In a changing and unpredictable world, no classical text is more rewarding, or more challenging, than the ancient Chinese I Ching or Book of Changes. This classic presents itself as a book of divination and invites dismissal on such grounds amongst educated Western circles, including even the great British sinologist and advocate of Chinese science and technology Joseph Needham. It is, however, the most modern of practical handbooks, being a remarkably wise and profound guide to that nagging imperative of contemporary personal and political life – self-organisation.
This truth only grows as political authority shifts from West to East, as economic productivity travels from America to China, as industrial technology grows robustly throughout Asia and shrivels in the developed economies and as health and well-being wisdom is found more surely in Asian therapeutic traditions than in contemporary share market driven medical innovations.
Indeed, the I Ching is not only the source of a profound personal, social and political wisdom but also of a scientific genius that is holistic and organic and that led the world for several millennia until the rise of Anglo-American power over the past two hundred years. Moreover, this scientific culture promises much for the future of a troubled global community. It contrasts with the culture that has turned contemporary life into one large uncontrolled and poorly understood scientific experiment, where the casino of the marketplace has ceased to respect the ecologies of life.
Central elements of the text of the I Ching are attributed to men (King Wen and his sons King Wu and the Duke of Zhou) who were responsible for overthrowing the powerful tyrant who ruled a declining and corrupt Shang Dynasty, as the prelude to founding the Zhou Dynasty around 1045 BCE. As such, much of its wisdom can be read as a political text, informed by profound and holistic wisdom. This wisdom is shaped by a keen sense of the social morality needed to win widespread popular support, the human understanding needed to avoid the perils of carelessness and hubris and the acute insight into the dynamics of life and nature essential to prosper in this world.
There is no more seminal influence in Chinese culture than the I Ching, with its history of over three thousand years and its roots in the wisdom that guided the founding of China’s longest and most culturally productive dynasty. Contrary to modern fashion, the authority of the I Ching tends to increase with the age and experience of the reader or interpreter. Japanese who lived during the Tokugawa Shogunate counseled against serious study before the age of fifty. At the same time, one of the most renown Chinese commentaries on the I Ching was completed by a scholar who died at the age of twenty three in 249.
Despite the fact that the 17th and 18th century German philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz had been shocked to discover that his binary arithmetic was matched by an arrangement of the I Ching’s hexagrams, the West’s greatest authority on Chinese science and technology – the 20th century Joseph Needham – dismissed it as of little worth. Now, it has been shown by later scholars to have a mathematical structure similar to that of DNA, discovered in the West more than three thousand years later. In this, it is the world’s first, and possibly still only, serious guide to self-organisation at personal, social and political levels.
Moreover, another scholar suggests that it may reveal an understanding of still poorly understood fundamentals that inform a wide variety of physical change, in both living and non-living structures. This all reflects the almost unbelievable Chinese genius for observing the minutiae of nature, a quality that long informed the world’s most innovative and productive scientific and technological civilisation.
In many ways, the I Ching is an enigma. Apart from qualities noted above, it offers a unified understanding of what are often seen as China’s two main contending spiritual traditions – Confucianism and Daoism – and some even see in it the source of both these traditions of thought. Moreover, while the I Ching has always served as a book of divination, this article will treat it essentially as a book of moral, political and scientific wisdom.
(It should be noted that I Ching is more accurately written as Yi Jing, as laid down in the transliteration system prescribed by the Chinese Government, but is presented here as I Ching in order to avoid confusion in referring to several book titles, which use a dated system of transliteration that is often preferred in the United States.)