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The use of the Book of Changes. The Book of Wisdom.

Rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes

Of far greater significance than the use of the Book of Changes as an oracle is its other use, namely, as a book of wisdom. Laotse10 knew this book, and some of his profoundest aphorisms were inspired by it. Indeed, his whole thought is permeated with its teachings. Confucius11 too knew the Book of Changes and devoted himself to reflection upon it. He probably wrote down some of his interpretative comments and imparted others to his pupils in oral teaching. The Book of Changes as edited and annotated by Confucius is the version that has come down to our time.

If we inquire as to the philosophy that pervades the book, we can confine ourselves to a few basically important concepts. The underlying idea of the whole is the idea of change. It is related in the Analects12 that Confucius, standing by a river, said: Everything flows on and on like this river, without pause, day and night. This expresses the idea of change. He who has perceived the meaning of change fixes his attention no longer on transitory individual things but on the immutable, eternal law at work in all change. This law is the tao13 of Lao-tse, the course of things, the principle of the one in the many. That it may become manifest, a decision, a postulate, is necessary. This fundamental postulate is the "great primal beginning" of all that exists, t'ai chi — in its original meaning, the "ridgepole." Later Chinese philosophers devoted much thought to this idea of a primal beginning. A still earlier beginning, wu chi, was represented by the symbol of a circle. Under this conception, t'ai chi was represented by the circle divided into the light and the dark, yang and yin.


This symbol has also played a significant part in India and Europe. However, speculations of a gnostic-dualistic character are foreign to the original thought of the I Ching; what it posits is simply the ridgepole, the line. With this line, which in itself represents oneness, duality comes into the world, for the line at the same time posits an above and a below, a right and left, front and back-in a word, the world of the opposites.

These opposites became known under the names yin and yang and created a great stir, especially in the transition period between the Ch'in and Han dynasties, in the centuries just before our era, when there was an entire school of yin-yang doctrine. At that time, the Book of Changes was much in use as a book of magic, and people read into the text all sorts of things not originally there. This doctrine of yin and yang, of the female and the male as primal principles, has naturally also attracted much attention among foreign students of Chinese thought. Following the usual bent, some of these have predicated in it a primitive phallic symbolism, with all the accompanying connotations.

To the disappointment of such discoverers it must be said that there is nothing to indicate this in the original meaning of the words yin and yang. In its primary meaning yin is "the cloudy," "the overcast," and yang means actually "banners waving in the sun",15 that is, something "shone upon," or bright. By transference the two concepts were applied to the light and dark sides of a mountain or of a river. In the case of a mountain the southern is the bright side and the northern the dark side, while in the case of a river seen from above, it is the northern side that is bright (yang), because it reflects the light, and the southern side that is in shadow (yin). Thence the two expressions were carried over into the Book of Changes and applied to the two alternating primal states of being. It should be pointed out, however, that the terms yin and yang do not occur in this derived sense either in the actual text of the book or in the oldest commentaries. Their first occurrence is in the Great Commentary, which already shows Taoistic influence in some parts. In the Commentary on the Decision the terms used for the opposites are "the firm" and "the yielding," not yang and yin.

However, no matter what names are applied to these forces, it is certain that the world of being arises out of their change and interplay. Thus change is conceived of partly as the continuous transformation of the one force into the other and partly as a cycle of complexes of phenomena, in themselves connected, such as day and night, summer and winter. Change is not meaningless — if it were, there could be no knowledge of it — but subject to the universal law, tao.

The second theme fundamental to the Book of Changes is its theory of ideas. The eight trigrams are images not so much of objects as of states of change. This view is associated with the concept expressed in the teachings of Lao-tse, as also in those of Confucius, that every event in the visible world is the effect of an "image," that is, of an idea in the unseen world. Accordingly, everything that happens on earth is only a reproduction, as it were, of an event in a world beyond our sense perception, as regards its occurrence in time, it is later than the suprasensible event. The holy men and sages, who are in contact with those higher spheres, have access to these ideas through direct intuition and are therefore able to intervene decisively in events in the world. Thus man is linked with heaven, the suprasensible world of ideas, and with earth, the material world of visible things, to form with these a trinity of the primal powers.

This theory of ideas is applied in a twofold sense. The Book of Changes shows the images of events and also the unfolding of conditions in statu nascendi. Thus, in discerning with its help the seeds of things to come, we learn to foresee the future as well as to understand the past. In this way the images on which the hexagrams are based serve as patterns for timely action in the situations indicated. Not only is adaptation to the course of nature thus made possible, but in the Great Commentary (pt. II, chap. II), an interesting attempt is made to trace back the origin of all the practices and inventions of civilization to such ideas and archetypal images. Whether or not the hypothesis can be made to apply in all specific instances, the basic concept contains a truth.16

The third element fundamental to the Book of Changes are the judgments. The judgments clothe the images in words, as it were; they indicate whether a given action will bring good fortune or misfortune, remorse or humiliation. The judgments make it possible for a man to make a decision to desist from a course of action indicated by the situation of the moment but harmful in the long run. In this way he makes himself independent of the tyranny of events. In its judgments, and in the interpretations attached to it from the time of Confucius on the Book of Changes opens to the reader the richest treasure of Chinese wisdom; at the same time it affords him a comprehensive view of the varieties of human experience, enabling him thereby to shape his life of his own sovereign will into an organic whole and so to direct it that it comes into accord with the ultimate tao lying at the root of all that exists.

"I Ching: Introduction by Richard Wilhelm" book structure
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  • The use of the Book of Changes:
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10 Second half of fifth century B.C.

11 551-479 B.C.

12 Lun Yü, IX, 16. This book comprises conversations of Confucius and his disciples.

13 Here, as throughout the book, Wilhelm uses the German word Sinn ("meaning") in capitals (SINN) for the Chinese word taoSINN to represent tao (see p. XIV of the introduction to his translation of Lao-tse: Tao Te King: Das Buch des Alten von Sinn und Leben, 3rd edn., Düsseldorf and Cologne, 1952) have no relation to the English word "meaning." Therefore in the English rendering, "tao" has been used wherever SINN occurs.

14 Known as t'ai chi t'u, "the supreme ultimate." See R. Wilhelm, A Short History of Chinese Civilization, tr. by J. Joshua (London, 1929), p.249.

15 Cf. the noteworthy discussions of Liang Ch'i-ch'ao in the Chinese journal The Endeavor, July 15 and 22, 1923, also the English essay by B. Schindler, "The Development of the Chinese Conceptions of Supreme Beings," Asia Major, Hirth Anniversary Volume (London: Probsthain, n.d.), pp. 298-366.

16 Cf. the extremely important discussions of Hu Shih in The Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China (2nd edn., New York: Paragon, 1963), and the even more detailed discussion in the first volume of his history of philosophy [Chung-kuo chê-hsüeh-shih ta-kang; not available in translation].