The Great I Ching Controversy of 2016

An unfortunate thing occurred recently – a disagreement which resulted in the sudden and complete severance of a friendship. And all because of the I Ching. This caused me to confront once again an age old question: who has the right to speak for China? Let me explain.

I know a woman in Shanghai who has been working on a project – a restaurant. She came up with the concept, laid the groundwork, came up with the menu and even developed a line of aromatherapy fragrances for it. She has been working on this project for over 2 years and, in fact, that’s why she came to Shanghai. She’s got impeccable credentials in this area having done similar things all over the world.

The concept for this restaurant happens to be based on the I Ching.

Even though I studied Chinese literature, I’m not strong in classical texts. In fact I’m not really strong in anything before The Travel of Lao Can. I’ve read the 5 major classics of the Ming, even a little bit of them in Chinese, but anything before that is a lot of guesswork. A few years ago I tried to read some Zhuangzi in the original but got hopelessly lost. It is known to be one of the most dense and allusive Chinese texts (along with The Classic of Mountains and Seas). But even these two pale in comparison to the complexity of the I Ching.

To be honest, I didn’t know much about the I Ching before that moment when it wrecked a friendship. Basically all I knew was that it was a very old manual for divination sitting squarely at the wellspring of Chinese philosophy. It involves hexagrams and trigrams and cryptic commentaries. In divination you “cast lots” to get your hexagram and this hexagram helps you understand whatever question you have posed.

One evening not long ago I was sitting in a hole in the wall bar not far from her office. She had just finished work and we were supposed to meet up for a drink. I got her on the phone and tried to tell her where to go. “Do you know Changle Lu? Go to Changle Lu.” She didn’t know where Changle Lu was. “Tepito. Go to Tepito.” Still no dice. “Remember Cantina Agave?” She knew where that was. I was able to talk her in.

We started chatting about this and that and somehow got on the subject of Anhui. Her: “Where’s Anhui?” Me: “Anhui, you know, where all there ayis come from.” She just shook her head. “I don’t travel much in China,” she said. “I find it upsetting.”

And then I did something stupid. I blurted out, “I find it really amazing that you are building a restaurant based on the I Ching – probably the deepest part of Chinese philosophy there is – but you never heard of Anhui.” She looked at me completely aghast: “I have studied it for many years. I first read it when I was 16 years old!” I said, “But how can, you know, be sure you know what you’re talking about? How can you know anything about traditional China without knowing at least something about China today?”

Instead of answering me, she abruptly got up and left the bar saying only, “Enjoy your beer.” And that was the end of that.

After she had cleared out, I chatted with the owner of the bar who was somewhat shocked by what she had just seen. “This laowai thinks she understands the Yi Jing,” I explained to her in Chinese, “but she’s never heard of Anhui.” “That’s a laugh,” replied the owner, a 20-something Shanghainese girl. We talked about how foreigners show up in China thinking they know China better than Chinese people – basically the whole White Confucius thing. “Do you feel like you understand Chinese people?” I asked her. “I don’t even understand people in Pudong,” she replied.

Of course there are subtleties in that simple statement. Presuming you still hold out hope there is some sort of knowable truth out there to discover, a lot of factors condition our journey toward it. The language you use to speak, the way you look, the amount of time you have spent doing something all weigh as heavily or perhaps even more heavily than the content of what you actually have to say. Peripheral details become the central drama in the same way that in a 19th century novel how you ate supper at table determined who you were, or how nowadays a slick Powerpoint is all you need to convince colleagues you’re right.

I find myself in this position sometimes. People ask me how long I’ve been in China, I tell them 18 years and they think I must know everything about China. Obviously I don’t. I haven’t ceased trying to “figure out” Chinese society, though I think by now I am pretty much on a case-by-case basis for “knowing” Chinese people. But any conclusions I come to are contingent in the same way that the bar owner’s “understanding” of Pudong people is. Of course she understands Pudong people. If I asked her to tell me about Pudong people, she would have plenty to say. By saying she doesn’t, she is keeping her understanding open to revision. And maybe that’s closest you can get to the truth in these uncertain times.

And then there’s the question of power. Arrogating to yourself the right to arbitrate truth is, perhaps, the only real power there is. China is very much a contested arena. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mainland China and the diaspora all jostle with each other for the right to determine who’s right. That’s one huge reason that China remains so dynamic and interesting. What ties modern China to a text written 2,500 years ago beside geography? How to weigh that against the importance of the master-student chain of transmission that has been operating unbroken for two millennia? These are all interesting things to ponder.

But these are generalities and we are talking about the I Ching. So I asked the girl: “Have you read the Yi Jing?” “No,” she replied, “No one really ‘reads’ it.” In fact, for being such a foundational text, the I Ching has fallen out of favor. It’s not really taught in schools. There’s not much serious scholarship carried out on it anymore. A lot of I Ching writing these days tends to be about connecting it to other disciplines such as computer science or management strategy.

