Class #39

The Yi jing

Reading assignment:  The Yi jing

Lecture PowerPoint Deck

Our final two classes will be devoted to a brief introduction to two "wisdom" books of early China: the Yi jing and The Spring and Autumn Annals. These two classics are simultaneously the most profound and the emptiest of canonical books dating to the Classical era, and our discussions of these two books will be less about their "philosophies," and more focused on what are called "hermeneutical" or interpretive traditions that sought to wrest from their obscurity the deepest of meanings. It is not the meanings these interpreters found that will interest us so much as the method of thinking they used to search for it.

During the late Warring States period, Confucians began systematically to appropriate as core elements of their particular Dao a set of texts that had come to have widespread authority in late Zhou culture. Some of these texts, such as The Book of Poetry and The Book of Documents -- texts whose origins in the Western Zhou clearly predate Confucianism -- were broadly revered and other schools, such as Mohism and Legalism, appealed to them as well. However, Confucians incorporated these texts with two other texts that other philosophical schools did not attend to as closely, and these formed the root of a "canon," or authoritative core of texts, that the Confucians treated as "wisdom books." The additional two texts were the Yi jing (often called "The Book of Changes" in English), a divination manual that likely dated back a number of centuries, and The Spring and Autumn Annals, a preserved annals of the court of the state of Lu, covering the years 722-481 BCE. To these four works, a fifth, some early compendium of Zhou ritual, known as the Li, was added to comprise a canon of five texts. Today, these texts (with the Han era compendium, Liji, or "Records of Ritual," serving as the ritual component) are known as the "Five Confucian classics," and they have been central to the definition and practice of Confucianism since the second century BCE. (Early references to the Confucian canon often include a sixth -- The Classic of Music -- but if this was, in fact, a written text it has long been lost as an independent work.)

We see evidence of the existence of such a delimited Confucian canon in the Mencius and, especially, in the Xunzi. By the early Han Dynasty, it was understood that all five of the canonical texts bore some critical relation to Confucius himself, who was in some manner responsible for their authoritative form. His relationship to each of the five texts was, however, distinct from his role with regard to the others. The Han theory of the texts ran as follows:

Confucius selected, ordered, and ordained the proper context for employing the 305 poems in the Book of Poetry.

Confucius preserved and explained the original 100 chapters of the Book of Documents.

Confucius rectified and instituted the Rituals in the case of this one classic, it is unclear whether the early Han Confucians meant by its title a specific text or the entire body of li that Confucians sought to master.

Confucius added a final level of commentary to the Yi jing.

Confucius subtly altered the wording of the Spring and Autumn Annals in order to endow this simple annals with profound meaning.

We have periodically encountered references to the first two of these texts during the course -- they were by far the most frequently quoted texts in the great Confucian summary texts we read last week, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean. Those two text were themselves chapters of the third classic, the Liji (Records of ritual). We have not, however, had occasion to discuss in any way the last two of the classics, the Yi jing and Spring and Autumn Annals. These two texts, more than the others, ultimately emerged as the most esoteric and revered Confucian wisdom books, and they are the topic of our classes this week. To understand the form in which Confucianism ultimately emerged after the dramatic -- and traumatic -- events of the decade of the Qin Dynasty rule, it is necessary to know something of these two texts, whose influence continued throughout the traditional period.

Monday's class will be devoted to the Yi jing. Your online reading will further introduce you to this unusual text and its manner of interpretation.