Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World – the evolution of the Yijing

Richard J Smith. 'Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World: The Yijing (I Ching, or Classic of Changes) and Its Evolution in China.' Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008, hardback, xix + 393 pages with 42 b&w illustrations, $35.00, ISBN 978-0-8139-2705-3.

Empty the mind in order to delight in the interpretation of the lines of the hexagrams. Reform the character in order to investigate its real nature, and read widely and submit to all restraints. Unite all the extraneous details, and one day you will suddenly have an awakening. Then what you grasp won’t merely be the dregs of the ancients. (p 144)

– Wu Cheng (1249–1333)

This handsome volume – casebound without dustjacket but with appended printed labels front and back – is an overview of a vast amount of Yijing thought, attempting to cover 3000 years of thinking on the same subject. Professor Richard J Smith of Rice University, who previously authored 'Fortune-Tellers and Philosophers: Divination in Traditional Chinese Society' (1991), describes the current work as a 'biography' of the Yijing (p xi). Smith declares himself 'not a true believer' (p 6), by which I'm guessing he means he doesn't consult the oracle personally, but nonetheless he has devoted his academic life to it anyway, in its guise as a 'cultural artifact'.

Yi studies (Yixue) is possibly the only specialist subject that can claim an unbroken line of human thinking stretching back to the Bronze Age. While a few religions may be able to claim something of the sort, and a few nebulous non-intellectual subjects such as agriculture or paganism, and perhaps astronomy, the Yijing in its essence, the Zhouyi, is far more circumscribed. It is sixty-four very short chapters (the longest has ninety-five characters, the shortest thirty) concerning sixty-four six-line perfect binary figures that can be formed into sequences and the origin of which is still unknown, the text of which exhibits great interest in the way particular situations emerge and change with the implication that there is an optimal human response to any presenting circumstance. Hard to believe, but there are still professors in the Chinese philosophy departments of universities arguing over whether the Yijing has any philosophical value. Even disregarding the obvious philosophical content of some of the lines ('without the level, no slope', for instance, in hexagram 11/3, the pre-Daoist emphasis on 'return', the frequent injunctions to wait or not act as a precursor to wuwei), the idea of an ever-changing world in which prognostication of the nature of the time is an option as a guide for action or non-action is surely 'philosophical'. (And this is without need of taking into account the testimony of many throughout history that it 'works', for all it cannot be explained why it should.)

The most exciting developments in Yi studies actually came in the last century, with the excavation of the Shang oracle bones, yet all it means is that our modern outlook on the Yi has finally gone back to something like the original ancient one. But Smith is hardly concerned with this at all, for him the subject matter is decidedly the curious modes of thought that became attached to the oracle in its overland transmission to the present day. The freshness of the fragments more recently dug out of the ground can hardly impinge upon that at all as a legacy of evolution over time, for all they more or less completely overthrow it as a bottom line on what the oracle was originally about.

Passing in nine chapters from the Shang dynasty to the modern day, with an introduction, conclusion, and back matter, Smith touches lightly on many of the prominent thinkers who concerned themselves with the Yijing. The chapter dealing with the earliest times is a little sparse. I was surprised he says on p 22 that we cannot know with any certainty what was meant by the 'dragon' of hexagram 1, saying that it wasn't until the Han period (206 BCE–220 CE) that its basic features began to be systematised. While there is some truth in this, nonetheless there are earlier depictions of the dragon, and we know it was subaquatic and could fly and was looked upon as a rain-bringer. Doubtless the earliest dragon didn't chase a pearl, but isn't saying that the Han dragon may be a different creature to the Shang/Zhou dragon a little like saying we cannot be sure that the flying saucers of the 1950s are the same as the UFOs of today? And his statement that the junzi, literally 'lord's son' and usually translated as the 'noble man', can also be a 'spirit personator' and that this

may well be the sense in which it was originally used in the Qian ("Creative," "Heaven," "Pure Yang") hexagram

is offered without any justification. A 'spirit personator' is someone who impersonates a dead ancestor for ritual purposes, but there is nothing to suggest that this is what is meant by junzi in hexagram 1 or, indeed, in any other hexagram. He doesn't reference this idea, so one must presume it is his own interpretation, in which case it would be interesting to know what his thinking is here.

