I Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

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9780143106920: I Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

A landmark new translation of the ancient Chinese oracle and book of wisdom, in a stunning Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition
 
Pose a question, then toss three coins (or cast your yarrow stalks) to access the time-honored wisdom of the I Ching.
 
The I Ching, or Book of Change, has been consulted through the ages, in both China and the West, for answers to fundamental questions about the world and our place in it. The oldest extant book of divination, it dates back three thousand years to ancient shamanistic practices involving the ritual preparation of the shoulder bones of oxen. From this early form of communication with the other world, it has become the Chinese spiritual book par excellence. An influence on such cultural icons as Bob Dylan, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Philip K. Dick, and Philip Pullman, the I Ching is turned to by millions around the world for insights on spiritual growth, business, medicine, genetics, game theory, strategic thinking, and leadership, and of course for the window it opens on China.

This new translation, over a decade in the making, is informed by the latest archaeological discoveries and features a gorgeously rendered codex of divination signs—the I Ching’s sixty-four Tarot-like hexagrams. It captures the majesty and mystery of this legendary work and charts an illuminating path to self-knowledge.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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About the Author:

John Minford is the translator of the acclaimed Penguin Classics edition of The Art of War and a professor of Chinese at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

The roots of the Chinese classic the I Ching, or the Book of Change, lie in ancient practices of Divination. More than three thousand years ago, in the Bronze Age society of the Shang dynasty, the Spirits of Nature and of the Ancestors were regularly questioned and placated by Kings, their Shamans, and their Scribes, through Divination and Sacrifice. These Rituals were accompanied by music and dance, the consumption of fresh and dried meats and cereals, the drinking and libation of alcohol, and perhaps the ingestion of cannabis.1 The questions posed often concerned the Great Affairs of State. Should the King go to war? Was it going to rain (and would the crops be affected)? Should human prisoners or animals be sacrificed, to bring an end to the drought? Should the King go hunting for elephants? Was the harvest going to be a good one? Sometimes the questions were more personal. Was the King’s toothache the result of an offense caused to an Ancestor? What was the significance of the King’s dream? In order to elicit answers to such questions, the shoulder bone (scapula) of an ox or the undershell (plastron) of a turtle was ritually prepared and anointed with blood. Carefully placed indentations were made on it, and heat was applied to the indentations with a rod of some sort, producing cracks on the opposite surface. The cracks were then “read” as an oracular response.

The bones and shells were often used several times, and were inscribed with the details of each Divination. They were stored in underground depositories, where they would lie forgotten for thousands of years. Occasionally a farmer might bring one or two to the surface with his plough. These Dragon Bones (as they were known) were ground into powder and used in traditional Chinese medicine. They were especially valued for the healing of wounds. It was only very recently—in the last years of the nineteenth century—that a number of scholars recognized their true nature and began avidly collecting them. The richest trove was discovered (not surprisingly) in and around the ancient Shang-dynasty capital at Anyang, in Henan Province. Since the first extensive excavations of the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of Oracle Bones have been unearthed, and numerous volumes reproducing the inscriptions have been published.2 Chinese and non-Chinese scholars have engaged in the complex and arduous process of deciphering and interpreting the documentation of this early form of communication with the Other World. Their writings have shed fresh and often startling light on the Shang dynasty, revealing a society greatly at variance with the Way of the Former Kings as it was idealized by sage-philosophers of a later time, such as Confucius. The Shang Priest-Kings seem to have been hugely preoccupied with Warfare and Sacrifice, and in particular with large-scale Human Sacrifice. It was a gruesome business. As the contemporary archaeologist Robert Bagley has coolly observed, “Beheading was the normal method of Sacrifice, but some victims were dismembered or cut in half and a few children seem to have been trussed up and buried alive.”3

The powerful vassal state of Zhou from the western hinterlands finally conquered its eastern Shang neighbors toward the end of the second millennium BC, and founded its own dynasty. In the period that followed, the earlier shamanistic practices of Divination gradually lost ground to the more “civilized” or “secular” practice of achillomancy—Yarrow Divination—performed by casting the dried stalks of the yarrow, or milfoil, plant, Achillea millefolium.4 Mantic insight into the workings of the Universe and into the dynamic of a situation was provided by the casting of these Stalks.5 As a nobleman remarks in an entry for the year 644 BC in the early chronicle known as the Zuo Commentary, “The Turtle gives Images; the Yarrow gives Numbers.”6 At some point—and here the story becomes obscure—a body of traditional Divination lore seems to have been organized under a series of sixty-four diagrams, or Hexagrams, gua, each made up of six Divided (Broken) or Undivided (Unbroken) horizontal Lines. Traditionally the invention of these Hexagrams, or rather of the three-line Trigrams that were thought to constitute them, was ascribed to the legendary Fu Xi, divinely inspired by his observations of the Patterns of the Universe, of Nature, of Heaven and Earth. Some have speculated that it may have been the fall of the Yarrow Stalks themselves that gave rise to these patterns of Divided and Undivided Lines; others trace the Hexagrams back to early patterns scratched on the Oracle Bones.7 In any event, an oracular text, or “book,” became attached to the Hexagrams. This is as much as we can piece together of the hazy early story of the Oracle. There seem to have been several books of a similar nature. One (ours) was known as the Zhouyi, the Change of Zhou.8 In those days, it should be remembered, books were bundles of bamboo strips bound together with silk threads or leather thongs.

