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The Mandate of Heaven, From Myth to Politics in the I-Ching

Updated on January 16, 2018
CJStone profile image

CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.

"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.


Carl Jung
Carl Jung

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.



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.

You can get both the Legge Translation, and the Wilhelm translation free on the internet. Just click on the links.

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.

© 2010 Christopher James Stone


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    • CJStone profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher James Stone 

      9 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Raven King, jiberish and Looong: glad you like it and may it lead to a long and happy relationship with one of the world's greatest (and most enigmatic) books.

    • Looong profile image


      9 years ago from Earth

      I've never, ever, ever, ever, ever thought about the translation of I-Ching. What a nice hub!

    • jiberish profile image


      9 years ago from florida

      What a wonderful explanation! I was afraid I wouldn't understand how I-Ching worked so I've passed up the books several times. It's time to take another look, thank you.

    • Raven King profile image

      Raven King 

      9 years ago from Cabin Fever

      Excellent hub! I learned something new today! :D

    • CJStone profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher James Stone 

      9 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Glad you liked it barranca. Yes it's the symbolism I like too. You might find some of the above links useful.

    • barranca profile image


      9 years ago

      CJ, Excellent Hub. I consult the iching frequently using the wilhelm translation. It is like asking a wise old friend a question. I am particularly fond of how the answers have nature symbolism attached to the answers. Thanks for your expert reading.

    • CJStone profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher James Stone 

      9 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Worth a look Amanda, though for general interest reading perhaps the Tao Te Ching might be more appropriate?

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thanks for this, Chris. I've often heard of the I Ching, but never really explored it. It will be interesting to learn more about it.

    • CJStone profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher James Stone 

      9 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Pam, I like the idea of the I Ching as like a "You Are Here" sign in a shopping mall. The point about the book is that it makes the reader feel uniquely valued by the universe. It is their own narrative of transformation.

    • CJStone profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher James Stone 

      9 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      KFlippin, the Karcher version is interesting as it sheds new light on the meaning of the book. It is more archaic and therefore more magical than other translations I've read, with less of the Confusionism.

      Thanks for that link Alex: I've added it to the text. Haven't seen Steven Moore's book, but will look it out.

    • AlexK2009 profile image


      9 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland contains another epic translation by Bradford Hatcher which I intend to study when I finish my current reading. Years ago I read Steven Moore's book "The trigrams of Han: inner structures of the I Ching" which showed some of the complexity of I Ching Studies.

      The Y was part of the grand oracle of China and I once had a copy of Derek Walters translation of the second of the three oracles making up the grand oracle but it vanished a while ago. I never really got on with it.

      A great hub and it has put the I Ching back on my list of interests

    • KFlippin profile image


      9 years ago from Amazon

      Had no idea in my ignorance there was a book, or rather many books, from which I Ching readings come, almost hate to admit that, really do.

      There have been times in my life when I've daily, sometimes multiple times, done online I Ching readings for guidance when I'm struggling with something, they are coin tosses/selections, in the beginning I think they were sticks to use, anyway, I am fascinated with the Tarot and with I Ching, and I've learned something tonight and now have a book to locate, and will go with your favorite version by Karcher. Thanks much, and this article is very very interesting, and received as a gift.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      ugh, incoherent word usings I structured. sorry. :(

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I love your last line! LOL!

      I read Tarot cards & runes and used to read palms. Also love the I Ching--so poetic and flexible. It always struck me that all of these divination systems place a person into this Cosmic narrative, like those 'you are here' maps in shopping malls. I mean, every civilization had a cosmic narrative tradition like that, like the I Ching--one that made each individual people part of the whole and gave them a way to check in. We don't have that. I wonder if that's why modern scientific culture has this runaway quality and people feel so isolated and alienated?

      Anyhoo, cool hub as always. Thanks CJ. :)

    • CJStone profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher James Stone 

      9 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      msorensson that's probably a good translation then. Worth exploring.

      Mr. Happy: yes it's the only spirit in which to write I think. An enjoyable spirit of communication.

    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 

      9 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      "It is in spirit that I offer this piece to you" - I truly like this quote because it is in spirit that I offer anything.

      Thank you for a great piece of writing!

    • msorensson profile image


      9 years ago

      Well, after washing my hair and reading your answer I went to find the book. It is by Ritsema and Karcher :-)

      Oh I also found the book that I need to teach :-)


    • CJStone profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher James Stone 

      9 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      I definitely recommend the Karcher translation. Glad you liked the hub.

    • msorensson profile image


      9 years ago

      "On the other hand, when someone says “it was meant to be” this always annoys me." This is hilarious.

      So now we come to a book which I only touched very lightly..I know not much about it. I have two versions but I cannot tell you who the authors are unless I look. It will be a daunting task to fish it out of a lot of books not arranged in any order at all.

      "It is in this spirit that I offer this piece of writing to you now."

      An intriguing thought about the relevance of your casting to the world as it is today.

      I cannot offer any contribution in this sense but I enjoyed the hub.


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