He mentions the Zuozhuan divination cases but leaves the actual 'birth' of the Changes in a fog with an out-of-place comparison with the language of the Book of Revelation (p 14). Traditional origin accounts are given a paragraph or two, but King Wen and the Duke of Zhou are soon dispensed with to make way for Zhang Zhenglang's 1981 paper [PDF] from 'Early China' 6 on numbers on the oracle bones that may represent trigrams and hexagrams, which is uncritically presented and given more space. This seems odd in a book dealing with the history of the Yijing as a cultural artifact. (I probably should declare that my own and others' work on the 'hidden history' is mentioned in passing, but nothing much is said about it, beyond the simplistic anti-belief, in a rare opinion expressed, that

despite tantalizing bits of evidence, it is doubtful that King Wen wrote the hexagram and line statements of the Changes (p 20).

He doesn't address whether any of King Wen's and King Wu's oracle-bone enquiries may have survived in the book, which was my own assertion as a realistic possibility that should not be overlooked.)

There is a summation on p 29 of the general characteristics of the six lines rising up the hexagram. Although it doesn't fit every hexagram in all respects it is nonetheless a good thumbnail guide worth quoting:

… the first line describes the beginning of the situation; the second line marks the apogee of its internal development; the third line characterizes a moment of crisis (see, e.g., hexagrams 5, 7, 10, etc.); the fourth line indicates the beginning of the external aspect of a situation; the fifth line marks its high point; and the sixth line refers to its completion or overdevelopment.

We rest attention briefly on the various excavated texts (Mawangdui, Fuyang [PDF], etc) until the division into the schools of xiangshu (Image and Number) and yili (Meaning and Pattern) marks the first real milestone on p 60. We arrive at Meng Xi's system of 'hexagram breaths' (guaqi). Smith takes pp 62–67 telling us just enough about it that we may either be intrigued to know more, in which case we will be disappointed, or sufficiently confused not to want to know more. Meng Xi (circa 90–40 BCE) regarded hexagrams 29, 51, 30, and 58 as the four basic hexagrams corresponding to the winter solstice, the spring equinox, the summer solstice, and the autumnal equinox, as well as north, east, south, and west, respectively. In total these four hexagrams have twenty-four lines, each of which corresponds to one of the twenty-four solar breaths (the twenty-four divisions of the tropical year, each of which lasts fifteen days). The remaining sixty hexagrams chart the growth and decline of yin and yang throughout the year. Each hexagram corresponds to about six days (365.25 days of the year divided by 60 = 6.0875 days, i.e., six days, two hours, six minutes = 1 qi period or 'hexagram breath'), so a set of five hexagrams makes up a month. These five hexagrams are termed 'duke' (gong), 'sovereign' (bi), 'marquis' (hou), 'high official' (dafu), and 'minister' (qing). So there are twelve of each, twelve 'duke hexagrams', twelve 'sovereign hexagrams', and so on (this is where the twelve bigua or sovereign hexagrams come from, which when referred to outside of the hexagram-breaths system should probably just be called the twelve xiaoxigua or 'waning and waxing hexagrams', if one is being strict with the terminology). Smith explains the system but without any of the kind of exposition that would leave one feeling one had satisfactorily understood something, although it is certainly useful gathered together with other materials (and I've added a bit above that isn't in Smith's book, for jigsaw lovers missing a piece of sky).

Meng Xi's system was probably the first serious attempt to correlate calendrical time to the hexagrams, work carried on by Jing Fang (77–37 BCE), yet the very basis of it goes unexamined and one is left with an idea that can only seem arbitrary at best. That said, for all their obsession with calendrical hexagrams the ancient Chinese showed little interest in the nature of time itself, only in 'the time' (shi), in the sense of our actions being appropriate to it, seasonality, such that Zhu Xi (1130–1200) answered a question about grasping the nature of the time by saying that in the winter we have hot soup and in summer cold water. (Consulting the oracle is never about knowing the future, it is always about knowing 'the time'. As for xiangshu predictive practices, for all of their apparent complexity and sophistication, and the mystique maintained by their 'master' practitioners, they essentially rest on the same naive assumptions about fate and time that are held by the average peasant.)

