Philosophy or hard fact?

Most translations of the Yi have a philosophical foundation: they look at the text with the idea that what it says has not to be taken literally, but serves as a metaphor for something else. But is this acceptable?

The Yi is an oracle, and oracles seldom have to be taken literally. The oracle of Delphi, the Pythia, spoke in riddles and afterwards her sayings had to be interpreted by someone else. The Ifa oracle of the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria is not less mysterious than the Yi. An oracle has to be cryptic; otherwise you are limited in your interpretations of the answer. A good oracle does not give a plain description of the circumstances but leaves enough room to link the answer to your specific situation. You need vague language for that. (For that matter, many horoscopes in newspapers, who behave more or less like an oracle, miss the point completely. “Today your charisma is overwhelming! You have an irresistible influence on your colleagues”, my horoscope said today. My charisma is never overwhelming, not even today, and to be honest, I’m not waiting for it to become that.)

The Yi works so well as an oracle because de text and the hexagrams allow you to choose many directions. Not one element can be nailed down to one meaning, everything is written and depicted in images full of metaphors and associations. But is this intentional?

Nowadays it is generally agreed that the Zhou Yi, the basic text of the Yi Jing without later added commentary, got his present form around 800 BC. It may be two hundred years earlier or 100 years later, but not more. The Yi is not the work of one author, the different layers in the text show that different hands wrote the book. We do not know where the text precisely comes from, but there are resemblances with the oracle bones from the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1750 – 1122 B.C.). It is therefore assumed that these form the beginning of the Zhou Yi, and that later on the text was edited and completed.

It was a tough time, the period in which the Yi is supposed to have been written. China was not yet the big country is we now know it; in the early days of Chinese civilisation it consisted of several small states which were regularly at war with each other. We find this evidently in the Yi, for instance at hexagram 7, or hexagram 63, fourth line. War was an accepted occupation and an immense industry. Life in that time focused on essential securities like food, shelter, safety. We find this on the oracle bones, which dealt with subjects like hunting, war, medical matters – in short, everything with which the people were confronted in daily life. Something like philosophy or religion did not yet exist (people practiced ancestor worship, but from the Shang/Zhou point of view this was merely for practical reasons: ancestors influenced the wellbeing of the people and their surroundings. A good relationship with your ancestors gave a better change for fewer problems). Also, the writing didn’t yet know much abstract words; the words which deal with abstract concepts did not go further than ‘high/low’ and ‘above/below’. This is important to realise when we are discussing the Yi because it has consequences for the view we have of the book. If during the time of the writing of the Yi there didn’t exist something like philosophy, and abstract words were not yet composed, then we must be careful with finding these things in the Yi.

An example, one which I have bothered myself several days with, might illustrate my point. The name of hexagram 3, ‘tun/zhun’, is often translated as ‘(initial) difficulties’. This is also how it is used in many old books. But these books often don’t go further back in time than 600 B.C., which is quite some time after the composition of the Zhou Yi; the time gap is even larger when compared with the oracle bones. If we look at the meaning of ‘tun/zhun’ during the last days of the Shang dynasty, we find something entirely different.

‘Tun/zhun’ already appears on oracle bones, but was written differently. The character used at that time reminds of a flower, with bud and leaves. I intentionally used the words ‘reminds of a’ and not ‘is a’, because we simply do not no for sure what it depicts. The explanation that it is a flower bud is however generally accepted. But if we examine oracle bone phrases with this character, we find meanings which do not have much to do with a flower bud. The valuable dictionary Jiaguwen Zidian gives as meanings:

  • one pair
  • spring, year
  • expression ‘duo tun’: is used for the possession of the five-coloured ‘gunyi’ ritual clothes of the emperor
  • name of a person (for instance a diviner)
  • name of a place

Nothing which makes us think of a flower bud, and the meanings surely are not close to ‘difficulties’. The meaning of ‘spring’ can be linked to a flower bud, but the rest of the meanings leaves us guessing where they come from.
These are the meanings of ‘tun/zhun’ at the end of the Shang dynasty (about 1100 B.C.); a few centuries later, the time when the Zhou Yi is supposed to be written, the meaning of ‘tun/zhun’ has significantly changed. Now it means

  • gather
  • stationing of army troops
  • obstruct, blockade
  • garrison
  • army unit of five men
  • indication for ‘village’
  • name of a person
  • measure word for cotton

(Source: Hanyu Da Zidian)
Earlier I mentioned that warfare played an important part in the time these meanings were used. Therefore I personally assume that ‘tun/zhun’ has more to do with war than with ‘initial difficulties’. But we can imagine that the meaning ‘difficulties’ is later on derived from ‘tun/zhun’. When there is war, there are bound to be difficulties. But the addition of ‘initial’ is a younger interpretation, probably based on the fact that hexagram 3 is at the beginning of the Yi.

It is not odd to link meanings like ‘stationing of army troops’, ‘garrison’ and ‘army unit of five men’ to hexagram 3. If we look at a few sentences in this hexagram, we already see war-like things in it. The second, fourth and sixth line talk about ‘riding horses in squads’. If we explain ‘tun/zhun’ as ‘garrison’, then the first sentence of the fifth line could be translated as ‘reward of the king to the garrison’, and the first sentence of the second line as ‘garrison changes direction’.

Of course this doesn’t say it all; a lot more work has to be done to make a translation which stands as close as possible to its earliest origin. But we do however see that philosophical or abstract meanings can divert us from what possibly was meant. When used in daily practice, the Yi focuses on what really happens, instead of referring to conceptual layers. This goes along with the concrete imagery which the Yi originally contained. That’s not philosophy, but hard fact.