On Uncertainty and the Yijing

Just recently, a fellow Yixue student, the philosopher, musician and writer, Will Buckingham, wrote a very interesting article for Aeon Magazine, titled the “Uncertainty Machine”. Here are a few thoughts that I intended to post as a comment to the article but it became too long, and I think important, to be forgotten in a comments’ thread. This will serve as a permanent record of it:



Really nice article, Will, and I like your point of view. I can also appreciate in it the Will who is an expert in Levinas. 

IMHO, in the West there are three approaches to the Yijing:

1. Right out dismissal on the account that anything related to divination–never mind what has built around it in more than 2500 years of exegesis–has no rational value. Skeptics.

2. The anthropomorphizing and idealization of the classic into something akin to a “sacred text” (which it isn’t and never was in China the way it is interpreted in the West), similar to the Bible or the Koran (I’ve seen it quoted as the Chinese Bible many times), and possessed not just by wisdom but by “corporeal wisdom” in the form of device. Deus ex machina. The usual approach of those that see it only as a divination manual or philosophical scaffolding and talk about the ‘sage within’ in awe, demand respect from others that seem to take it lightly and/or accuse them of wasting the classic’s time and wisdom.

3. The puzzle approach. What is it? Where does it really comes from? Why does it work? What’s the lasting appeal of it? What else can it do? Why it can’t really be denied by those in the first group?

 Now, nothing can be done about those in the first group because they will always find ways to fabricate quasi-logical constructs to dismiss its history and usefulness. 

 Those in the second group are the benign ones. The ones full of questions for the oracle and they are so because after the first question there’s no denying the synchronous connection that manifests itself. That is the hook at the end of the line. It is the gateway.

 Now, most people are content to hang around the gate forever. However, a small set from that group–outside of academia, which has a respectable size by itself, both, in China and the West, with serious research dedicated to it–venture inside the gates and try to explore what’s within and become part of the third group. It does become an obsession for them. I count myself amongst that group and I fully understand your endeavors. 

 Your friend made a very keen observation saying that it was about “imagining new possibilities”. It is my own opinion that it is mainly about that. 

 I had a chuckle at this:

“Despite repeated re‑reading of the text, in translation and later in the original Chinese, I have never come across anything that looks much like wisdom.”

Because there isn’t. Not in the sense of what can be found in Laozi, for example. The basic text, the Zhouyi, the precursor of the Yijing, is too raw to contain any declared wisdom and functions like a sort of mnemonic device that instead of pulling memories out of mental drawers it triggers and creates appropriate associations and useful connections. Thus, the Zhouyi, a divination manual at its purest, after centuries of court use, became the seed of what later became canonized as the Yijing in Han times. Whatever wisdom is to be found in the Yijing, can be found in the so called ‘Wings’, which are the manifestation of some of the earliest exegesis of the Zhouyi. Such exegesis was an effort to make sense of the uncanny synchronicities it presented to those early users. Bear in mind that by the time it became known as the Yijing and one of the five Confucian classics, several forms of the oracle (duality based devices), including bone cracking, had been in use in ancient China for some 1500 years or more. For example, the syntax used in the Oracle Bone Inscriptions (OBI) formulations and charges is fascinating and those were in use very early in comparison with the canonized classic. In the corpus of the unearthed OBI you will find mountains of records of mundane concerns (questions about hunting, harvests, weather, flooding, battles, etc.) and confirmations and/or refutations of the oracle. Wisdom per se, no. Amongst scholars, the most accepted provenance for the text of the Zhouyi is that it was a divination manual put together by court scribes based on some sort of “averaging” of those records. That is to say, “in” went examples (mostly fragments of historical accounts) of what applied to any given guaxiang more often and was confirmed over time. The text of the Zhouyi wasn’t put together capriciously but based on a system of careful selection. Alas, there’s no intrinsic “wisdom” in it without a querent making connections with its results the same way there isn’t wisdom in a WWII artillery ballistic table book until you have the approximate distance to a target: When you hit the intended target you do feel very wise and accomplished…

Now, I find this to be a very keen observation:

It was only after my return to the UK that I began to wonder if attempting to understand the I Ching in terms of understanding the I Ching was to risk misunderstanding the I Ching.

