I Ching (Book of Changes)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

I Ching (Book of Changes)

I Ching (Book of Changes) (1144-206 B.c.) A cosmological text developed over 21 centuries, the I Ching (Book of Changes) is one of the world’s oldest written documents. Derived from oral tradition, it comprises both ethical advice and oracular symbology revealing the nature of the seasons, star systems, animal and plant kingdoms, and human cycles. Like the Hebrew Kabbalah teachings, the purpose of the Chinese work is to apply numerology and diagrams as a guide to harmonize random, confusing elements of life. I Ching practitioners hoped that PROPHECY would encourage serene and blameless human behavior during periods of change and dynastic upheaval.

The text’s mythic beginning bears elements of narrative similar to those of Ur in Iraq. Following a devastating flood, a Noah figure, Emperor Fu Xi (Fu Hsi, 2852-2737 B.C.), a semimythic civilizer of China from the lower Yalu River, looked for direction of human endeavors in celestial and earthly patterns. He identified the almighty as Tai Chi (the great absolute) and named opposing forces the yin and yang—abstract terms for the variables of light/dark, permanence/change, and male/female. He based their geometric shapes on a divine message, the markings on a tortoise shell (or horse) that he observed near the Hwang Ho River. From this, he derived a set of eight classifications of natural phenomena: heaven, lake, fire, thunder, wind, water, mountain, and earth. The next six rulers—the herbalist Shen Nong (fl. late 2700s), the warrior emperor Huang Di (2697-2598 B.C.), the religious reformer Zhuanxu (2514-2436 B.C.), the autocrat Ku (2436-2366 B.C.), the sage Yao (2358-2258 B.C.), and the peacemaker and musician Shun (2311-2211 B.C.)—applied I Ching patterns to healing, agriculture, marketing, inventions, animal husbandry, urbanization, security, and writing.

Formalizing Oral Tradition

Wen Wang (1199-ca. 1140 B.C.), the founder of the Western Zhou dynasty, standardized the concepts of north, south, east, and west with a fifth direction to the center, the source of balance. Augmenting the I Ching, he compiled the first written mystic guidebook, the Zhou Yi (Changes of Zhou, 1144 B.C.), which bases augury and necromancy on mathematical reconfiguration of the original symbols into 64 hexagrams, influencing prophets in China, Indochina, Japan, Korea, and the West. For the next millennium, the I Ching assisted formula- tors of court policy. Around 480 B.C., Confucius (551-479 B.C.), like the Greek priestess Pythia voicing Apollo’s revelations through the Delphic Oracle, revised the interpretation of symbols from the supernatural basis to the ethical Tao (the way), which he revealed in the Tuan Zhuan (Commentary on the decision, 488 B.c.). The aphoristic wording, like the stoicism of classical Athens and Rome, urges patience: “Bear with things as the earth bears with us: by yielding, by accepting, by nourishing” (Walker 1993, 7). In the style of the Indian VEDAS, the Hebrew Proverbs, ANALECTS of Confucius (ca. 210 B.c.), BHAGAVAD GITA (ca. 200 B.c.), the DHAMMAPADA (ca. 50 B.c.) of Siddhartha Gautama, the writings of MARCUS AURELIUS, and the Sikh GRANTH (1604), subsequent WISDOM LITERATURE advises readers to avoid inner conflict, haste, egotism, and negativity.

In 213 B.c., during the Han dynasty, the I Ching was interpreted to confirm the concept of empire and advise on how to govern diverse cultures. That year, the text survived a campaign by Qin Shihhuang, the unifier of China, in which Confucius’s followers were executed and his books burned.

The I Ching remained vital to future Asian empires. During the expansionist rule of the autocratic emperor Wu Di (156-87 B.c.), China doubled in size and made incursions into India, Korea, Mongolia, Parthia, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. At the height of intellectual dispute on Confucianism’s relation to other belief systems, the scholar Zong Zhongshu (Tung Chung-Shu, 179-104 B.c.) produced the Chunqiu fanlu (Luxuriant gems of the spring and autumn annals, ca. 100 B.c.), a treatise on the I Ching that made Confucianism dominant in China. The addendum systemized human behavior and the five elements—earth, fire, metal, water, and wood—with celestial numbers. The numerical matrix laid down standards of behavior for rulers and served the imperial university as a standard text on character building.

In the mid-1600s, Yamaga Soko, a Japanese military tactician and Confucian apologist, applied I Ching maxims to battlefield strategy. From its orderly arrangements of moral challenges and responses, he extracted soldierly codes of authority, power, courage, caution, endurance, order, duty, and survivalism for the training of the samurai class. The I Ching returned to influence state policy in 1715 during the Qing dynasty under emperor Kangxi (1654-1722), an encyclopedist who published an updated version.


Ritsema, Rudolf, and Shantena Augusto Sabbadini. The Original I Ching Oracle: The Pure and Complete Texts with Concordance. New York: Sterling, 2005.

Walker, Brian Browne, trans. The I Ching or Book of Changes: A Guide to Life’s Turning Points. New York: Piatkus Books, 1993.