In the ensuing pages a good amount of Yijing terminology appears, such as yixiang (lost images, which are trigram associations not in the Shuogua [Discussion of the Trigrams]), pantonggua (laterally linked hexagrams), hugua (overlapping trigrams, also known as nuclear trigrams), guabian (hexagram changes), ji (incipience) and others, as well as related texts such as the Yilin, 'Forest of Changes', and Taixuanjing, 'The Classic of Great Mystery'. With some of these it would be useful to have Bent Nielsen's book to hand, 'A Companion to Yi Jing Numerology and Cosmology' (2003), to be able to look them up there, and even Smith frequently defers to Nielsen for fuller explication of both specialist terminology and biographies of Yi scholars from Han to Song, which Nielsen gives as 202 BCE to 1279 CE.

His material on the neo-Daoist (literally 'dark learning', xuanxue) Wang Bi (226–249), in particular his concentration on wu (non-being, non-actuality, nothingness), as opposed to you (being), reminds me it is time to read Wang Bi again. Dipping in now and again to particular line commentaries it is easy to forget there is a depth to Wang Bi, as so often he appears to be saying very little, or is derivative of Zhuangzi (Wang Bi's 'forgetting the image to grasp the idea' or 'forgetting the words when you've got the meaning' comes directly from Zhuangzi 26), but actually his presentation of wu is the first serious pointing to the unchanging unity underlying existence in Yi studies. Interestingly, Wang Bi regarded the concept of ji (incipience) as the precise moment that something leaves non-being and enters being. In Chinese philosophy the idea that being originates from non-being is put forward as early as chapter 40 of the Daodejing. Wang argued that wu is the original reality from which everything emerges, whereas the later neo-Daoist Guo Xiang (circa 252–312) maintained that wu couldn't be the origin of being and made sense only in relation to being, which must give rise to itself spontaneously and be eternal. But this is easily resolved because it is clear that what Wang Bi is referring to by wu is non-duality, whereas Guo Xiang is effectively saying that non-existence doesn't exist. Non-being as literally nothing, however, where everything is so of itself, is also non-duality. Being then originates from nothing in the sense that it makes no reference to anything but itself, it spontaneously is. What seems like a contradiction of Daodejing 40 is simply drawing the line sharper. (For further information about Guo Xiang's ideas, see Brook Ziporyn's The Penumbra Unbound.)

One thing 'Fathoming the Cosmos' does not offer in any abundance are examples of interesting interpretations of particular lines. We are not left with much of an idea of how the Yi was understood at different times, rather we are told a lot about how broad approaches (Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist, alchemical) were favoured or not and by whom. And even when there is something specific on offer, it often fizzles out for want of just another sentence or two. For example, Smith mentions in passing that the Qing scholar Wang Fuzhi (1619–1692) had a 'dark reading' of hexagrams 63 and 64 during a time of dynastic transition, yet doesn't tell us what that reading actually was and instead gives a reference we are unlikely to have to hand (p 313 n40). Why tantalize us, but not fulfil the interest aroused?

There is a good section starting on p 160 on the Ming scholar Lai Zhide (1525–1604), famous for inventing the terms cuogua and zonggua to rename what had previously been known as pantonggua and fandui, namely complementary hexagrams and inverted hexagrams (see glossary). Lai based this idea on an obscure phrase in the Great Treatise: 'Cuo and zong their numbers' (Dazhuan 1:10, section 3). Lai, who spent thirty years in seclusion studying the Yijing before publishing his magnum opus in 1599 at the age of seventy-four, looked at these particular forms of hexagram linkage in an attempt to discover what he regarded as explanations for the text. Smith provides an example of how Lai examined two hexagrams related by the principle of cuogua, where the yin and yang lines in one hexagram are yang and yin lines, respectively, in the same positions in the other, but he overeggs the pudding somewhat with this statement:

Thus, for example, Lai seems to have been the first commentator in Chinese history to see a clear connection between Shi ("The Army" [7]) and Tongren ("Fellowship" [13]), based on the second line statement of Shi: "The king [wang] confers a three-fold commendation." (p 164)

