The Mandate of Heaven, from myth to politics in the I-Ching
"It seems to me a self-evident truth that the universe has meaning: that it is not just a random process of accidental encounters clashing together to create this chaos we call existence."
Book of Changes
My favourite book is the Book of Changes, the I-Ching.
Perhaps you have heard of it. It is one of the oldest books ever written. It is also unlike any other book on the planet.
For instance, most of the great sacred books of the world have a central character around which a story is narrated. So the New Testament has Jesus, the Old Testament has Moses, the Bhagavad Gita has Krishna and the Koran has Mohammed. They also take place in a definite time period and in a definite place. So the events of the New Testament take place in Roman occupied Palestine in the first years of the modern era, around 30-33AD.
These books derive their wisdom from the reader’s relationship to an elevated, divine or divinely-inspired being whose sayings we remember.
The I-Ching also has a central character, and a definite place and time period, but its central character would probably not be considered divine or even inspired, and its time period is not historical.
Its central character is you – whoever happens to be reading the book – and its place and time are right here, right now, as you are reading the book.
It is an oracle, a system of divination. It does not tell the future. It offers you a philosophy by which to live your life.
There is also a novelty about the order in which you read it. You don’t start at the beginning and go on to the end. You toss coins to read it. You ask a question and toss a set of three coins six times, which then determine where in the book you should go to read.
You are given one of 64 hexagrams to read, plus some individual lines. Lines are either yin or yang, young or old. Old lines become their own opposite, by which a second hexagram emerges.
In the case of readings on the internet, of course, the means by which the lines are generated are different. Not coins, but digitally generated random numbers.
Thus each reader reads the book in a different order, with a different perspective, depending on the nature of the question and the place in the book it takes him. It’s a random process, a process of chance. Except, of course, that there is no such thing as chance.
At least, this is what the I-Ching suggests. It suggests that the asking of a
question, the tossing of coins, and the words you read in a book are related in
some way. That there is a connection between them.
The psychologist Carl Jung invented a term to describe this process. He called it “synchronicity”: the belief that apparently random events have a meaning.
There is no such thing as coincidence, he says. Everything has a level of meaning.
Actually sometimes I agree with this belief, and sometimes I don’t. It seems to me a self-evident truth that the universe has meaning: that it is not just a random process of accidental encounters clashing together to create this chaos we call existence.
On the other hand, when someone says “it was meant to be” this always annoys me.
That sort of implies that our fates are fixed in advance, like a glorified bus time-table, and I don’t believe that either.
I believe that we have choices, that we are creators as well as characters in the great drama of our lives, and that our purpose is to engage with and to understand it. When people seem to want to do us harm, or to hurt us in some way, maybe our purpose is to forgive them. Sometimes being alive can be a great struggle. Our purpose then is to learn enjoy the struggle, to develop insight, and to grow. This is what the I-Ching teaches us to do.
On the other hand, when someone is in pain, is unhappy, or poor, or labouring under terrible conditions, then I think it is wrong to say that they chose that.
Accept responsibility for your own life, but don’t impose it upon others. That seems like a good philosophy to me.
Ritsema and Sabbadini Translation
I have four translations
of the I-Ching in order to help with interpretation. The first
is the Legge translation, dated 1899. It’s a workman-like version of the book,
characterised by a substantial use of brackets. Chinese, as you may know, is
written in ideograms, picture-words: that is each word in Chinese has a
separate symbol. In its written form, therefore, it is very sparse. What Legge
does is to give the literal translation in the ordinary text, and then the
context – his suggested grammar – in brackets. This makes for a very ponderous
and clumsy sounding reading, but it has the advantage that you are clear what
the original text says, and what Legge has added for clarity. Most translations
don’t do this.
Here is an example of the Legge style, from hexagram 15:
“Khien indicates progress and success. The superior man, (being humble as it implies), will have a (good) issue (to his undertakings).”
The phrases (being humble as it implies), (good) and (to his undertakings) are
all Legge’s additions to the original Chinese. As to whether you think they
actually clarify the text or not, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
My next translation takes this process even further. It’s called The Original I-Ching, translated under the auspices of the Eranos Foundation by Rudolph Ritsema and Shantena Augusto Sabbadini. What this book does is to give you the literal translation, word for word, in the exact order it appears in the original Chinese, and then to give you all the possible interpretations of the words in what it calls “fields of meaning” afterwards.
Again this is down to how Chinese functions as a language, each ideogram having a wide variety of possible meanings. The Ritsema and Sabbadini method is to give you all possible variations so that you can gather your own interpretation from the text.
The same hexagram in the Ritsema and Sabbadini reads as follows:
“Hexagram 15: Qian. Humbling. Growing. A jun zi possesses completing.”
The phrase “jun zi” is the original Chinese term that Legge translates as “the superior man”, translated by Ritsema and Sabbadini in their “field of meaning” section as “ideal of a person who orders his/her life in accordance with dao rather than wilful intention, and uses divination in this spirit.”
The jun zi, the superior man, is you, whoever happens to be reading the book, male or female, if you live your life according to the oracle. Other translations of the term are Ideal Realising Person, and Noble One. All of which only goes to show how vague and open to interpretation the Chinese language is.
I’ll leave it up to you to look up what “dao” means.
The Ritsema and Sabbadini text is over complicated and almost impossible to read, being more like a dictionary than a narrative, consisting mainly of lists of words.
My third version of the book is the famous Wilhelm translation, originally translated into German, but retranslated into English and published in 1950. This is the version that has the foreword by CG Jung in which the term “synchronicity” is first used.
It is the version that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters first made famous, and which has spread throughout most of the Western world. It is the one based upon classical Confucian and Daoist readings of the text dating back to the 5th century BC.
