Thoughts on Confucius and the Changes

JULY 01 04

There was a discussion on a newsgroup about whether or not Confucius knew the Yi. Now I myself started with the natural assumption that he did, only to have that view overturned when I became more enamoured of the modernist take on Chinese history and read Homer H Dubs' influential 1927 article 'Did Confucius study the Book of Changes?' and other papers making a convincing case for Confucius not knowing or being interested in the Yi. However, lately I have been thinking that the idea that Confucius had nothing to do with the Changes has just solidified as the new dogma, and is based on ideas and evidence just as slim as the traditional notion that he was such an avid reader the binding on his copy wore out three times. Below is what I wrote on the newsgroup, slightly edited:


All that can be said is that the one supposed mention of the Changes in the Analects (about wanting to devote 50 more years to its study) looks to be an interpolation and the unsourced quote from it could simply have been a popular saying (in Analects 13/22 he seems to quote hexagram 32/3). Apart from that we can see for ourselves that he didn't otherwise apparently say anything about it that his students felt warranted writing down. From that we can deduce that he probably didn't talk about it. But it is a leap to think he had no access to the Zhouyi on the assumption that it was a closely guarded artefact of the Zhou court diviners, it may simply be that he was not particularly interested in it.

But let us not forget that Confucius adored King Wen and the Duke of Zhou. What does this tell us? It could tell us a number of things, but it suggests to me quite strongly that the belief that King Wen and the Duke of Zhou had something to do with the Yi may not have been developed at the time of Confucius, but rose up later (even though there are good grounds for supposing some of King Wen's words are in the Yi). Confucius would have taken interest in something he believed to be the work of his great heroes.

Overall, I think it remains a mystery whether or not Confucius knew the Yi. But it is nonetheless true that for over two millennia people have worked on the principle that it was important to him. The anonymous 'Master' of the Wings doesn't say anything at odds with what Confucius might have said, in fact this 'Master' remains the true unique voice of later commentary, way above the dross of subsequent Neo-Confucian commentary. The Analects of course refers to Confucius in the same way, there we just happen to know the 'Master' is Confucius. 'The Master said' may have been a deliberate formula used in the Wings, to make it look like Confucius was in fact this 'Master'.

Or, just possibly, the absence of mention of the Yi in the Analects was an intentional omission, and what he said about the Yi circulated in a different form, until it surfaced in the Wings. I for a long time have believed Confucius had nothing to do with the Yi, after reading Homer Dubs' famous article. But lately it doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility that there was a separate transmission.

Whoever he was, the 'Master' of the Wings was not a nobody, there is a quality in his words that few have managed to replicate since. None of the current so-called masters (Alfred Huang, Ni Hua-Ching and other pretenders) have anything like this quality. Wang Bi never had this quality. Zhu Xi did not attain it, nor Cheng Yi. So who does it seem likely that this 'Master' may have been? The beauty is that we'll probably never know. But certainly the idea that Confucius was not this person is just as sterile as the view that he was.


[NOTE FOR CLARIFICATION – I am referring only to those fragments of the Wings prefaced by the formula also used in the Lunyu (Analects) of 'The Master said' as being potentially things Confucius may have been heard to say on the subject. That is, parts of the Dazhuan and Wenyan. I don't hold that any of the rest of the material in the Ten Wings could conceivably be credited to Confucius. Nothing survives that was directly written by Confucius, even the Analects was written by his followers recording things they heard the Master say together with wonderfully small observations of his character, such as his fondness for pickled ginger, one of my favourite passages. After eating and his plate was cleared away from the table it was not beyond notice that he would sometimes keep back the little dish of pickled ginger: 'Even when he did not have the side dish of ginger cleared from the table, he did not eat more than was proper.' (Analects 10/7 in the D C Lau translation).]