What Smith goes on to explain as the 'clear connection' turns out not to be clear at all:

According to Lai's cuogua approach, the link between these two hexagrams becomes apparent when, through the process of "interchanging," the Kun trigram at the top of Shi morphs into the Qian trigram (signifying "sovereign" [jun], as per the Shuogua commentary) at the top of Tongren. This relationship, illuminated by images of rulership and reinforced by the common understanding that the second line of Shi is its "ruler" (zhu), explains the shared theme of warfare – a constant preoccupation of kings – in the paired hexagrams. According to Lai, the connection between these two seemingly dissimilar hexagrams attests to the "marvelous subtlety" of the Yijing's images, "which later Confucians had a difficult time understanding." (p 164)

This is all rather forced, not to mention slight. Is this 'explanation' sufficient to warrant Smith awarding Lai the accolade of 'the first commentator in Chinese history' to notice it? There are, however, a few stronger connections between these two hexagrams that aren't mentioned. Mildly interesting, for instance, is that the character shi, 'army', the title-tag of hexagram 7, also occurs in the fifth line of hexagram 13 (not that you would guess it looking at popular translations such as Wilhelm-Baynes, Blofeld, or A Huang). And 'The king three times confers command' (not 'commendation') in hexagram 7/2 might be said to be a little mirrored in 'For three years no rising up' in hexagram 13/3. Not that I'm suggesting that these are anything like remarkable connections, I merely point them out as examples of connections missed while flimsy ones are lauded. Lai Zhide's actual assertion though, not put across too well by Smith, was that the wording of the second line of hexagram 7 was specifically selected to match its cuogua hexagram 13, on the grounds that the upper qian trigram of hexagram 13 is associated with 'king' (Shuogua 11 associates qian with jun, 'lord', not wang, 'king', but Lai stretched it, odd as well because jun is actually in the top line of hexagram 7) and the lower li trigram with 'three' (following the order in Shuogua 5 rather than Shuogua 3, or, more likely, Shao Yong's later ordering). All pretty slim if you ask me, and this is without even getting onto the eight-century gap between the time the Zhouyi text was composed and the Shuogua trigram associations were set down. I am left with the impression that Smith, in flagging this as some kind of important discovery, has done little more than pass on Lai Zhide's assurance that it is, but has not otherwise examined it. As for Lai, he didn't explain why he thought the cuogua should have a textual influence in the first place, and was criticised for this by the later commentators Huang Zongxi (1610–1695) and Hu Wei (1633–1714) who saw it as a groundless hypothesis, whereas the zonggua speaks for itself right from the very beginning in the pattern of repeated text in hexagram lines such as 41/5 and 42/2, or 43/4 and 44/3.

But despite the criticism, the book is certainly at its best when presenting material like this with a bit of flesh on the bone. In general though, translations of extracts from commentaries on the actual content of the Book of Changes are minimal. Instead, we do get a lot of titles of works translated, which often sound intriguing, but there the intrigue must end as Smith passes swiftly on. Instead of a quote we often hear about a work in terms so general it could be a description of any book dealing with the Yijing, for example:

His goal is to offer a means by which human beings can attain their full potential through a complete awareness and mastery of the cosmic patterns of movement and rest. (p 153)

In the chapter on modern China Smith concentrates more on links to mathematics, DNA, Jungian archetypes and synchronicity, rather than the new era of Yijing study ushered in by archaeological discovery. The names of many scholars are mentioned but we learn nothing or very little about their work (there are twenty-one names, for instance, on p 200, twenty-five on p 205, and another twenty on p 206). Still, the information that we get instead on the 'Zhouyi Theme Park' in Fuling, Sichuan (p 207), is interesting enough. On p 235 I noted that Wang Ming, a contemporary expert in Daoism, believed hexagram 31 referred to sexual foreplay, in particular it is 'a description of a young man petting with his girlfriend on a date', according to the original reference given by Smith (p 16, Ruan, 'Sex in China'). Luckily the page containing Professor Wang Ming's interpretation (p 17) was available on Google Books so I took a screenshot.