Precisely. Depending on what you expect to extract from its study (oracular advise on the one hand and everything else on the other) the approaches to the classic should be very different. Early on, the ‘hook’ of divination will keep you busy for a long time, but, once you become accustomed to that aspect of the classic, you can put it aside as a fixture and dedicate yourself to study what’s behind that curtain. Another metaphor I use often is that of automobile drivers: Most people can learn to drive a car but very few of those can put a car together or fix a broken one. There are a myriad parts to a car and almost everything is important.  Trying to understand how a car works will take you through many meandering paths that, prima facie, have nothing to do with the car itself or will help you at the time of driving it. Being obfuscated with the assembled Yijing car will not further your understanding of it. I love how the priest told you “‘Now you understand the I Ching,’ he said confidently. ‘Your book will now be very interesting'”. He was a riot!

Further down you wrote (boldface is mine):

Instead, I have started to content myself with asking about what it does. In fact, I have come to suspect that perhaps the book has no wisdom to impart, that perhaps it means nothing whatsoever, and it might be in this that it is possible to find the secret of its power. Meaning nothing, the seethe of images — dragons and hoarfrost, migratory geese and ice — nevertheless contains the seeds of innumerable possible meanings. It is like a ring doughnut: empty in the middle, but with the meaning around the outside. But, of course, there cannot be a ring doughnut without a hole — or to paraphrase the passage in the ancient Chinese text the Laozi, it is thanks to the hole at the hub that the wheel turns.

That is very good. You know, I’ve had never-ending discussions with many fellow students about this issue. A good number of them try to discover and tag a specific meaning to every single part of the guaxiang texts. Fix generalized meanings to hexagrams and lines and that is the stuff of what are made 95% of the Yijing books in the West; those that are not real translations but ‘interpretations’; the fodder of “New Age” scorn amongst the skeptics, whom are happy to place it together with the likes of Tarot and Palmistry, where it doesn’t belong at all. No, for me the text is open and unfixed. It works on a binary system and for ‘binary’ I mean that it takes two parts for that equation to make sense at any given time: A querent who brings the context and the classic itself with an answer. Before that, the book is inert. The book becomes active contextually and, since context is infinite, so are the myriad meanings that can be extracted from it. I love your quote by Yang Wanli. It is right on target.

Indeed, certainties are what risk stalling progress, both at the individual level as well as globally. Without the exercise of facing forking paths there is stagnation. The Yijing is a superb tool when it comes to presenting unseen paths to choose from. Possibilities we are unaware of until we pull them forward from behind the obscurity of overwhelming certainties.

Thank you for sharing your journey with us and I look forward to more of it, real or fictionalized.


4 thoughts on “On Uncertainty and the Yijing

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and generous response, Luis. I agree that something like wisdom is found in the Ten Wings, if not the Zhouyi itself (and this is perhaps why readers of the great Sinological maze that is the Wilhelm version tend to read the Yijing as a whole as a book of wisdom). Must try to track down the original for the Yang Wanli, as I want to follow it up…

    1. Hi Will,

      It was my pleasure. I liked your article and, like I’ve said, most people tend to comment from the gut and missing a lot of facts. The Yijing is a huge animal to describe in the dark and only by tactile impressions. The more people know that the Ten Wings are exegesis and not core text, the better.

    1. Thank you for the kind words in your comment. First, as you can appreciate, in what regards to the Yijing, I’m not a casual reader but a serious student of the classic. So, no wide-eyed “wows” from me as to what the classic is and can do in practice, what its provenance is, what is and what is not part of it, etc. I apologize if I sound a tad arrogant but I’ve at least 20 years of arguments online behind me (yes, even before the web and before that, almost as long studying it) and I’ve heard almost every angle and I’ve even come up with my very own debatable ones.

      Now, indeed, I was aware of your book and I had bought it for Kindle a few days ago, out of curiosity. As I expected it is novel in the market but it isn’t a translation of the Yijing per se. That’s something that isn’t even debatable. It is perhaps a translation of some Yuan Dynasty –perhaps a bit earlier if we include Genghis Kan in the equation– exegesis that deals with a local interpretation and usage of the yinyang symbology of the classic. Indeed, the symbology and the correlative philosophies that are behind the classic are like a perforated panel where you can hang all kinds of pegs. This particular “tradition” you are presenting is but another peg in the Yijing panel but it isn’t the Yijing. The Yijing is something very specific.

      I liked your commentary in your blog where you say:

      Its not good to get into offensive language. Alric brings up a good point, and of course I’ve read Thomas Clearly’s work. I have it! But there are histories of other origins that are all examined. Not just one speculated origin. Secondly, it’s an apocrypha.

      I take that as an honest argument. All apocrypha come with their own salt shaker… BTW, I appreciate the corpus of Cleary’s work but it is well behind current scholarship on the the subject.

      Thanks again for commenting.

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