Ling Ch’i Ching: A Classic Chinese Oracle

Ralph D Sawyer and Mei-chün Lee Sawyer, translators and commentators. Shambhala Dragon Editions. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1995. xvii, 294 pp. Paperback $16.00, ISBN 1-57062-083-0.


This text is the third major ancient Chinese divination system to be made available in a form suitable for consultation by readers of English. First came Cary F Baynes' translation of Richard Wilhelm's German version of the Confucian classic Yijing (Book of changes), which has proved its mettle to me and thousands of other inquiring Western minds since its publication nearly a half-century ago. Although other translations of the Yijing preceded and followed Wilhelm/Baynes, few besides Thomas Cleary's Taoist and Buddhist versions proved suitable for consultation.

In 1994 came 'The Elemental Changes', a consultant's version, by Michael Nylan, of the scholarly edition of Taixuanjing (The canon of supreme mystery), an oracle composed by the court poet Yang Xiong toward the end of the Former Han period, just before the first millennium CE. Now comes this third system, Lingqijing (Spiritual, or empowered, chess classic), which is almost unknown in the West. An anonymous author composed the Lingqijing's core text probably in the early Wei-Jin period (222–419 CE), though legends attribute it to earlier figures, in particular Dongfang Shuo, a palace retainer during the reign of Emperor Wu (140–86 BCE) of the Han dynasty. Twentieth-century academics, both Eastern and Western, seem to have ignored it.

Both the Lingqijing and the Taixuanjing were modeled on the Yijing. As the translators of the Lingqijing note in their introduction, its author 'sought to present the literate world with a more accessible oracle than the arcane I Ching,' one 'clearly subsuming the I Ching's worldview and frequently echoing images and lines from it, but without presupposing any actual or detailed understanding of the I Ching.' Each imitation contains features that distinguish it from the earlier classic. The Taixuanjing melds the main philosophical currents of its age in a poetic tour de force guaranteed to turn away idle inquiry. Its translator pointed out that Chinese readers have considered it 'a true guide for those seeking the Way of the sages,' and its English version retains a literatus aroma. The Lingqijing also waxes poetic, but its tone seems to be aimed toward a lower brow. Co-translator Ralph Sawyer notes that he first discovered it in the 1970s 'being profitably employed by a Tokyo street diviner.'

That event in Tokyo and similar experiences in Kyoto and Osaka marked the beginning of Sawyer's study of the Lingqijing, a study he continued and expanded with his wife, Mei-chün Lee, for more than twenty years. They did informal translations and provided consultations for several years, then began circulating their version to friends for vetting. Eventually they 'felt compelled to complete the translation and make it available so that others might learn of another complex and intriguing work from the Chinese divination tradition.' Their intent was 'to make the work accessible to the widest possible audience.'

This book, then, is not a scholarly edition. It follows Shambhala's practice of turning a cold shoulder to scholars' pleas for citations, notes, explanations, reference lists. The Sawyers are nevertheless more forthcoming than earlier Shambhala translators: they do reveal some of their Chinese sources. Still, their citations (they used 'the Ssu-k'u Ch'üan-shu edition, although recourse has frequently been made to the one preserved in the Tao Tsang as well as other important versions') seem unnecessarily vague. They explain that since the texts 'are all readily available to scholars and our choice of one or another phrase for purposes of clarity and consistency in a small number of cases is readily apparent, they have not been footnoted.' I hoped to find references for several studies mentioned in the preface; but when I looked for a bibliography at the back of the book, what I found was a complete list of Shambhala Dragon Editions.

In a note to the reader the Sawyers state that 'no commercial, medical, or other significant life decisions should ever be based on the Ling Ch'i Ching.' That holds true, of course, for any oracle, even one known intimately through years of consultation. Oracles, like ice on a pond, need cautious and constant testing by intuition, reasoning, intimation, and event. The translators also point out that 'unlike the I Ching – which almost always implies that through perseverance and pursuing the course of virtue the querent can escape even the most dire situations unscathed – the Ling Ch'i Ching contains many inauspicious predictions.' Even so, I found Lingqijing as presented by the Sawyers to be a charming and usable oracle.

The text comprises entries built around 125 trigraphs, which are figures of three rows (top, middle, bottom) with four positions each whose content is determined by one throw of twelve small wooden disks. For each trigraph, the text gives a two-character Chinese name, and the Sawyers supply romanized and English versions. The heading also presents the trigraph's picture, image, phase energetics, associated trigram, and direction. Then follows the heart of the text: the trigraph's Oracle (a short prose statement) and Verse. To these the Sawyers append five commentaries, including their own. Too modestly they present their own superior comments last.

In getting to know this oracle, I decided to ask it a question similar to the one C G Jung asked the Yijing when he was writing the foreword to Wilhelm/Baynes. My question: 'What is your judgment about your present introduction to the West?' The inquirer normally obtains an answer by tossing the wooden disks and arranging them in a specified order. Chinese diviners are said to have believed that the operative power – the ling of the book's title – resided in these disks. Having no such disks, powerful or otherwise, I tossed twelve United States coins (a temporary expedient suggested by the Sawyers), then arranged them according to the simple instructions. Looking up the resulting figure in the book's consultation chart, I determined that I had obtained trigraph number two (shown below).

