Confucius Institute Day this year fell on a rainy Wednesday in Williamsburg. The rain had been intermittent most of the afternoon, but about 15 minutes before WMCI’s sponsored lecture on the I Ching—the Book of Changes—was to begin in the Reves Room, the skies opened up, and the rain came down in sheets. Organizers were concerned and decided to delay the start in order to allow people a little extra time to arrive.
They needn’t have worried, though, because the downpour didn’t seem to deter anyone; the room was full of students, scholars, community members and even a CCTV crew.
But the apparent inconvenience of the rain turned out to be a perfect metaphorical backdrop for the talk. Reves Center Director Steve Hanson pointed out in his introduction that “In I Ching philosophy rain isn’t good or bad. It’s just rain.”
Professor Zhen Liu added that in Chinese culture, rain is a lucky sign because it’s fortuitous for agriculture.
Part of the mandate of the WMCI is to provide educational and cultural opportunities for the college community. There is probably no more important topic in order to gain a better understanding of the Chinese world view and intellectual history than to learn about the I Ching, or Zhouyi, as it was known in ancient China.
WMCI had arranged for one of the world’s foremost scholars to explain I Ching to the audience at the Reves Center. Professor Zhen Liu was born in Jinan, Shandong Province, and holds a PhD in Philosophy with a concentration in Chinese philosophy, I Ching philosophy, and Confucian philosophy. Professor Liu currently teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the China University of Political Science and Law where he has been chosen one of the “Top Ten Best and Most Liked Teachers” more than once. In addition, Professor Liu has a global reputation and in 2016 was invited by the Confucius Institute Headquarters to give a series of lectures in various American Universities: George Washington University, University of Maryland, Old Dominion University, University of Alaska, Tufts University, University of Massachusetts, Harvard University, San Francisco State University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has been at William & Mary seven months.
Professor Liu began his lecture, “The Unity of Heaven & Humanity in Zhouyi” by saying that there were three words that were necessary to a discussion of China and the I Ching and that would anchor his talk: ancient, application and life.
The earliest I Ching artifacts are approximately 3,500 years old, so the “I Ching is the earliest existing work and the oldest Chinese philosophical system.”
Liu added that it could be said that the I Ching is more than 5,000 years old if one examines the first appearance of the hexagram or gua, drawn by Fuxi, a hero of legend and Chinese mythology and considered the creator of the I Ching.
The symbols of the I Ching are made up of lines (yao) and hexagrams (gua).
The yao is made up of two, opposite features. The straight line is the yang or male feature; the broken line or yin represents the female.
That the yao signifies two opposite features is viewed as the origin of change. “A world of a single feature can’t give birth to development and change,” Liu explained. “Therefore, change equals development and no change equals the norms of the world. That the two – change and no change – coexist in the world although opposites, is at the heart of the I Ching.”
In all there are 64 hexagrams, each made up of 6 yaos. In examining daily life, interpreters of the I Ching mostly use these 64 hexagrams (guas). Many activities are guided by gua.
Over the course of the I Ching’s existence, interpretation of the hexagrams has been used for divination. The I Ching is a metaphor that can be used to predict the future and avoid disaster.
Interpreters can use coins – which is the most common method today. Originally, they used plants, but those plants take 100 years to grow fully, and they’re not readily available today.
One can use any kind of coins, “Asian coins, modern ones… even American coins,” Liu remarked, to the delight of the audience. As he explained, “The tools may be different, but the ways of thinking and interpretation are the same. It’s still using metaphor to predict the future.”
The divination feature of the I Ching became popular over time because, as Liu pointed out, “it captured the imaginations of ordinary people. China is a country with a very long history, and many classics are lost to time; however divination plays a role in keeping I Ching in the realm of ordinary people, keeping it within reach” Liu explained.
The I Ching is one of three divination books of Ancient China. From 1600-1046 BCE (during the Yin-Shang period) it was believed that humanity was receiving ideas from heaven through divination. But during the Zhou dynasty (1046-246 BCE)—when the I Ching emerged—people began to doubt sacrifices to the gods brought heavenly blessings. Instead, as people became more civilized, they put more emphasis on the importance of virtue. The I Ching played a key role in shaping the way virtue was conceptualized in both Taoism and Confucianism.
In I Ching, the origin of virtue is nature, which is the great virtue of heaven and earth or “the extension of life.” Taoism also connects virtue to nature. But Confucianism introduced the concept of virtue to interpersonal relationships.
In studying the I Ching, one strives to be harmonious and balanced, caring for nature and humanity, self and others. That balance means asceticism is not the goal. It is natural to have modest desires and to live in this world. Living according to the principles of the I Ching does call for a unity of heaven and humanity, self-discipline and social commitment, and an effort to work diligently to develop wisdom and balance. One must maintain harmony between one’s personality and the universe and keep adjusting oneself to stay in harmony with nature.
“And this,” Liu asserted, “is the core concept of Chinese culture and affects Chinese people of all social classes: where Chinese locate divine being, nature and themselves in the universe.”
At the end of his lecture, Liu fielded questions from the audience. One person asked who today in China is interested in the I Ching. Liu said there are three ways it’s studied:
1. On a university level: “Students come from all different disciplines. Political science and law students are just as interested as those who study philosophy.”
2. Among the elites in society: they “like to enrich their own thoughts and gain a better understanding of themselves and in relation to others.”
3. Among ordinary people: many study it for the divination uses and to tell fortunes.
William & Mary’s new professor of religious studies, Oludamini Ogunnaike, commented that he was from Nigeria where there is also a tradition of divination. He remarked that in his experience the I Ching interpreters always make accurate predictions. How do they do that?
Liu, showing why he has been so highly regarded as a scholar, answered the Professor Ogunnaike’s question this way:
“Divination is a very complicated issue. The first recorded divination was 3,000 years ago using plants. The texts gave instructions on how to predict simple things,” he began. For instance, Liu described, there’s a way to take the coins, and shake them in your hands six times, and you will be able to glean certain information from the way the coins land. Liu cautioned that the priest’s analysis is not like a set of instructions: “In ancient times they would get a plot like in the movies, and then the priest would analyze it.”
But he cautioned that fortune telling is not so simple. “It’s like swimming or driving a car. It’s easy to learn if you can memorize the rules. But then after you learn, it takes a long time to become experienced. It’s the same with I Ching – it takes an even longer time to practice. In real life people don’t have so many chances to practice. Some can be Olympic swimmers or professional drivers, but to develop to that level requires not only practice but talents and special gifts from heaven. It’s the same with divination – one needs both practice and talent.”
And perhaps that’s a good metaphor for westerners seeking to understand the I Ching and another way of viewing the world. Practice, talent and the kinds of opportunities the WMCI creates, open our minds and allow us to explore a very ancient, perhaps unfamiliar, but truly extraordinary culture.
Below is a video of the interviews conducted by CCTV about the event: