UBC Faculty Research and Publications

The Yijing 易經 (The Classic of Changes) Smith, Richard; Hamm, Matthew


One of the most influential texts in Chinese and East Asian history, the Yijing 易經 ( Classic of Changes) has long been known as “the first of the (Confucian) classics,” the most exalted of the five texts canonized in the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) in 136 BCE that formed the basis of the Chinese educational system until the collapse of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 CE). The Changes originated as a divinatory text (usually referred to as the Zhouyi 周易, “Zhou Changes”) in approximately the 9th or 8th centuries BCE, one of many contending divinatory systems in the late Zhou period that scholars have only just begun to reconstruct using recently excavated texts. The basis of the Changes’ system is the “eight trigrams” (bagua 八卦), eight sets of three lines, each of which can be either broken __ __ or unbroken _____. Although several explanations have been offered for the genesis of these lines, for most of the text’s history they have been interpreted as representing the primary forces of the cosmos––yin 陰 and yang 陽––which combine in different patterns to structure every situation. These eight trigrams can be further combined into 64 hexagrams, each of which is composed of two of the primary trigrams. The divinatory system of the Changes involves randomly generating a hexagram, usually using yarrow stalks or coins, and then interpreting it in relation to a specific question or situation. The Zhouyi contains depictions of all 64 hexagrams along with their names, “line statements” (yaoci 爻辭), and “judgements” (tuan 彖) to aide readers in interpreting them. In the Han dynasty, the Zhouyi was combined with a set of texts referred to as the “Ten Wings” (shiyi 十翼). The Ten Wings are ten commentaries, written hundreds of years after the Zhouyi by multiple authors, which elucidate the basic text of the Zhouyi and articulate a moral and cosmological vision. These commentaries were typically ascribed to Confucius and shaped interpretations of the Changes throughout the imperial era (221 BCE – 1912 CE). According to the Ten Wings, the Changes provides its users with insight into the natural, impersonal patterns of the cosmos in order to allow practitioners to harmonize with those patterns and act appropriately in any given situation (Smith 2012, 3). Over time, thousands of additional commentaries were written by different authors under different historical, intellectual, philosophical, and religious circumstances. In all of these contexts, the Changes reflected the mentalities of its adherents, resulting in as many interpretations as interpreters and creating an intellectual tradition far more nuanced and complex than the intellectual categories familiar to most Sinologists. Indeed, this diversity is such that the editors of the Siku quanshu 四庫全書 (Complete Collection of the Four Treasuries) in the Qing dynasty claimed that “interpreting the Classic of Changes is like playing chess: no two games are alike, and there are infinite possibilities” (Smith 2008, 1). In addition, the Changes has exerted a formative influence on all aspects of Chinese culture, ranging from aesthetics to politics to law. It has further influenced the cultures of Vietnam, Tibet, Japan, and Korea, all of which have produced their own interpretations and transformations of the text. More recently, the Changes has spread throughout the globe and has been interpreted in relation to topics as diverse as modern psychology, mathematics, and biology. As a result, the transnational text of the Changes deserves to be thought of as “one of the great classics of world literature, on a par with religious classics such as the Bible, the Talmud, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Lotus Sutra” (Smith 2012, 13).

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