Around 1500 BCE, about the time the Beaker people made the last additions to Stonehenge and the Shepherd Kings (symbolized by the story of Joseph in the Bible) were conquering Egypt, a group of feudal warlords, called the Shang for the city where they originated, consolidated their control over the Yangtse valley of north-central China. The Shang created the first formal empire in China, imposing a hereditary kingship supported by a land-holding aristocracy. These noble families and their retainers formed the basis of the army which expanded the Shang kingdom to the south and the west.
By 1325 BCE, the Shang had pushed westward into plains of Chou. In the classic Book of Poetry, an ode tells how the Emperor T’an Fu led his people to Chou and founded a new city where the “turtle shell/ It says ‘Stop,’ it says ‘This is the time.’” Only a few hundred years before, the Shang had developed writing from just such oracle readings in order to petition their ancestors, which makes this is the first direct mention of the oracle in Chinese history.
But what was the oracle, and how does a turtle shell say “Stop?” To answer these questions, we must look back into the myth shrouded beginnings of Chinese culture.
There have been hominids we would recognize as human in China for over five hundred thousand years. About eight thousand years ago, the rudiments of civilization appeared. A few thousand years later, around 3,000 BCE, a sort of proto-culture developed in the upper Yangtse valley. Like so many of the proto-cultures which formed around the planet within a few hundreds years of that date, the ancient Chinese culture centered on an Immortal.
At the dawn of time, Fu Hsi, the primordial culture-bringer who invented the calendar, writing and the organization of society and whose name literally means Embodied Wisdom, tried to explain the workings of I, a word usually translated as “change.” To do this, we are told in the Great Commentary supposedly written by Confucius, he “observed the phenomena of the heavens and gazed down to observe the contours of the earth.” He also observed his own internal processes and their reflections in nature and then “went beyond this to take ideas from other things. Thus he invented the eight trigrams in order to comprehend the virtues of spiritual beings and represent the conditions of all things of creation.”
In one version of the legend, Fu Hsi sees the eight trigrams, or primal groupings of broken and unbroken lines, on the back of a turtle, which gives us a clue as to how the oracle was originally practiced. The eight trigrams describe the major concepts of the ancient Chinese eco-philosophy which all refer back to the central image of the I, or, as an early Chou author defined it, “Change: that is the unchangeable.” The word began as a pictogram of the cosmic lizard or dragon, and meant the “fixed,” or the “straight,” in the sense of the cosmic and unchanging axis of the universe. Applied to the idea of “time,” the world axis came to denote “change” in order to describe the perceived evolution of patterns and rhythms.
These patterns were conceived as the cold dark yielding forces of Yin and the hot bright expansive forces of Yang, both of which are but fluctuations in the Chi. These fluctuations give rise to the five elements – metal, wood, water, fire and earth – whose interactions in turn produce all things. These eight concepts are symbolized by the eight primal trigrams: the trigrams Heaven and Earth represent Yang and Yin, while the trigram Thunder represents the Chi. The other five, – Lake, Fire, Wind, Water and Mountain – convey the essence of the five elements, metal, fire, wood, water and earth.
Fu Hsi’s realization of the eight trigrams produces first of all a gnomic or geometric view of the universe’s expansion, from first cause to the reality event horizon symbolized by the 64 hexagrams. The One becomes two, Yin and Yang, which in turn produces four, the directions, then eight, the trigrams, and then on to sixty four, the hexagrams. This was thought of as the primal linear order, of both the trigrams and their resulting hexagrams. This can also be seen as the primal binary matrix, a sort of master set of off/on switches by which life unfolds through time by means of change.
The number sixty four is unusual in several ways. There are sixty four codons, of three nucleotide units each, used by DNA and RNA to specify the amino acids needed for protein synthesis. We can think of these codons as a taxonomy, a complete and self referencing group of symbols, that describes the possibilities of biological evolution. Interestingly enough, evidence from anthropology also suggest that sixty four is the maximum number of entities that can be contained in one folkloric unit. From this it follows that the maximum level of cultural complexity is also controlled by the law of 2 to the 6th power, or sixty four. This connection between the evolution of proteins from DNA and the development of cultural complexity from archetypal experience forms the basis of the I Ching.
While there are other ways to organize the trigrams and therefore the hexagrams, the primal linear order seems to represent some basic structure of life itself. Bio-chemists, such as Dr. Martin Schonberger in his book The I Ching & the Genetic Code, have commented on the similarity of the primal linear order and the sequence of transfer RNA needed to develop living organisms from the DNA blueprint. Fu Hsi, the Embodied Wisdom, seems to have been telling us that the wisdom is also encoded within all of us. Indeed, the archaic pictogram for the oracle resembles nothing so much as a way to align the I, or cosmic center, with the unfolded spirals of DNA derived life.
However, as the text attributed to Confucius noted, Fu Hsi went beyond the code of life. He also gave us a way to understand how our DNA fits within the larger patterns of celestial alignments and temporal development. The logical way to turn the linear, binary order of the trigrams into a circular pattern is to match pairs of opposites. This produces the primal or celestial arrangement which represents the larger patterns of time and change. We can in fact align this primal pattern to the four corners of the universe, the so- called galactic solstices and equinoxes, and thereby derive the quality of time for each trigram’s age or era.
The trigrams used to mark these large periods of time, the slow changes of the ages, can also be arranged to show the yearly cycle of natural and ecological change. This temporal arrangement begins in the spring with the appearance of the Chi trigram, Thunder, and then proceeds to develop the Chi through the year to perfection in the late winter, earth trigram Mountain, or Keeping Still, from which the Chi re-emerges in the spring.
Therefore Fu Hsi’s revelation provides us with a way to understand the evolution of the life codes, our DNA, within the organization of the space/time matrix from which reality is formed. Each arrangement of trigrams can be used to generate a sequence of the sixty four hexagrams which describes the changes, or relationships, within that level of reality. Thus, the linear or binary sequence describes the diversity of life produced through the action of tRNA, the celestial sequence describes the quality of time as the evolution of the results of action, what the Hindus call karma, and the temporal sequence describes the unfolding of the life force, the Chi, through the year and the landscape. By referring to all three, a total picture of reality emerges.
So, how was the turtle shell actually used as an oracle? The eight sections of the turtle’s shell were each assigned a trigram and then a small hole was drilled in the center of the shell. Heat was applied to the hole until cracks appeared. These cracks were then read, in terms of which trigram section was effected, and the resulting trigrams and hexagrams interpreted. These crack patterns, and their trigram derived meanings, served as the basis for some of the earliest Chinese characters.
The Shang warlords developed a form of writing from these oracular symbols and a fund of very ancient pictograms that resemble in their simplicity the pre-dynastic hieroglyphs of Egypt. In China, the written form of the language grew directly from a richly symbolic natural philosophy. Over time, this philosophy became distilled into the text of the I Ching and its commentaries. In attempting to understand the I Ching, we must constantly remember these ancient perspectives, the realizations and revelations of the Embodied Wisdom, the First August One, Fu Hsi.