this book, Adler traces the emergence of two interpretive approaches to the Yijing that were developed after Confucianism became the “official” Han dynasty philosophy: the xiangshu [“Image and Number”] school, which focused on the graphic part of the text and its cosmological associations, and the yili [“Meaning and Principle”] school, which focused on the moral principles found in the written text. Between the Han and Song dynasties, Confucianism declined while the influence of Buddhism and Daoism grew, but Confucian revivalists handed down their teachings until they were synthesised in the form of Neo-Confucianism during the Song dynasty by Zhu Xi and Cheng Yi (1033–1107).
The significance of Zhu Xi’s contribution to the history of the Yijing lies principally in his emphasis on the divinatory rather than the wisdom dimension of the book, and Adler in this book focuses on how specific points in the Yijing text and in Zhu Xi’s commentary contribute to Zhu Xi’s overall philosophical project of understanding first, the interrelationship between the natural and moral orders, and second, the nature of wisdom or sagehood. Adler explains that the Zhouyi benyi became such an influential interpretation of the Yijing because of the way Zhu Xi integrated the xiangshu and yili approaches to the book. In short, Zhu Xi achieved a harmonisation of divination and philosophy by developing the idea that “guidance in the process of self-cultivation was intended to be accessed through and only through the mechanism of divination”.
In addition to his Confucian orientation, Zhu Xi believed that the Yijing was originally composed by the mythic sage Fuxi, traditionally dated to the 29th century BCE. Zhu Xi emphasised that the Yijing was created by Fuxi as a system to aid decision making, and this meant that self-cultivation and other moralistic concerns were secondary. Crucially, the text’s meaning could not be captured by any single commentator; it would emerge for each person only through the divinatory encounter between the reader and the text. (This volume includes the set of instructions by Zhu Xi for the divination ritual according to the method of manipulating yarrow or milfoil stalks (Shiyi). Adler remarks that Zhi Xi occasionally acknowledged the alternative coin method, which dates to at least the Tang dynasty (c.618–907), “but since it was not Fuxi’s original method he disapproved of it”.)
Although the Yijing is often popularly associated with Daoism, Adler observes that its strong appeal to Confucians has to do with the book’s “integration” of the natural order and the moral order. Zhu Xi thought Fuxi had intuited the linkage between these realms: “the idea that Confucian moral values are not merely conventional (as the early Daoists said) but are part of a larger order—the Dao—that includes what we call natural law. That is, Fuxi saw the moral implications of natural patterns of yin–yang change and interaction, which he symbolised in the lines, trigrams, and hexagrams.”
It is unfortunate that Adler’s reference to the Western jurisprudential idea of natural law is not backed up with a clearer account of how Adler understands the term. In his discussion of “li” (meaning “principle” or “ordering” or “pattern”), however, there is some relevant discussion. Adler notes that the term, li, occurs only eight times in the Yijing but Zhu Xi uses it extensively in his commentary; it became, Adler remarks, “the most important concept in Confucian thought since the Song dynasty”. The li of things,
is also their “nature”, and in the Mencian line of Confucian thought human nature—the “principle” of being human—is fundamentally good. The goal of self-cultivation is therefore to fully realize or actualize that nature or principle, which is the human expression of the principle, both natural and moral, that orders the universe.
There are very strong echoes here of Aristotelian-Thomist natural law theory, but there is no comparative reference to that tradition. Plato, on the other hand, does feature in Adler’s discussion of hexagram 24, Fu: “Returning”. This hexagram was particularly significant to Zhu Xi’s insight that cyclical change based on yin–yang polarity is the most fundamental cosmic principle; or, Adler writes, “to put it another way, change is fundamentally real, not permanence—directly contradicting Plato in The Republic”. The Fu hexagram symbolises the immanent natural and moral creative potential inherent in qi, the stuff of the universe that is ordered by li. Just as Nature has its seasons, the human mind has humanity, rightness, propriety, and wisdom—qi is continuously created or incessantly generated, and Adler notes that this intrinsic dynamism, “lends to Zhu Xi’s theory of mind and self-cultivation a sense of religious awe”.
This is a complex, scholarly book, but Michael Lackner suggested in an academic review that it might also benefit users of the Yijing: “[W]hy shouldn’t users also get more familiar with the intricate and complex ways in which Sinological erudition and craftsmanship are able to shed more light on the mysteries of Chinese wisdom?” [Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy (2020) 19: 505–507]. This is an interesting question, and Adler appreciates the need to be consistent, “with the fact that Chinese thought is based more on process than on substance or essence”, an awareness that is not always present in modern Western editions of the Yijing. Overall, however, this volume is not well suited to the non-academic diviner because it is a book about the role of the Yijing in Zhu Xi’s philosophical project rather than about the Yijing in and of itself. Adler’s focus is the elucidation of those specific points in the Yijing and in the commentary that contributed to Zhu Xi’s hugely influential Neo-Confucianism.
Roger Ames has said that perhaps no single text can compete with the Yijing, “in terms of the sustained interest it has garnered from succeeding generations of China’s literati, and the influence it has had on Chinese self-understanding”. Whether one consults the Yijing for oracular or philosophical purposes, it is an enigmatic, obscure, sacred, and magical book. This volume is a hugely important contribution to the English-language discourse around the Yijing, and in addition it adds considerably to our knowledge and understanding of Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucian thought.
How to cite: Murphy, Tim. “Divination, Philosophy, and Change: The Original Meaning of the Yijing: Commentary on the Scripture of Change.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 17 Feb. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/02/17/yijing/.
Tim Murphy is an Irish writer based in Spain. He the author of three poetry chapbooks: Art Is the Answer (Yavanika Press, 2019); The Cacti Do Not Move (SurVision Books, 2019); and There Are Twelve Sides to Every Circle (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2021). He has taught law at universities in the UK, France, Ireland, Iceland, Malaysia, and Spain. His academic publications include Rethinking the War on Drugs in Ireland (Cork University Press, 1996) and Law and Justice in Community (with Garrett Barden; Oxford University Press, 2010).