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I Ching

05 July 2015
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"The Book of Changes" redirects here. For other uses, see The Book of Changes (disambiguation).

The I Ching ([î tɕíŋ]), or Classic of Changes, is an ancient divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics. Possessing a history of more than two and a half millennia of commentary and interpretation, the I Ching is an influential text read throughout the world, providing inspiration to the worlds of religion, psychoanalysis, business, literature, and art. Originally a divination manual in the Western Zhou period (1000–750 BC), over the course of the Warring States period and early imperial period (500–200 BC) it was transformed into a cosmological text with a series of philosophical commentaries known as the "Ten Wings."[2] After becoming part of the Five Classics in the 2nd century BC, the I Ching was the subject of scholarly commentary and the basis for divination practice for centuries across the Far East, and eventually took on an influential role in Western understanding of Eastern thought.

The I Ching uses a type of divination called cleromancy, which produces apparently random numbers. Four numbers, 6 to 9, are turned into a hexagram, which can then be looked up in the I Ching book, arranged in an order known as the King Wen sequence. The interpretation of the readings found in the I Ching is a matter of centuries of debate, and many commentators have used the book symbolically, often to provide guidance for moral decision making as informed by Taoism and Confucianism. The hexagrams themselves have often acquired cosmological significance and paralleled with many other traditional names for the processes of change such as yin and yang and Wu Xing.

 

The divination text: Zhou yi

The core of the I Ching is a Western Zhou divination text called the Changes of Zhou (周易 Zhōu yì).[3] Various modern scholars suggest dates ranging between the 10th and 4th centuries BC for the assembly of the text in approximately its current form.[4] Based on a comparison of the language of the Zhou yi with dated bronze inscriptions, Edward Shaughnessy dated its compilation in its current form to the early decades of the reign of King Xuan of Zhou, in the last quarter of the 9th century BC.[5] A copy of the text in the Shanghai Museum corpus of bamboo and wooden slips (recovered in 1994) shows that the Zhou yi was used throughout all levels of Chinese society in its current form by 300 BC, but still contained small variations as late as the Warring States period.[6] It is possible that other divination systems existed at this time; the Rites of Zhou name two other such systems, the Lianshan and the Guizang.[7]

Name and origins

The name Zhou yi literally means the "changes" (Chinese: ; pinyin: ) of the Zhou dynasty. The "changes" involved have been interpreted as the transformations of hexagrams, of their lines, or of the numbers obtained from the divination.[8] Feng Youlan proposed that the word for "changes" originally meant "easy", as in a form of divination easier than the oracle bones, but there is little evidence for this. There is also an ancient folk etymology that sees the character for "changes" as containing the sun and moon, the cycle of the day. Modern Sinologists believe the character to be derived either from an image of the sun emerging from clouds, or from the content of a vessel being changed into another.[9]

The Zhou yi was traditionally ascribed to the Zhou cultural heroes King Wen of Zhou and the Duke of Zhou, and was also associated with the legendary world ruler Fu Xi.[10] According to the canonical Great Commentary, Fu Xi observed the patterns of the world and created the eight trigrams (Chinese: 八卦; pinyin: bāguà), "in order to become thoroughly conversant with the numinous and bright and to classify the myriad things." The Zhou yi itself does not contain this legend and indeed says nothing about its own origins.[11] The Rites of Zhou, however, also claims that the hexagrams of the Zhou yi were derived from an initial set of eight trigrams.[12] During the Han dynasty there were various opinions about the historical relationship between the trigrams and the hexagrams.[13] Eventually, a consensus formed around 2nd century AD scholar Ma Rong's attribution of the text to the joint work of Fu Xi, King Wen of Zhou, the Duke of Zhou, and Confucius, but this traditional attribution is no longer generally accepted.[14]

Structure

A turtle shell inscribed with primitive Chinese characters
 
Oracle turtle shell featuring the ancient form 貞-oracle-alt.svg of zhēn (貞) "to divine"

The basic unit of the Zhou yi is the hexagram (卦 guà), a figure composed of six stacked horizontal lines (爻 yáo). Each line is either broken or unbroken. The received text of the Zhou yi contains all 64 possible hexagrams, along with the hexagram's name (卦名 guàmíng), a short hexagram statement (彖 tuàn),[note 1] and six line statements (爻辭 yáocí).[note 2] The statements were used to determine the results of divination, but the reasons for having two different methods of reading the