There have been many different explanations for the term Change itself, today pronounced yi, in ancient days closer to lek. In the Oracle Bone Inscriptions it is used for a change in the weather: “It will not rain, it will become [change to] overcast.” “Will it be [change to] an overcast day?”9 Sometimes the change in the weather was the other way round, and the sun came out. But there seems to be no “sun” element in the early graph, which looks more like drops of water (rain or mist) beside the moon.

As the American scholar Donald Harper has observed, there is simply too much that we do not know to permit a precise account of the development of the Hexagrams and of the evolution of the Zhouyi from Oracle to what I will refer to loosely as a Book of Wisdom, from achillomancy (Yarrow Divination) to bibliomancy (Divination by the Book known as the Change of Zhou).10 What is indisputable is that several of the early formulae used by the Diviners of the Shang era, as they occur in the surviving Inscriptions, are also found in the Bronze Age text of the Oracle. Richard Kunst has summarized this well: “The divinatory lexicon . . . took up in the late second millennium and early first millennium from where the Oracle Bone Inscriptions left off, then continued to develop through the years of the Zhou dynasty.”11

This Bronze Age text, which is the basis of Part II of my translation, seems to have gradually stabilized toward the middle of the dynasty (sometime between the ninth and sixth centuries BC). It was widely used by statesmen of the period, as we can read from several episodes in the Zuo Commentary. It was canonized as a classic, the I Ching, or the Book [Classic] of Change, in 136 BC, by which point it had already been provided with a series of commentaries.12 It has survived through the subsequent two thousand years of Chinese history, the strangest and most incomprehensible item in the Chinese canon, a text central to Confucian orthodoxy, and yet revered by Taoists and Buddhists; the “first of the Confucian Classics” and a pillar of state ideology, and yet at the same time a subtle and powerful vehicle for a wide range of heterodox ideas.

The book we have today, then—new editions of which, serious and not so serious, still appear with regularity in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—is the direct descendant of ancient Chinese Divination and Magic. Its core oracular text, the Change of Zhou, consisting of the Hexagrams themselves, the Hexagram Judgments, and the Statements attached to each Line, shares many of the preoccupations of Shang-dynasty Divination: the practice of Sacrifice, Ritual, and Warfare; the taking of captives; the activities of a pastoral society (herding, hunting, raising and gelding of livestock); sickness (its cause and cure); astronomical phenomena; and tinglings and other strange premonitions. Its language derives from the earliest known form of Chinese, used to record acts of Divination. If the Oracle Bone Inscriptions (and the later Inscriptions on Bronze Ritual Vessels) are the Chinese language in the making, the Change of Zhou is one of the earliest attempts to put that language to a coherent purpose.

In addition to divinatory formulae such as “It is Auspicious,” “A Sacrifice was Received,” “Supreme Fortune,” and “No Harm,” the early Oracle incorporated a patchwork of other popular oral materials—fragments of ancestral legend and myth, proverbs, songs, and rhymes—which became attached to a cyclical structure, the series of Sixty-Four Hexagrams. Joseph Needham, the great historian of Chinese science and thought, hazarded a guess as to the process whereby this took place: “First there were the collections of ancient peasant-omens (about birds, insects, weather, subjective feelings, and the like). . . . Somehow or other these collections coalesced [my italics] with the books of the professional Diviners, books which preserved traditional lore relating to scapulimancy, Divination by the milfoil sticks [Yarrow Stalks], and other forms of prognostication. . . . They remodelled the text and added elaborate commentaries on it. . . .”13 Each of the Sixty-Four Hexagrams in the series acquired a Name. The Names were not initially fixed, but varied from one version of the Oracle to another, as did their sequential order and the wording of the text itself—we can see this in the old bamboo-strip or silk transcriptions that have been excavated recently. But the wordless diagrams provided a crystalline structure to which the fluctuating text adhered.14 However the Hexagrams and their related texts themselves may have evolved, at this early stage in its history the words of the Oracle were linked to no system of ideas, to no Confucian or Taoist philosophy or Yin-Yang cosmology. In other words, the early oracular Change of Zhou was not yet a Book of Wisdom. It provided its readers (the kings and aristocrats who consulted it) with glimpses (often puzzling ones) of the workings of the Universe and man’s part in it, glimpses descended from the ancient shamanistic dialogue with the unknown. With time these glimpses were to be interpreted in terms of a holistic vision of the Universe, a vision contained in many of the I Ching commentaries, a vision associated with the central word Tao.15 Richard Lynn has summarized this evolution well: “Hexagram Divination . . . changed from a method of consulting and influencing Gods, Spirits and Ancestors—the ‘powerful dead’—to a method of penetrating moments of the cosmic order to learn how the Way, or Tao, is configured and what direction it takes at such moments and to determine what one’s place is and should be in the scheme of things.”16 Both Oracle and Book of Wisdom put the reader in touch with a greater scheme of things, opening a door to a “larger view” of the world.17

