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A chance encounter with the Book of Changes

By 23 June 2009 No Comment
Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

Coin of the realm: An ancient book still advises today's Chinese | Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

The day began at the Beijing Normal University, where I spoke with Chinese philosophy students about the teachings of Confucius. My interest was indirectly inspired by the piles of bricks, both old and new, that I had seen in the hutongs around my hotel. Construction workers routinely incorporate bricks from torn-down structures with new ones to erect the modern buildings now sprouting in Beijing.

Thus, the idea of combining new and old forms made me wonder how traditional Chinese culture persists in the face of the country’s fast-paced economic growth and globalization efforts. I wanted to know what metaphorical “old bricks” are reincarnated in the new China.  A philosophical conversation seemed to be the best way to find answers.

As the day wore on, I got schooled in some of the oldest aspects of Chinese culture. Our group wound up in a private room at one of the city’s traditional teahouses. Appropriately enough, as it turned out, the day’s most intriguing lesson came with little explanation. The subject was something nearly impossible for the uninitiated to understand – the I Ching, or the Book of Changes, the Chinese classic devoted to divining the shape of things to come, based on the interplay of the opposing cosmic forces of yin and yang.

While most of my new friends were Chinese philosophy graduate students, Professor Tan Degui was also in attendance. A renowned researcher from the Department of Philosophy at Shandong Social Services Academy, Tan has dedicated his career to the study of  the I Ching, authoring two books on the topic. As we sat in a horseshoe of sofas with a small table in the middle, one of the students, Penny Chiang, leaned in and asked, “Do you want Professor Tan to read your fortune?”

Of course, I did. Professor Tan handed me three coins unlike any I had seen before. They had intricate engravings on both sides and a small square hole in the middle. I was told the circular coin represents heaven (yang), while the square void represents earth (yin). Tan’s coins were more than 300 years old.

The profesor asked what question I wanted to consult the book. “Career,” I said. With an affirmative nod, he instructed me to toss the coins onto the tabletop, whereupon he scribbled something in his notebook. I repeated the coin-dance five more times while Prof. Tan concentrated on his notes.

Using three coins is the most common way of consulting the I Ching. Each toss yields a numeric value that translates into a line that is either yin or yang. When six lines are stacked one atop another, they result in a hexagram corresponding to one of 64 contained in the book, and which make up the I Ching’s basic instruments of understanding. Each hexagram is indicative of a typical situation in life and nature – a cosmic snapshot of where you are and where you are going in relation to the question asked, and one that identifies order in seemingly random events.

The concept is difficult to grasp, and certain aspects of Western thought must be abandoned to approach the interpretation. Some observers have likened the hexagrams to the symbolic representations contained in dreams that may or may not yield deeper meanings.

The Book of Changes has deep roots in Chinese history and culture — so deep, in fact, that no one is exactly sure when or by whom the foundation text was authored. One way to view it is as a combination of historical fact and romanticized mythology, the two intertwined so that the one cannot be separated from the other. Many Chinese philosophers, including Confucius himself, are said to have written commentaries on the text, thus infusing it with elements of both Confucianism and Taoism.

In 1924, German scholar and sinologist Richard Wilhelm published the definitive English translation of the Book of Changes, in which he observed: “Nearly all that is greatest and most significant in the 3,000 years of Chinese cultural history has either taken its inspiration from this book, or has exerted an influence on the interpretation of its text.”

Among my friends at the teahouse, the text was being used to shed some light on the chaos that is my current career. “You are in the middle of big changes,” said Prof. Tan, referring to the hexagram conjured up by my tossing of the coins. “This time of revolution… will come to an end soon, and there will be stability. I see much success and money.”

In keeping with the yin-yang theme of opposites, of course, good news is accompanied by bad.

“You should not take a long trip anytime soon,” said Tan. I asked him to elaborate, considering that I was 8,000 miles from home and halfway through the longest trip of my life. “You should not drive alone on a long trip south between now and August 8,” he explained. Okay, I thought, I will try to avoid that.

As the professor continued to review his notes, Penny leaned toward me and said with a smile, “This is one of the old bricks you were looking for.” She was right – old, insightful and challenging.

Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

Oracle 101: Professor Tan shows students how to consult the I Ching | Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

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