The YiJing and Revolution

It is about seventeen years since I have taken an actively skeptical view of the Yijing, the Chinese Book of Changes. Ever since, I have followed the ongoing debate at a distance but, save for a booklet in 1997 and a few lectures around 2010, not really taken part in it. Other people with more drive or more leisure for exploring the subject have devoted themselves to original researches into it, triggered by several discoveries of ancient texts and artifacts as well as by the disbelieving but benevolent spirit of the times.

A fairly recent book confirms my viewpoint that the Yijing is, to a far larger extent than realized by the starry-eyed New Age users of this classic, the story of a successful coup d’état. King Wen held the Zhou fief at the western border against the barbarians, and therefore had a better army than the other feudal lords. He formed a threat to the regime of the imperial Shang dynasty. He spent 7 years in prison at Youli, and was, at least according to a later tradition, released after eating his own eldest son Yi Kao. He then prepared to seize power but died. A single battle against the established overlord was enough for his successor as vassal, his second son King Wu, to topple the Shang regime and establish himself as sovereign. Not only was it a military and political success story, it was uniquely successful as a propaganda exercise: the propagandistic justification of thecoup d’état, viz. the depiction of the last Shang emperor Zhouxin as a model of wickedness and decadence begging for replacement, and especially the doctrine of the Heavenly Mandate allotted to successive dynasties, became the state ideology of a whole civilization for three thousand.

S.J. Marshall’s book The Mandate of Heaven (Columbia University Press, New York 2001) fills in a lot of detail that most Sinologists including myself will be surprised to learn; not to speak of the wholly new world that it will open to New Age enthusiasts of the Book of Changes. It confirms that a number of Yijing characters hitherto given a general meaning (by the Chinese tradition as much as by Western translators) actually refer to specific places or persons that played a role in the coup d’état.

chinese_landscapeThis much was clear already from the mention of Prince Ji (36/5), a privileged witness of the corruption of the Shang court; but unlike him, others were forgotten.

Thus, Feng, the character that serves as title of hexagram 55, and usually translated as “fullness”, is actually the name of the temporary military capital built by King Wen in preparation of the attack on his Shang overlord. Just as the character Kang has recently been found to refer to “the Marquess of Kang”, an early title of the later Duke of Wei, i.e. Feng, the 9th son of King Wen and faithful brother of King Wu, and not to the traditional “brave marquess”; so now, the character Fa, “send out”, now turns out to refer to the personal name of King Wu. Meng, usually translated as “the youthful folly” (hexagram 4), means “the deceitful boy”, a nickname which King Wu earned as a lad and which the Shang nobles remembered all too well when he had conquered their capital. The mention of penultimate Shang emperor Di Yi marrying his younger sister off (hexagram lines 11/5, 54/4) pertains to her marriage to King Ji, the father of King Wen whom she bore.

Mingyi, traditionally “the darkening of the light” and translated by some modern scholars as “the bright pheasant” (hexagram 36), may refer to themeng Yi, the “allied Yi-(barbarians)”, who attacked Shang from the east to facilitate the Zhou attack from the west; an added “bowl” radical to the character ming turns it into meng, and such variations in writing were commonplace in archaic Chinese.  The lines refer to an archer shooting a bird in the sky, but may also refer to a solar eclipse, an occasion for shooting arrows at the dog supposedly eating the sun.

Immediately after the death of King Wen, his temporary capital Feng witnessed a complete solar eclipse, detailed in the lines of hexagram 55. This eclipse allows the author to date the event, agreed to be vaguely around 1100 BC, to 1070. His successor King Wu saw this as a sign from heaven that the mandate of the Shang dynasty had lapsed and passed to him. Instead of observing the prescribed period of mourning, he immediately amassed his troops and went on the attack. He crossed the river separating his domains from the Shang’s (his own Rubicon, as it were) and met the Shang army at Muye, “the wilds of Mu”. Hexagram 7/5 says that the elder brother leads the army, the younger carts the corpse: King Wen’s dead body was taken along into the battle by his younger son, the marquess of Kang, while the army was led by his elder son, King Wu. The judgment of hexagram 18 refers to the Jiazi day, i.e. the first day of the 60-day cycle, when the battle was timed to take place.

Some hexagrams refer to older forms of divination or shamanic magic. We already knew this of hexagram 31, about “feeling” in the successive parts of the body. This was a very simple form of divination: if a feeling somewhere spontaneously presented itself, it meant something. Even now, some people still think that if your ears start ringing, it means people are talking about you. Similarly, hexagram 1 refers to an old belief in dragons sleeping at the bottom of the well, then conjured awake, rising through the well and finally taking flight in the sky, followed by clouds and then rain. It is a rain-provoking ritual performed in days of great drought,– which is the ordinary meaning of the hexagram’s name Qian. By the time of Wang Bi, the 3rd-century AD philosopher who promoted a symbolic reading of the Yijing, elite circles had mostly forgotten about this belief or evinced skepticism of it, but rural folk practiced this dragon magic till last century. The last line refers to the autumnal constellation Kang Long, “Dragon’s Gullet”, the autumn being the time when the dragon redescends into his well for hibernation.

The lines of hexagram 18 refers to bu, the ancestral curse that explained misfortune, and that could be remedied by sacrificing to the specific ancestor whose grievances had led to this revenge. Hexagram 53 refers to interpreting the flight of geese by a young wife as predicting the return or non-return of her husband from the war that King Wu had declared. Hexagram lines 2/1, 44/2-4, 47/3-6 refer to marriage customs.

There are also references to older beliefs held in common at the time of thecoup d’état. Yu the Great, dike-builder and founder of the Xia-dynasty which preceded the Shang-dynasty, is mentioned in hexagram lines 43/4 and 44/3, speaking of a difficult walk due to the damage that the heavy work has done to the legs. His impaired walking ability is well-known, even ballet dancers have a standard imitation of “the walk of Yu”. Incidentally, he was also credited with discovering the Luoshu, “the book of the river Luo” found on the back of a tortoise climbing out of the river, which the Neo-Confucian interpreters took to be the magic square of 3 x 3. Hexagram 8 and its top line refer to a custom instituted by Yu, viz. the beheading of whomever comes too late at an important meeting.

Oh, and where does the character Yi in the title come from? Here, Marshall only confirms what I read in some French book 25 years  ago. The character shows sunrays peeping through the clouds, indicating the “change” from cloudy to sunny, from yin to yang (to use later concepts, here in their literal meaning, “cloudy” and “sunny”), and most relevant here: from Shang to Zhou. The Book of Changes describes a revolution (geming, revolution-of-Mandate, Ge being the name of hexagram 49), and I may emphasize: a political revolution.

Much to the chagrin of most of its users, the book is not about spiritual matters, or about emotions and relationships and personal growth. It is a hard-headed book about politics and war. It is an upper-class book, not for petty-bourgeois dabblers in the soft arts.

This year, the Dutch Yijing symposium should take place for the 5th time. The first two installments took place in the hippie colony Ruigoord, and the dominant voices were the old spiritualists with their touchy-feely interpretation. The last two, in the cultural centre of Soest, gave more space to the hard Sinological reading of the Changes. This is symptomatic for the change from an unhistorical anything-goes understanding of the book to a more down-to-earth one.

koenraad_elstKoenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he began fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. He regularly blogs at on issues pertaining to Hinduism today.

One Reply to “The YiJing and Revolution”

  1. Hi Koenraad,

    You might be interested in Pankenier’s review of Marshall’s book: For another view on the etymology of the character yi 易 see here:

    I hope to see you at the 5th symposium.

    Best wishes,


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