Chapter 1. Legendary History of the I Ching

The folklore of the Chinese people includes fantastic legends of their history. Although they have been discredited by modern scholars, they are less exaggerated than corresponding tales of other cultures, and frequently reveal true insights. In any case, according to tradition (see Figure 1):

Chinese civilization began around 3000 B.C. with the culture hero Fu Hsi. He invented fishing, trapping, cooking, the calendar, angular measurement, writing, and the trigrams found later in the I Ching. These were originally symbols for the eight primary constituents: heaven, earth, thunder, wind, fire, water, wood, and mountain. He is sometimes represented as a mountain with a human head, crowned with leaves, and accompanied by the eight trigrams, a carpenter's square, or similar artifacts (see Figure 2). During his regency, a dragon-like horse emerged from the Meng River, with a mystical diagram on his back. This was the Ho-Tu, or Chart of the Rivers (see Figure 3). Later, the heroic Shen Nung invented agriculture and commerce. Subsequent culture heroes were Huang Ti--the Yellow Emperor--and the Sage Kings: Yao, Shun, and Yu.

The rivers of North China are geologically young, and therefore tend to produce disastrous floods. Thus the Yellow River is known as "China's Sorrow." During a flood of the Lo River in the time of Yu the Great, a spirit tortoise crawled from the waters with another mystic diagram on its carapace -- the Lo-shu, or Lo Writings (see Figure 4). By tracing its steps, Yu was able to control the flood. Thus he invented hydraulic engineering, and founded the Hsia Dynasty. In addition, he invented bronze casting, and cast nine bronze tripods. [Waley, 1934, p. 134]

During the Hsia, the trigrams of Fu Hsi were combined into the sixty-four hexagrams, and brief divination texts were added. This became one of the first books, called the Lieu Shan, or Manifestation of Change in the Mountains, and was consulted with the yarrow oracle. Yarrow was a sacred plant, as it was known to grow only in sacred places. [R. Wilhelm, 1923, p. xlix]

After five centuries, this dynasty declined under the rule of the degenerate King Chieh, and the Shang Dynasty was founded by King Thang. The Lieu Shan was rearranged, and renamed the Kuei Tsang, or Flow and Return to Womb and Tomb. The Shang declined under the hideously sadistic tyrant, King Chou. He imprisoned Wen, who used his forced leisure to write new divination texts for the hexagrams of the Kuei Tsang, and arranged them in their present order. This book, the Pem Ching, consists of the Kua (hexagrams) and Thuan (Judgements) only.

The Chou people, led by Wen's son Wu, waged war against the Shang. Consulting the Pem Ching with the yarrow oracle, Wu was prophesied victory. Ignoring an unfavorable augery by the tortoise shell oracle, he defeated the Shang. Thus he established simultaneously the Chou Dynasty and the supremacy of the yarrow oracle over the contemporary plastromancy which, along with scapulimancy--the bone oracle--had been favored by the Shang people. [H. Wilhelm, 1943, p. 94; Waley, 1934, p. 17] Following this victory, King Wu's brother Tan added further texts to the Pem Ching, called the Hsiao (Lines), and completed the I Ching as it survives to the present day. After Wu's death, his young son Chhen succeeded to the regency, which was carried for him during his childhood by Tan, henceforth known as the Duke of Chou.

After five centuries, Confucius became fascinated by the I Ching. His copy, a set of bamboo tablets fastened by a leather thong, was consulted so often that the binding had to be replaced three times. He said that if he had fifty years to spare, he would devote them to the I Ching [Needham, 1956, p. 307]. In one consultation, the oracle advised him to care for his beard [H. Wilhelm, 1943, p. 97]. He wrote ten commentaries on the classic, called the Ten Wings, transforming it from a divination text into a philosophical masterpiece. In this form, the I Ching inspired the later Taoists, including Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu, as well as the Confucians, and other philosophers and scientists ever since.

Although nowadays hardly anyone believes a word of it, this is the legendary history of the I Ching. But skepticism of the ascriptions of dates and authors does not invalidate the sequence of steps in the evolution of the text, and other fantastic legends have sometimes been verified by archeology. For example, according to legend, the early Chou ministery Hung Yao had face and body completely covered by hair. This became plausible after archeologists discovered Neolithic skeletons of a hairy race in a cave of about 15,000 B.C. [Li Chi, 1957, p. 7].