I Ching history

'An invention in the same sense that Newton invented gravity'
(Cyrille Javary, describing the discovery of the trigrams)

The earliest records of divination in China date from the early Shang dynasty. Divining involved heating animal bones in a fire and studying the cracks that formed in them, in order to perceive the quality of the time: was it right to make a sacrifice, to open communication with the spirits and ancestors?

The traces even of this unimaginably ancient practice are still present in four of the oldest ideograms in the I Ching: Yuan, Heng, Li, Chen. These have an enormous range of meanings and associations - they represent the four seasons, and also the qualities of fundamentality, success, fitness and perseverance. In its earliest usage, though, this phrase seems to have meant 'the source of successful communication with the spirits; right and fitting for divination.' At a deeper level, this practice shows the most basic principle of Chinese divination. It has at least as much to do with contact with the spiritual world and understanding the quality of the moment as it does with predicting the future.

Tortoise shells were also used, in the same way as animal bones, to produce patterns of cracks for the diviners to interpret. But the shells from past divinations could also usefully be stored for future reference - and at this point the ancient diviners began to invent writing. Images were carved onto the shells as records of what had been asked, and what the outcome had been. (This is the venerable ancestor of the 'journal function' in the better I Ching computer programs!) The surviving records show that the tortoise oracle was asked about affairs of state: war, proposed marriages, the birth of princes…

The I Ching itself began life as the Chou I, or Changes of Chou. It was the oracle of the Chou people, which they brought together at the time when they were working to overthrow the corrupt Shang dynasty. Brilliant research by Steve Marshall (published in The Mandate of Heaven) has evoked the social and spiritual turmoil of these times - and even suggested a date when a total solar eclipse gave the Chou king Wu his mandate to invade: June 20th, 1070BC.

Of course, knowing that the I Ching was being written down at this time doesn't tell us its real age. Some of the texts refer to historical events, others to ancient myths or ceremonies, some probably come from unknowably ancient oral tradition: this will never be dated. At about this same time, the yarrow stalk method of divination was created. It had the very important effect of making divination much easier, more practical, and more widely available. What had once been the prerogative of the emperor alone gradually spread throughout literate Chinese society. And of course the oracle was asked a steadily widening range of questions about more personal matters.

The roots of the I Ching we have today can be confidently dated to the 8th century BC. Firstly, some of its vocabulary is common in documents of the time but has not been in use since. Secondly, references have been identified in it to historical events of the time. In particular, the Judgement of Hexagram 35 refers to Price Kang, a Chou prince who is known to have abandoned the name 'Kang' shortly after the Chou conquest. Perhaps this ancient name was remembered and only actually written down later - but this at least gives us a date for the tradition of the I Ching.

The hexagrams, as a means of referring to and relating the texts, may perhaps have come later. This is one of those things we may never know for sure - quite when and how hexagrams and texts came together. Hexagrams were a crucial discovery, making it possible to see the movement of energy that the texts described.

The openness at the heart of Inner Truth, for example - which later commentators saw as being like a hollowed-out wooden boat -

or the entry from below of a new, destabilising influence in Coupling, threatening its solidity:

The Tso Commentary, which dates from 672BC, refers to historical usage of the Chou I hundreds of years beforehand - but we cannot be sure that the dates it gives are reliable. We do know that at the time when it was written, the popularity of the I Ching was growing steadily. It actually records many consultations with the I Ching, including the answers it gave, and most (though not all) of the texts it quotes are identical with those we have today.

During the Warring States period (475-221 BC) the I Ching came into its own This was a period of great cultural and political upheaval, full of change and uncertainty. The texts of the I Ching were collected into book form, and diviners carried it throughout China. When order was finally, and somewhat brutally, restored in 221BC, the new rulers (the short-lived Ch'in Dynasty) ordered a burning of books. The I Ching was one of very few volumes to be spared, because of its practical value.

During the more peaceful Han dynasty that followed, the I Ching was 'canonised' as a classic ('Ching') and became the object of intense scholarly work. During this period - from the 3rd century BC to the turn of the millennium - the I Ching's 'Wings' were added, with detailed commentary on the interrelationships of the hexagrams' lines and the discovery of the trigrams. Confucius is most unlikely to have written any of these, though they are in part based on his ideas. The scholars may also have made use of ancient oral traditions - certainly, the Image (Daxiang) texts often seem subtly to undermine the more conventional Commentary.

This is, nominally, almost the end of the 'history' of the I Ching. The Ma Wang Dui manuscript, buried in 168BC, has been found to be substantially the same as the version we have today, although the hexagrams are in a different order. The current order was first suggested in the 2nd century BC, but it was only established as the standard order by Wang Bi (226-250AD).

In fact, of course, the history of the I Ching did not come to a halt once it reached its present form. The I Ching is not only a book: it is a conversation between countless generations of questioners, over thousands of years, and the spirit that speaks through the book. That conversation continues, with every question revealing new depths and patterns of meaning. The need for the I Ching has always been felt most keenly at times of radical change - and it answers a very deep need of our own times.

The myth of the I Ching's origins shows how it is built up from the most basic truths: from yin and yang to trigrams; from trigrams to hexagrams and texts. History reveals that things occurred in almost exactly the reverse order: first the earliest texts, then the hexagrams, then yin and yang and the trigrams. But it is important to realise that these were not successive inventions, obscuring a 'real' original. They were discoveries of patterns and truths already present in the book, as if successive generations of questioners and scholars were progressively moving towards the I Ching's metaphysical core. We're still travelling the same road.