One of the sections of the book I liked the most was the handful of poems on the Yi that Smith has translated from the Tushu jicheng, a massive Qing encyclopedia (pp 223–225). Chinese poets often drew on the image of two old friends discussing profound mysteries over wine in one or other's mountain hut, and sometimes it is the Book of Changes that is at the centre of their conversation. The earliest poem that evokes such an image is actually in the Yi itself, the second line of hexagram 61. Smith includes a nice example by Meng Jiao (751–814), titled 'Sent in parting to the hermit Yin, upon his return to seclusion after talking about the Changes':

When you talk about Heaven and Earth
It is as if I am listening to the numinous turtle itself.
Mystery upon mystery, unknown to men,
One by one, you clarify for me.
From the autumn moon issues the white night;
A cool breeze rhymes harmoniously with the clear source.
Through inference, swiftly we reach the remote;
Spirits resonating in silence, with no display of words.
A sudden awakening dissolves ten thousand tangles;
Evening thoughts pour out the troubles of the morning.
The traveler's boat resists stopping on the waves,
And the tethered horse neighs at the departing carriage.
We are dedicated and sincere men of the thicket
Who truly understand each other.

I presume that the 'numinous turtle' is the linggui, the 'magic tortoise' of Wilhelm's hexagram 27/1, originally a name for the tortoise oracle (pyromancy with tortoise/turtle shells).

The Jungian material is too long, given too much importance, and presumably included at the expense of discussion of more interesting textual studies by the list of names on p 206. The latter is a glaring omission. A wonderful half century of textual reinterpretation of the oracle, coming out of Gushibian ('debating ancient history') context criticism, is completely ignored in favour of the stunning revelation that Jungian analyst Shen Heyong thinks there are psychological insights to be found in the Yi (pp 215–216). Falling into the pit in hexagram 29 is apparently a symbol for 'anxiety'. Doesn't anyone who consults the Yijing know that it applies to their state of mind at the time? Do we need trite observations of this nature to be made to sound like breakthroughs? Smith obviously finds this sort of stuff engaging, otherwise he wouldn't have given talks to the 2006 and 2009 International Conference of Analytical Psychology and Chinese Culture. I presume he wants to show one way the Yi has been recuperated into the Chinese mainstream in modern times after losing its Imperial patronage, but it is a pity he has sidelined so much more interesting modern-era material that is directly to do with the Yijing to get it in.

The book is 400 pages but the main text ends on p 249, the rest being back matter – appendices, notes, bibliography, index. The bibliography consists of nineteen pages of Asian-language works and twenty-four pages of Western-language works, and there is a very good index. Only one typo noticed (p 303). The six Chinese character glossaries were relegated to the web as PDF files (Smith has created a small Yijing website at that link). Attention to accuracy appears very high, though I did notice one son being born before his father, if the dates are anything to go by (on p 150 Hu Bingwen is said to have lived 1250–1333 and was the son of Hu Yigui, whose dates on p 143 are 1260–1346; even Nielsen has Hu Yigui fathering his child at the age of three). Prof Smith is presently writing a companion volume tentatively titled 'Eternal Writ: The Globalization of the Yijing' (see his 2002 Taiwan paper [PDF] on this), dealing with the spread of the Yi to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, and the west, as well as a detailed study of Yijing exegesis in the Qing dynasty, the period he specialises in.



One gets a good sense of the structure of Yijing history and who the main players are, and in this Smith has succeeded in what was probably his prime objective, but the problem with the book is its lack of content. Only a handful of 'big names' are accorded a useful glimpse, and sections where we are treated to more detail are often based on studies already available in English. There are more comprehensive works of this nature in Chinese (such as Zhu Bokun's four-volume Yixue zhexueshi ['A History of Yixue Philosophy', 1995]) and in German there is Hermann G Bohn's 700-page 'Die Rezeption des Zhouyi in der Chinesischen Philosophie, von den Anfängen bis zur Song-dynastie' (1998) – but the essential point is that this is the first overview of Yijing studies in English, so it is bound to be of great use to many despite its limitations and is well worth acquiring.