FROM ORACLE TO BOOK OF WISDOM

During the two periods of Zhou dynastic decline known as the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States, the text circulated in this early oracular form among the states contending for leadership of the realm and was consulted for advice on pressing matters of state, and sometimes on lesser issues. When the draconian Qin state united the empire, it was one of the few texts to escape the “burning of the books” (in 213 BC), surviving intact, so tradition has it, precisely because it was regarded not as a work of philosophy (and therefore a potential source of dissidence) but “merely” as a useful handbook of Divination.18 A growing apparatus of quasi-philosophical commentaries was nonetheless already growing up around the urtext of the Oracle. These, known collectively as the Ten Wings and probably dating from the third and second centuries BC, were for many centuries attributed to more or less legendary figures. The Great Treatise (Dazhuan), perhaps the most important of these early commentaries, places the origins of the Trigrams in the remote past, setting the superlative tone adopted by many subsequent commentators.

Of old, when Fu Xi ruled the world,

He gazed upward and observed

Images in the Heavens;

He gazed about him and observed

Patterns upon the Earth.

He observed markings on birds and beasts,

How they were adapted to different regions.

Close at hand, he drew inspiration from within his own person;

Further afield, he drew inspiration from the outside world.

Thus he created the Eight Trigrams,

He made Connection with the Power of Spirit Light,

He distinguished the Myriad Things according to their Essential Nature.19

In a sense, it almost did not matter to whom the Trigrams, the Hexagrams, or the words attached to them were ascribed. In the eloquent words of the American scholar Kidder Smith, the I Ching was “the consummate written text, in that nearly every trace of human actors is absent from it. Its language is in this sense disembodied, and, by the same measure, empowered to roam freely throughout the natural world. It is in this sense shen, a ‘spirit’ or ‘spiritual,’ a text less of culture than of Heaven-and-Earth, of Nature.”20 It continued to occupy this central spiritual space, as Book of Wisdom and Power, for over two thousand years. The central I Ching concepts, Yin and Yang, the Tao, Good Faith, and Self-Cultivation, have preoccupied almost every Chinese thinker until the twentieth century.21 To read or quote from the I Ching is to touch the very spiritual heart of things Chinese. Its “quality of mysterious holiness,” to quote the American scholar Michael Nylan, “has engaged nearly every major thinker in imperial China.”22 The influential Song-dynasty philosopher Zhou Dunyi considered it to be the Spiritual Book par excellence, “the mysterious home of the gods of Heaven and Earth.”23 In 1271, the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, at the suggestion of a Chinese adviser, named his Chinese dynasty “Yuan,” from the opening word of the Judgment for Hexagram I: yuan, Supreme or Primordial.24

The Classic and Its Many Commentaries

The Ten Wings were the first of many attempts to weave a more sophisticated web of ideas around the basic Oracle, adapting the mantic tradition of the Hexagrams to a philosophical or cosmological scheme. They became an inseparable part of the classic.25 The layers of text and commentary (and their traditional attributions) are best shown in tabular form.

Layers of Text

The Core Oracular Text


   • The Eight Trigrams ( Ba gua) and the Sixty-Four Hexagrams ( Liushisi gua), attributed to Fu Xi.
   • The Hexagram Judgments ( Tuan), attributed to King Wen, founder of the Zhou dynasty.
   • The Line Statements ( Yaoci), attributed to the Duke of Zhou, King Wen’s son, regent for the second Zhou king.

The Ten Wings (Early Commentaries)

Wings 1–2

On the Judgment (Tuanzhuan). This is divided into two parts, Commentary A (Hexagrams 1–30) and Commentary B (Hexagrams 31–64). I give all of this commentary, but do not reproduce this division.

Wings 3–4

On the Image (Xiangzhuan). Again divided into two parts, Commentary A (On the Image of the Hexagram) and Commentary B (On the Image of the Lines). In my translation, I place Commentary A immediately beneath the Commentary on the Hexagram Judgment, and Commentary B beneath each relevant Line.

Wings 5–6

...

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