The trigraph's romanized name was 'Ch'ien T'ai,' translated 'Gradual Peace.' I noticed that each character of the Chinese name was also the name of a hexagram in the Yijing (number 53, 'Development [Gradual Progress],' and number 11, 'Peace'). Familiarity with the Yijing allowed me to sense right away that the resident sage was cautiously optimistic about Lingqijing's Western prospects. As for the trigraph's image, it was translated as 'waiting for the time,' which I guessed might be the sage's comment on Lingqijing's prolonged scholarly neglect.

Delving into the core, I read the Oracle text:

Dwell peacefully, arrange your enterprises, and manage your real-estate holdings, for then there will be gain, resulting in riches and honor as well. A salaried bureaucratic position will not yet be attained.

The Sawyers and their publisher ought to be happy about that, I thought, and the sage probably didn't want a salaried bureaucratic position anyway.

I found the Verse to be even more enthusiastic than the Oracle, though at first I had difficulty relating it specifically to my question:

Marvelous things approach the gate door,
Golden pheasants glitter in the sun.
Yin and yang propitiously assist each other;
Solitary, one will return astride a multihued, fabulous bird.

The Sawyers' commentary noted that

… people obtaining this trigraph … find themselves oriented in the midst of burgeoning growth. Thus virtually every activity proves auspicious, but since affairs have only just been initiated, care should be exercised to allow their growth to proceed naturally, in accord with the dynamics of life unfolding, rather than vigorously overstepping the constraints of seasonal evolution to forcefully pursue external things.

Another commentator minced no words:

A sought-after office will be obtained, but you will not yet be entrusted with the management of affairs.

So what was the judgment of the Lingqijing on the work of the Sawyers and their publisher? In line with the wording of my question, I interpreted the answer as if the oracle was speaking to and about itself, not its questioner. The sage seemed to say that the work would enrich its makers and perhaps its readers; it would get good reviews; but real success and, above all, trust would come slowly if at all. This interpretation came chiefly from the Oracle text and the commentaries. While the Verse seemed to have less resonance, in contemplating its last line I enjoyed a vision of the work, now in Western wraps, winging its way back to its country of origin aboard 'a multihued, fabulous bird' of the species Boeing.

Interpreting an answer can be more complex than simply reading the Oracle, Verse, and commentaries. In presenting this brief account of my inquiry, I skipped many details. Each position of the trigraph, for example, translates into a yin or yang line and thus forms one of the bagua, or eight trigrams, of the Yijing with its many connotations, and the three lines represent Heaven (top), Man (middle), and Earth (bottom). The Sawyers review these and other intricacies such as phase energetics in their well-wrought introduction, which covers not only the structure of the text but also its history and the methods for consulting it.

If the book has a failing as a usable oracle, it is a failure of excess. For each trigraph the Sawyers, as noted, present their own comments along with the comments of four Chinese students of the Lingqijing: Yan Youming of the Jin period (265–419 CE), He Chengtian of the Liu-Song period (420–477 CE), Chen Shikai in the fourteenth century (Yuan period), and Liu Ji of the late Yuan and early Ming periods. For the audience Shambhala hopes to reach, that may well be too much commentary. The Oracle and Verse texts more often than not are rich enough in allusions to get the inquirer's interpretative juices flowing, and the Sawyers' comments, augmented perhaps by snippets from the other four commentaries, would be quite sufficient to confirm and broaden the inquirer's interpretations. The Chinese commentaries could be bunched together under each commentator's name at the end of the book, where inquirers and (heaven forbid) scholars could browse if they wished.

Anyone familiar with the Yijing may have noted an obvious limitation of the Lingqijing: it has no changing lines. The Sawyers seem to see that as an advantage: 'The method[s] … are relatively simple and direct in comparison with the I Ching. There are no moving lines to interpret'; also, the trigraph 'provides a static portrait of a momentary situation, conceived in terms of an endless cycle of yin and yang locked in their polar tension, one increasing while the other decreases until the point of mutual reversion is reached.' But the changing lines help give the Yijing its interactive, human aura, and Western students of the Yijing may be reluctant to abandon it and to entrust the management of their affairs to a less dynamic oracle.

The Sawyers, also translators of 'The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China' (see the review by Kidder Smith in 'China Review International' Vol. 1, No. 1 [Spring 1994]: 231–240), hold out a promise of more oracle publications to come: 'The issues of textual transmission, even of [the oracle's] history itself, are murky and need to be addressed; in the absence of articles focusing on these subjects, we intend to offer something in the near future.' They also 'have two further works in preparation and hope to bring them forward if the response to the Ling Ch'i Ching merits it.' This reader's response is quite positive. The Sawyers' Lingqijing is a worthy addition to the small array of English-language versions of Chinese divination texts, and research on these and other such texts is ripe for expansion. Perhaps, as the Verse says, 'Marvelous things approach the gate door.'

[First published in 'China Review International' Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 1997), pp 526–530.]


For more on this oracle, see: Lingqijing: The Magical Chess Classic.