What the Yarrow Stalks Foretell

Brian Rotman

  • The Classic of Changes: A New Translation of the I Ching as Interpreted by Wang Bi translated by Richard Lynn
    Columbia, 602 pp, £15.50, November 1994, ISBN 0 231 08294 0

In those heady days more than twenty years ago, a slew of foreign invaders – Tibetan prayers, the Katmandu trail, ancient Chinese manuals, Yogic trances, the sayings of Chairman Mao, Zen koans shamanism, Egyptian rituals, Warrior cults, and the dreamscape of Mexican mushrooms – burst through the Eurocentric enclosure of our upbringing, announcing the age of Aquarius. Then times changed, and we and/or history drew a line in the sand under these alien forms of discourse. Most of us were left with traces of them, though. Where Chinese things were concerned, there was Sun Tzu’s Art of War, for example. I wasn’t a Maoist, but I got a frisson from the idea that in the period of the Waning States, jobbing intellectuals like Sun Tzu were boiled, pickled, sawn in half or otherwise executed, if their manuals gave bad advice to the prince Sun Tzu’s book survived courtesy of the Chinese principle of paying the doctor only if he cures you. I wasn’t a hippy either, but I encountered the I Ching. My meeting with it wasn’t a prolonged one, and this was a pity, for it, too, is seriously in the advice business and has somehow survived from an even more remote time than Sun Tzu. Now, the repressed returns and I have to take the great classic seriously.

The I Ching started life as a divination manual. Burn-marks in bones and tortoise-shells were read to determine an oracle, a broken line - - indicating (say) Yes and an unbroken line - No. Two further qualifying lines (Yes, but ..., No, but ..., and so on) appear to have been added to produce eight possible oracles, the trigrams:


which are said to go back nearly five thousand years to the legendary founder of Chinese civilisation, Fu Xi. Traditionally, each trigram had associated with it attributes, as well as instantiations or reflections in a standard list of domains – familial, animal, anatomical, element, colour, season, directional. Thus, Mountain (Gen) had the attributes Inertia, Perfection, Inevitability, Modesty, Carefulness; and the reflections Youngest Son, Dog, Hand, Stone, Green, Early Spring, North-East.

Any two trigrams can be brought together to form a hexagram in two different ways. Combining Earth (Kun) and Lake (Dui), for example, produces the hexagrams:


In all, 64 hexagrams can be formed from the original eight trigrams. Somewhere around three thousand years ago each hexagram was supplied with an enigmatically brief commentary or judgment, intended to form the starting point of its interpretation. In addition there were commentaries on the images represented by the trigrams and remarks on the significance of each of the six lines making up the hexagram. What is known as the I Ching consists of this core material plus a body of more general commentary on the hexagrams, mostly from the three centuries or so after Confucius (and contentiously attributed to him and/or his followers), known as the Ten Wings.

Computer binarism makes the hexagrams immediately familiar. If we assign 0 to a broken line and 1 to an unbroken line, then the eight trigrams in their traditional Fu Xi order listed above correspond exactly to the sequence of numbers 0 to 7 written in base 2; a fact which doubtless interested Leibniz, who learned of the I Ching from Jesuit missionaries to China (and admired it), and who developed the binary arithmetic based on 0 and 1 underlying the computer.

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