In the last 20 years there have been some important discoveries – troves of ancient Chinese documents including stuff that has direct impact on our understanding of the I Ching. Nonetheless most of the resulting discourse is inevitably about Confucianism, political philosophy and the legitimacy of the CCP. This New York Review of Books piece  from April this year is a good example.

So I sat down to acquaint myself with the I Ching. It’s less a narrative text and more a complex network of relations, a sophisticated set of meanings that only acquire meaning because they are moving (hence the English title “Book of Changes”). It’s code. It’s a Rosetta stone connecting nature, math, and words. It’s both dauntingly sophisticated (is it possible the Chinese invented the relational database two and a half millennia before E.F. Codd?) and appalling infantile. Take the Meng (Darkness) hexagram as an example:

Penetrating. It is not I who seeks out darkened youth; it is darkened youth that seeks out me. The answer is given at first divination. Repetition is impertinence; the impertinent receive no answer. Beneficial; steadfast.

The Judgment says: In darkness there is precipitous danger below the mountain. To halt because of it is to be darkened.

“Darkness: Penetrating.” Acting with penetration means the time is right.

“It is not I who seeks out darkened youth; it is darkened youth that seeks out me.” Intentions are mutually responding.

“The answer is given at first divination.” The hard is at the center.

“Repetition is impertinence; the impertinent receive no answer.” This is the impertinence of the darkened. Out of darkness to nurture rectitude, such is the achievement of the sage.

The Greater Image says: A spring issues forth beneath the mountain: the hexagram Darkness. By means of this, the junzi fosters virtue through resolute action.

Initial Six: Issuing forth from darkness. Beneficial to punish people by means of this; to gain freedom from fetters by means of this. If you advance by means of this, there will be regret.

Lesser Image: “Beneficial to punish people by means of this; to gain freedom from fetters by means of this.” Thereby rectify law.

Nine in the Second Position: Embracing darkness. Auspicious. Taking a wife will be auspicious. The child may marry.

Lesser Image: “The child may marry.” The hard and the soft meet.

Six in the Third Position: Do not wed a woman by means of this. Seeing a man of gold, to have no stature, there will be no benefit.

Lesser Image: “Do not wed a woman by means of this.” Conduct uncompliant.

Six in the Fourth Position: Hemmed in by darkness. Regret.

Lesser Image: The “regret” of “hemmed in by darkness.” Alone distant from what is full.

Six in the Fifth Position: Darkened youth. Auspicious.

Lesser Image: The “auspiciousness” of “darkened youth.” Compliance with acquiescence.

Topmost Nine: Striking darkness. It is not beneficial to act as a bandit; it is beneficial to ward off bandits.

Lesser Image: “It is beneficial to ward off bandits” by means of this. Those above and below are compliant.

There are 64 hexagrams and they are all more or less like this – a bizarre mixture of contradiction, ambiguity and amusing practicality. It came before Confucius. It came before Laozi. Both owe a debt to its mysteries and truths. Here’s the full text available online.

Robert Eno, Emeritus Professor at Indiana University wrote a nice, approachable scholarly introduction to the I Ching. In it he writes with admirable candor,

“Who gave [the hexagrams] names, and do the names have anything to do with the original meaning of the various hexagrams? (It is doubtful.) Each of the hexagrams has a description of its basic meaning. Is it accurate? (Who knows!) Commentaries in the Yi as it now exists clearly state that the 64 hexagrams were originally meant to be an  exhaustive symbolic account of the universe. Were they? (Perhaps not.) Solid lines are supposed to represent the force of yang, broken lines yin. Do they? This is certainly fundamental to all interpretations of the Yi, but was that a part of the original hexagrams– yin and yang seem to have been new cosmological concepts in the Classical era, so again, perhaps not.”

Out of all of China’s ancient texts, the I Ching is particularly resistant to closure. Both because of its structure and because we simply don’t have much – if anything – from previous eras to compare it to. It sits above a void that is filled with a reflection of ourselves. In that, it seems like a most relevant text for a world disabused of its belief in progress, slowly awakening to the contingency of everything we hold dear.

Textual fidelity…the bond between sign and signified…these are troublesome issues which have haunted and inspired people for a very long time. So, given all that, why shouldn’t a laowai lady who doesn’t know Anhui from Ann Hui be able to make a restaurant based on the I Ching? No reason. Actually I think the I Ching might appreciate the irony of that particular transformation. It is after all a document that purports to encompass the entire universe.

So I was wrong. I own that. I sent her a few messages apologizing. I wasn’t trying to impugn her knowledge, I was more surfacing an observation. I just did it in completely the wrong way.

It’s a fascinating thing, the I Ching. Nowadays you can consult it online. Try it. The results are oddly disturbing. Still powerful after 2,500 years.

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