The following is an excerpt from ‘The I Ching: A Biography‘ by Richard J. Smith. What makes a classic? First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them.
Second, it must address these fundamental issues in “beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,” with “stimulating and inviting images.” Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom.
One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both space and time. By these criteria and by most other measures as well, the Yijing certainly fits the bill. And yet it seems so different from other “classics” that instantly come to mind, whether literary works such as the Odyssey, the Republic, the Divine Comedy, and The Pilgrim’s Progress or sacred scriptures like the Jewish and Christian Bibles, the Qur’an, the Hindu Vedas and the Buddhist sutras. Structurally it lacks any sort of systematic or sustained narrative, and from the standpoint of spirituality, it offers no vision of religious salvation, much less the promise of an afterlife or even the idea of rebirth.
According to Chinese tradition, the Yijing was based on the natural observations of the ancient sages; the cosmic order or Dao that it expressed had no Creator or Supreme Ordainer, much less a host of good and malevolent deities to exert influence in various ways. There is no jealous and angry God in it; no evil presence like Satan; no prophet, sinner, or savior; no story of floods or plagues; no tale of people swallowed up by whales or turned into pillars of salt.
The Changes posits neither a purposeful beginning nor an apocalyptic end; and whereas classics such as the Bible and Qur’an insist that humans are answerable not to their own culture but to a being that transcends all culture, the Yijing takes essentially the opposite position. One might add that in the Western tradition, God reveals only what God chooses to reveal, while in traditional China, the “mind of Heaven” was considered ultimately knowable and accessible through the Changes.
The “absolute gulf between God and his creatures” in the West had no counterpart in the Chinese tradition. Yet despite its brevity, cryptic text, paucity of colorful stories, virtual absence of deities, and lack of a sustained narrative, the Yijing exerted enormous influence in all realms of Chinese culture for well over two thousand years — an influence comparable to the Bible in Judeo-Christian culture, the Qur’an in Islamic culture, the Vedas in Hindu culture, and the sutras in Buddhist culture. What was so appealing about the document, and why was it so influential?
For those who think of themselves as secular, rational, and scientific, the Yijing seems to be a work of “awesome obscurity,” full of unfamiliar symbols and cryptic sayings, and reflecting a worldview sometimes described as “mystical” or “prelogical.” And for those of a more religious disposition, the lack of a cosmology based on the willful actions of a god or gods seems equally puzzling. In either case the Changes appears to be little more than a series of briefly annotated broken and solid lines that have no meanings except for those arbitrarily imposed on them by centuries of often-conflicting Chinese commentaries.
Yet there is logic to the work, which, for at least three thousand years, China’s greatest minds have sought to fathom and articulate. Into the twentieth century, the Yijing occupied a central place in Chinese culture, from the realms of philosophy, religion, art, and literature to those of politics and social life. Thinkers of every intellectual persuasion found inspiration in the language, symbolism, and imagery of the Changes. The work also inspired many impressive artistic and literary achievements, and it provided an analytical vocabulary that proved extraordinarily serviceable in virtually every area of elite and popular culture, including science and technology.
In premodern times, Chinese scientists used Yijing-derived symbolism, numerology, and mathematics to explain a wide range of natural processes and phenomena in the fields of knowledge that we now call physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, medicine, meteorology, and geology. And even today many devotees of the Changes see in the mathematical symbolism of the document the seeds of modern scientific theories, from the binary logic of computers to the structure of DNA. In short, to understand much of Chinese history and culture, we need to understand the Changes.
From the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) through the Qing (1644–1912 CE), the Yijing remained a work of enormous and unchallenged scriptural authority; everyone in Chinese society esteemed it and employed it in some way, from emperors and officials to artisans and peasants. Commoners used pages from the book as a charm to ward off evil, and scholars gave it pride of place as “first among the [Confucian] classics.” Although the document contains few explicit references to supernatural beings or supernatural forces, it has always had a profoundly spiritual dimension.
Indeed, the Changes describes itself as “the most spiritual thing in the world.” By virtue of its spiritual power, we are told, the Yijing “lets one know what is going to come, and by virtue of its wisdom, it becomes a repository of what has happened.” But whereas most religious traditions, both East and West, have emphasized the activities of a god or gods as an explanation for cosmic processes, devotees of the Changes have long held the view that such explanations reside in the cosmic powers embodied in its lines, trigrams, and hexagrams.
The central preoccupation of the Yijing throughout the imperial era (from the Han to the Qing) was how to understand the patterns and processes of nature, and how to act in harmony with them. The most common term for nature in premodern China was Dao, usually translated as “the Way.” Although this longstanding metaphysical concept had neither a personality nor a particular identity, it remained an overarching unifying truth among the Chinese in the same general sense that concepts such as Yahweh, Allah, God, Brahman, and Ultimate Reality were in the Judaic, Islamic, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions, respectively.
To fathom the Dao was to understand the various types of change in the universe, from the cosmic to the mundane, from recurrent cycles of movement — ebb and flow, rise and decline, advance and retreat — to physical and metaphysical transformations. From this sort of understanding came an appreciation of proper timing and positioning, essential in a culture where the ritual ideal had always been to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right place, facing the right direction.
The Yijing’s great prestige and multifaceted cultural role in China naturally commended it to several civilizations on the Chinese periphery — notably Korea, Japan, and Vietnam — each of which had long been influenced significantly by Chinese philosophy, religion, art, literature, and social customs. In all these environments, the Changes enjoyed an exalted reputation, and in each it was employed in a variety of cultural realms, as it had been in China.
The process of transmission in East Asia was relatively uncomplicated — in part because the classical Chinese language in which the Yijing was written served as the literary lingua franca of virtually all educated Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese elites until the late nineteenth century. Despite this powerful cultural common denominator, however, over time the Changes came to be used and understood in ways that reflected the particular needs and interests of the host environment, and in the process the Yijing became domesticated.
Similar processes of appropriation and adaptation took place much later in the West, but for somewhat different reasons and with sometimes radically different results. First, the Yijing had to be translated into various Western languages by scholars who had different levels of language ability and different political, religious, or personal agendas.
In East Asia the Changes remained part of the dominant culture into the twentieth century, whereas in Europe and the Americas, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, the radical otherness of the Yijing led to its use primarily as a countercultural document. To be sure, some individuals — Christian missionaries in particular — tried to find affinities between the Changes and the Bible, and scholars of various sorts sought to understand the document on its own terms, as a historical artifact rather than a living document. But on the whole the Yijing served in the West as a tool for challenging the establishment rather than supporting it.
Excepted from ‘The I Ching: A Biography‘ by Richard J. Smith. Copyright © 2012 by Princeton University Press. To read more from this book, or learn about the “Lives of Great Religious Books Series”, visit Princeton University Press.