The I Ching is the oldest book in the world. The basic structure developed in pre-history. Confucius, in his Great Commentary, credited the pre-historic Three August Ones and the Five August Emperors with ordering the world according to its precepts. From the Chou Li, or Book of Chou Rites dating from around 1000 BCE, we learn that the Book of the I was only one of three prophetic or divinatory books known to the ancient Chinese. The Li Chi, one of the Five Classics, informs us that turtle shells were in common usage in divination using a system derived from Fu Hsi’s trigrams. All that we can really know of its origins is that by the 12th century BCE, the oracle had taken its basic form of sixty four binary hexagrams.
Apparently, up to this point, no recognized interpretations of the patterns existed. Each practitioner was free to interpret the patterns of the hexagrams in their own way. However, around the middle of the 12th century BCE, the late Shang dynasty deposed and imprisoned one of their dependents, King Wen. While in prison, King Wen turned his attention to writing descriptions, or judgments, on the sixty four hexagrams. By careful use of the ideas revealed in his study, King Wen was able to effect his release and the re-instatement of his kingdom. Perhaps for this reason, his judgments have ever since been seen as definitive.
What exactly are they and how do they derive from the hexagrams? In many ways, this is the most enigmatic of all aspects of the I Ching. In their archetypal simplicity, these descriptions are often just a verb and a noun standing alone or with another verb and noun pair. The interpretation must add the sense of the grammar, and even then one is left with bald and cryptic statements that appear to have little in common beyond their inscrutability. The translator and interpreter must add more than grammar, he must be able to draw upon a lifetime of experience in the oracular use of the hexagrams, and beyond that must be a master of the traditions of Fu Hsi and the eight trigrams.
King Wen was all that and more. He passed his knowledge on to his son, Tan, the Prince of Chou, founder of the Chou dynasty which eventually overthrew the Shang. The Prince of Chou is credited with having passed on the wisdom of his father in his judgments on the lines of the sixty four hexagrams. These 384 descriptions form a unified field of understanding where all three perspectives on the eight trigrams and their subsequent sequences of hexagrams can be explored.
Thus, by 1000 BCE, the I Ching had taken on its classical form. Half a millennium later, Confucius devoted the later part of his life to a study of the I Ching, announcing in his Analects that if he were given extra years of life, he would spend fifty of them on the study of the I Ching. K’ung Fu-tsu, or Confucius in its Latin form, may not have written all of the Great Commentary. It was probably the work of the sages of his era, given prominence by a later association with the great K’ung. However Confucius, as an idea, is representative of the commentaries that form the final phase of the I Ching‘s development, with their emphasis on correctness and social stability.
The I Ching became one of the Five Classics after the Burning of the Books in 213 BCE. The Ch’in warlord Shih Huang-ti conquered a divided China and imposed a strict modernist plan not seen again until the advent of Maoism in the 1960’s of our era. The old Classics were lost, many survived only as fragments hidden away in walls and statues. But the I Ching, as a divinatory work of obscure phrasing and social correctness, survived the literary holocaust intact. In the reformation of the culture that followed the equally meteoric collapse of the Ch’in dynasty, the I Ching took its place as one of the surviving Classics of Chinese civilization.
Curiously enough, none of the other great thinkers — Lao Tzu, Mencius, Hsun Tzu – of pre-book burning China seem to have been interested in the I Ching. Only Master K’ung recommended it, and for that he deserves to be listed as one of its authors, along with Fu Hsi, King Wen and the Prince of Chou. After the disaster of the Ch’in Empire, the new Han dynasty tried to restore the nature of the ancient Chinese civilization, and from that perspective, the I Ching became one of the Five Classics. This is the moment, the early 2nd century BCE, when the I Ching assumed the form we know today.
In the intervening two millennia before its discovery by the west, the I Ching was the focal point of the evolving strands of Chinese religious philosophy. The orthodox Confucians developed their own interpretation as did the Taoist esotericists and the Buddhist missionaries. Finally, in 1715 CE, the Ch’ing Emperor K’ang-hsi issued the Imperial Edition, from which most European translations have been taken. The Imperial Edition is very Neo-Confucian in its choice of commentaries and was produced as a way of making the ancient texts support the new Manchu Dynasty of the Ch’ing. This gives the modern I Ching a political tone, one that appeals to western ears and one that it did not have throughout most of its history.
Today, many English versions exist, the best and most widely used being the Wilhelm-Baynes-Jung edition published in the Bollingen Series of Princeton University Press. Thomas Cleary has also published much work on the Taoist and Buddhist interpretations of the I Ching. Strangely enough, one of the most esoteric and enigmatic books of the 20th century, The Architecture of Nature, written by the Master Pierre, edited by AOR and privately published in Paris in 1943, equates the hexagrams of the I Ching with subjects as diverse as Gothic architecture, the kabbalah and the symbols of alchemy and secret societies.
However, even with all the interest in the I Ching, its basic nature is only now being understood. The world’s oldest book had to wait until the advent of computer science for the depth of its message to be glimpsed. Because the world’s oldest book is also the world’s oldest super-computer, one designed to read the flow of “change” through the mechanism of “time.”