Wilhelm’s translation of the same line from hexagram 15 reads as follows:
“MODESTY creates success. The superior man carries things through.”
I think you can already see the wide variety of possible interpretations inherent in this one line of Chinese. It is the reason why I have so many translations, and why I always attempt to consult them all.
The reason I am using this particular hexagram as an example, by the way, is that it was the reading I took during the writing of this piece. It might be worth reflecting upon what the hexagram is saying with this in mind.
The final version I have is called Total I-Ching Myths for Change, and is by Stephen Karcher. This is my favourite version.
Once more I will give you the translation of the line from hexagram 15, in this version called Humbling/ The Grey One.
“Humbling. The Grey One. Make an offering and you will succeed. Noble One brings things to completion.”
Karcher also uses the “fields of meaning” method employed by Ritsema and Sabbadini, only where they use it for every word of the text (giving you every possible translation of every word) Karcher saves it for the name of the hexagram, in this case Khien, Qien, or Ch’ien, translated variously as Humbling, Humble or Modesty, which Karcher tells us can mean any one of the following:
“Humble, Qian: think and speak of yourself in a modest way; polite, modest, simple, respectful; cut through pride and complication; balance and adjust, harmonise; yielding, compliant, reverent; omen animal indicating that unconscious powers are at work.”
Karcher also gives you a description of the ideogram, a kind of picture-word. In the case of hexagram 15 he describes it as follows:
“The old character shows a man’s face with an open mouth, suggesting words, and a hand offering two bundles of grain, balancing the powers.”
In other words, the concept of Humbling that the hexagram refers to can be pictured as a mouth speaking words and a hand offering sheaves of grain. Or, to put it another way, the ideogram represents the concept of words as a gift.
It is in this spirit that I offer this piece of writing to you now.
Where Karcher’s version of the text is particularly interesting is that he locates it at a specific point in history: at the turning point between the Neolithic period and the early bronze age. It arises at the moment of a great shift in human culture and human consciousness, with the birth of a new technology: not only the invention of bronze, but also the invention of writing. It is this that the I-Ching is a celebration as well as an example of: this magical new form of communication, this new way of remembering.
You cast the oracle like you cast a bronze. The bronze object remembers the original mould, as written words remember the original concepts from which they are derived.
This is what makes the I-Ching so important for our own time, which is also a turning point in history, a time of great and enduring change.
Just as the invention of writing altered the way we perceived the world (and in that sense, the world itself) so we are on the verge of equally momentous changes, a paradigm shift in the way we view and relate to our own world.
This very medium, the internet, is a part of this change.
Mandate of Heaven
The I-Ching contains an abiding myth, an abiding story. The story is at one and the same time political and spiritual.
It refers to a time, around 1,000 BC, when a certain ruling dynasty came to power, the story is called the Mandate of Heaven and it goes like this:
A corrupt dynasty rules the Chinese world, the Shang, notorious as drunkards and debauchers, as tyrants who oppressed the people and ignored the commands of Heaven. The heroes are King Wu and the Duke of Zhou. King Wu was in the mourning hut, mourning his father’s death, when he consulted the oracle. Despite the impropriety of taking action during a time of mourning, the oracle clearly told him that now was the time to act, to leave the mourning hut and to overthrow the Shang. He ordered his war leader, the Duke of Zhou, to launch the armies, who fought a critical battle that lead to the overthrow of the evil dictators.
This is the Mandate of Heaven. It is a time of critical change, of transformation and renewal. The word “I” (pronounced Yi) in the title of the book means Change. It also means versatility. It is the notion of moving with the time, of “rolling with the changes” in order to shift the balance of the world.
In Karcher’s words: “The result of this, in Chinese thought,
was the re-establishment of the ritual connection with Heaven and a re-ordering
of the world through which ‘blessings’ could flow once more. The story of the
Mandate of Heaven, inscribed in the tradition of Change, became an enduring
myth in the culture, a story of a good King who, with Heaven’s blessing,
overthrows a corrupt tyrant, renews the time and helps the people, restoring a
golden age of ancient virtue to the land.”
It was the line about “tyrants who oppressed the people and ignored the commands of Heaven” that struck me.
It could be a description of our own, current, ruling dynasty.
The I-Ching does not have an ending, of course, being brought alive again with every new reader and with every new question.
Unfortunately, however, this article does.
I Ching links
- IChing Wisdom - I CHING PHILOSOPHY: Chinese Laws of Creativity and Wisdom
- Fractals, Evolution and the I Ching - IChing Wisdom
Fractals, Evolution and the I Ching - A Fractal Introduction to Chinese Philosophy
- The I Ching on the Net
Links to I Ching resources in all languages. Excerpts from Rediscovering the I Ching, by Greg Whincup.
- Yijing Dao - Calling crane in the shade
Yijing Dao - Calling Crane in the Shade: A website dedicated to reviews of books on the Yijing or I Ching, the ancient Chinese oracle known as the Book of Changes, but also containing a complete 'Introduction to Yijing' for beginners, an accurate tra
- Yi Jing, Oracle of the Sun
ancient Chinese Book of divination, I Ching, translation and guidance
- Hermetica Contents
Contains a free downloadable translation of the I Ching
- Anthony Publishing Company :: I Ching Institute
More I Ching links
More by this Author
So unbelievable, it might just be true.' Awen Clement Kindred Spirit
Something real. Something hopeful. People putting themselves on the line for beauty and nature and living up to an ideal.
Housing Benefit Hill was column which appeared in the Guardian Weekend between 1993 and 1996. In 1995 the editor commissioned Ian Pollock to illustrate the stories, and the results are shown here.