Les signes et les mutations

Wang Dongliang. 'Les signes et les mutations: Une approche nouvelle du Yi King histoire, pratique et texte.' Paris: L'Asiathèque, 1995. 336 pp. Paperback 188 F. ISBN 2-901795-99-4.


This book, packaged as a compact paperback, is chock-full of information on the history and use of Yijing (or, in the traditional French spelling, Yi King). It also includes the Chinese texts of the received and Mawangdui versions of the hexagram judgments and lines, a modern Chinese version of the traditional text, and a new French translation. Wang Dongliang, a PhD and lecturer in Paris, writes succinctly and well about matters that have wasted many a brush and pen over the past three millennia. Although the book's subtitle speaks of a 'new approach,' the author's strong suit is his ability, in the words of the Yijing's eleventh hexagram, to 'divide and complete,' to 'further and regulate,' the contributions of earlier Yijing scholars.

The first of the book's two parts covers the ancient classic's histoire and pratique. In the introduction Wang calls attention to the importance of studying the signs, or hexagram drawings, in any attempt to understand the text. I quote his words here not only to show his orientation but also to give an idea of his easy prose style:

Il s'agit donc d'un système de signes parfaitement fait pour montrer la transformation continue, censé être libre de toutes les contraintes linguistiques et contenant déjà tous les textes possibles, les paroles et les écrits venant après n'étant que l'explication perpétuelle du sens des signes.

(It is a question, therefore, of a system of signs perfectly made to show continuous transformation, supposed to be free of all linguistic constraints and already containing all possible texts, the words and writings that come afterward being only the perpetual explication of the signs' meaning.) (p 12)

Wang touches here on the centuries-old division in Yijing studies between scholars interested primarily in the 'numbers' and hexagram pictures and those more interested in studying the words of the text. Just as the Yijing is neither pure Taoism nor pure Confucianism but the fount of both, it is also an inseparable combination of signs and text, of divination and wisdom. The text, in fact, may refuse to reveal its meaning to scholars who cannot bring themselves to consult its signs; with the Yijing, the highest wisdom is to divine.

In the first three chapters Wang reviews much that is known about the divination system first called Zhouyi (Zhou changes), then Yijing (Changes classic) when it became one of the Confucian masterworks. He is to be commended for carefully distinguishing mythical, traditional, and archaeological knowledge; he devotes a chapter to each.

Chapter 4 examines ancient methods of consulting the oracle. Wang first explains how to construct a hexagram by yarrow-stalk divination according to instructions given in the classic's Ten Wings. Then he gives an easy-to-follow explanation of how hexagrams may have been read by early diviners during consultations, a method reconstructed earlier this century by Gao Heng.

In chapter 5, Wang closely examines the Yijing's evolution, from its use as one of several divination systems listed by ancient texts as being in the service of the Shang and Zhou kings, to its transmission to lesser nobles on the periphery of Zhou's waning power, to its transformation into a book of wisdom around the time of Confucius, to what is for us its latest incarnation, as a silk manuscript from a tomb at Mawangdui. Perhaps of greatest interest here is Wang's new look at Homer Dubs's old question: did Confucius study the Book of Changes (T'oung Pao 24 [1927], pp 82–90)? Whereas Dubs answered the question with a subjective no (that nice old man wouldn't be caught dead sorting stalks!), Wang is aware that the question is not so easily dismissed, particularly now that we have from Mawangdui a formerly unknown text in which Confucius acknowledges to a student that he does indeed consult the oracle, though his purpose is not to tell fortunes but to learn the wisdom of the ancients. Were this text not written on a genuine artifact dug up by archaeologists from a tomb sealed in the second century BC, one would swear that it was specially fabricated to refute Homer Dubs. (For an English translation of this text, called 'The Essences,' see Edward L Shaughnessy, I Ching: The Classic of Changes [New York: Ballantine, 1996], p 239.)

The most valuable contribution Wang makes in the first part of his book is chapter 6, which explains how the hexagrams have been read and interpreted through the ages. Of special interest is his chronological table of hexagram readings (fig 7, p 124), which summarizes thirteen methods: the numerical expressions inscribed on oracle bones, the trigram-structure systems recorded in Zuozhuan and in the Daxiang (Grand image) section of the Ten Wings, the opposed-monogram system of the Zagua (Hexagramme mélanges) section, the hexagram-succession system of the Xugua (Ordre des hexagrammes) section, positions theory as in the Xici (Formules annexées) and Xiaoxiang (Petite image) sections, the nuclear-hexagram system of Jing Fang, the complete-mutation and complete-transformation theories of Jiao Gan and Yu Fan, the cosmological-hexagram system of Shao Yong, the binary arithmetic of Leibniz, and the genetic-code interpretation of Martin Schönberger.

Chapter 7, 'La cosmologie des Huit trigrammes,' looks at the wide philosophical implications of the Yijing, including such basic Chinese concepts as taiji and yin-yang.

Wang's generous offering doesn't stop there. In the second part he presents (1) the text of the Mawangdui manuscript as transcribed by Han Zhongmin (given in the traditional hexagram order, not in the Mawangdui order) with (2) the received text of the Yijing printed directly under the manuscript's text, making comparison of the Chinese characters as easy as possible. He also gives (3) a modern Chinese adaptation of the text by Liu Dajun of Shangdong University, one of the foremost Yijing scholars in China today, and (4) a simple and smooth French translation of Liu's adaptation done by Wang with Raymond Tartaix. The French text is quite suitable for use in consultation, and Wang gives coin-throwing instructions in an 'Avertissement' (p 9).

Wang's approach is thorough and judicious. Still, it is possible to quarrel with one or two of Wang's assertions. He appears, for example, to favor Liu's belief (see Liu Dajun, 'A Preliminary Investigation of the Silk Manuscript Yijing,' Zhouyi Network, January 1986, pp 13–26) that the Mawangdui text is earlier than the received text. Shaughnessy, in the book already cited, gives convincing reasons why this cannot be the case. But one's overall response to Wang's work is a sense of gratitude for a clear, concise examination of a slew of sticky wickets.

Wang states (p 18) that above all he wants his book to be useful, presenting to the curious reader a summary of what is known today about this ancient text, giving to the practitioner easy ways to consult the oracle and to interpret its words, and offering to the Western specialist in Yijing studies some new and lesser-known elements 'avec l'espoir de susciter des discussions et des réflexions qui permettent d'approfondir la connaissance du Yi King dont l'apport se révèle de plus en plus intéressant maintenant que la planète est devenue un village' (in the hope of arousing discussions and reflections that allow deepening of knowledge about the Yijing, whose contribution is proving to be more and more of interest now that the planet has become a village). The book goes a long way toward meeting Wang's ambitions. Part of the global village still reads only English, however, and the planet would benefit if this excellent book were issued in an English translation.

[First published in 'China Review International' Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring 1998), pp 260–263.]