Corps de l’article

While recognizing that the “Commentary” is a patchwork which was subject to a continuing process of reworking even after it began to be transmitted in written form, I would also emphasize that it does present a coherent intellectual position. As I shall try to show, it is not a random miscellany of scraps about an old divination text, but is a subtly presented selection of statements intended to convey a particular world view.

W. Peterson, « Making Connections » (1982)


This paper explores the strategies of philosophical meaning construction of the Xici 繫辭 ([Commentary to the] Appended Sentences ; ca. 3rd-2nd century bce) by analysing its textual macro-structure and lexical usage.[1] It therefore does not focus on reconstructing the supposed philosophical and intellectual lineages — indeed, both “Daoist” and “Confucian” elements are present in the text.[2] Rather, this paper is concerned with identifying the manner of philosophical reasoning of a specific type of text : the commentary. By doing so, this paper aims at contributing to the understanding of “the polymorphous nature of philosophising in early China.”[3] It will show how the individual building blocks[4] of this text are part of a larger network of internal self-referential links. In addition, the constant use of terminology pertaining to the Yi 易 (The Changes) traditions allows the textual network to point outward, that is, to those communities which share what had become by the end of the Warring States period (Zhanguo 戰國, 475-221 bce) a well-established corpus of cultural capital. This latter point is relevant for a discussion on the issue of readership, which, however, will not be treated in the present work.

While the philosophical significance of the Xici has long been acknowledged and discussed at length by previous scholarship,[5] the formal aspects of philosophising embedded in this text still deserve attention. The relationship between form and content in early Chinese texts features prominently in the first works of Dirk Meyer. In his monograph Philosophy on Bamboo, when discussing the corpus of bamboo manuscripts called “Guodian 郭店1”,[6] Meyer proposes two categories of texts : “argument-based texts” and “context-dependent texts.”[7] This heuristic distinction serves to investigate the relationship between the oral and written ways of philosophising in early China. Moreover, it facilitates the discussion of how textual forms can affect the understanding of the text’s main philosophical stance. For instance, in the analysis of the Qiushui 秋水 (Autumn Flood) chapter of the Zhuangzi 莊子 (Master Zhuang), Meyer argues that the textual macro-structure represents a crucial element of the act of philosophising in early China.[8] Leaving aside the debate on oral and written composition, in this paper I shall focus on the second aspect, illustrating how the textual form of the Xici fundamentally mirrors its content. Furthermore, the analysis also shows how structural and lexical elements make the Xici a kind of argument-based text as the philosophical argumentations are clarified within the text itself.

This contribution is comprised of three parts. In the first, I shall outline the main features of the commentary genre, paying particular attention to the many ways in which this specific text-type is conceived of in the early Chinese tradition. As we shall see, the text under consideration does not belong to the more common category of line-by-line commentary ; rather, it is a lengthy treatise appended to what is arguably one of the most influential texts of the entire Chinese literary production : the Zhouyi 周易 (Zhou Changes), also known as Yijing 易經 (Classic of Changes), or simply Yi. The Zhouyi, which from roughly the beginning of the 9th century bce until at least the 2nd century bce served as a divination manual, became the first of the “Confucian Classics” in 136 bce, under the auspices of the Imperial Academy established by emperor Wu 武 (ca. 141-87 bce) of the Han 漢 dynasty (202 bce-220 ce). The Xici is part of the commentarial section of the canonised Zhouyi. Throughout this paper, I shall refer to the Yi traditions when discussing the texts related, directly or indirectly, to the Zhouyi. Next, I shall briefly discuss the notions of divination and philosophy and how they relate to one another in early China. Lastly, I shall reconstruct the patterns of philosophising of the Xici. Since the present paper is not meant to be an exhaustive study of this text, I shall draw examples only from part A of the received version.[9] The structural features of the texts and its division in part A and B are detailed in the last part of this paper as this distinction is essential for the understanding of the textual patterns.

I. Texts That talk about Texts : What is a Commentary ?

Defining the commentary text-type might seem an easy task. However, there is no unified definition which can encompass what is regarded as commentaries in different cultural traditions. Let us start with an authoritative study on this genre, the volume Commentaries-Kommentare edited by Glenn Most.[10] In the preface, Most stresses that in order for a commentary to be considered such, it must necessarily talk about an authoritative text, that is, a text which has been composed by an authoritative author. Most thus proposes to address the following question : “Whose text ?” This is indeed a reasonable starting point when referring to the ancient and premodern Graeco-Roman literary production. Unfortunately, the situation in early China is complicated by the fact that most preimperial texts present a convoluted textual history as well as a composite authorship.[11] The one under consideration in this paper is no exception. For this reason, a more accommodating and efficient definition of commentary might be the following :

[…] as a rule, commentaries bear on whole base texts (or whole sections of base texts), and not just on individual bits scattered here and there throughout a base text. Unlike annotations, which often are intended only for the use of the reader who wrote them, commentaries are intended to address a real or imagined audience and they result from a more or less comprehensive project, which suggests that it makes sense to look at them not only in terms of their local details but also as large-scale pieces of writing stricto sensu.[12]

As we shall see further below, the Xici is a lengthy philosophical commentarial text appended to what was originally one of many divination manuals, as recent archaeological discoveries have proved.[13] Therefore, there is a gap between the original function of the Zhouyi and the later interpretations which exploit the possibility to extract cosmological and philosophical principles out of a guide for divinatory practice. To be sure, the presence of this gap is perhaps inherent in any text and its commentarial tradition(s). If we accept the notion of commentaries being composed to elucidate the meaning of texts which would otherwise appear obscure to the readers, it follows that the gap between the original meaning and the one imposed by the commentators is somewhat inevitable. Newell Ann Van Auken points out that this aspect might be seen as the opportunity to “set forth new interpretations.”[14] This is the case, for instance, of the Jie Lao 解老 (Explaining the Laozi) chapter of the Hanfei zi 韩非子 (Master Han Fei), a chapter entirely devoted to the explanation to the Laozi 老子 (Master Lao), also known as the Daodejing 道德經 (Classic of the Way and its Potency).[15] The Laozi has been the object of a long commentarial tradition — one the most remarkable in terms of quantity — as it is the foundational text of the Daoist tradition. In addition, its overly concise and obscure literary style calls for an explanation. The same holds true for the Zhouyi, the language of which is notoriously difficult to decipher. Considered the dating proposed by most scholars for the composition of this divination manual, i.e. approximately the 8th century bce,[16] we could infer that the explanation of the obscure lines of the Zhouyi might have happened in a different manner other than the one we find in the Xici : (1) it was improvised (and uttered orally) by the diviner(s) during the divinatory act ; or (2) it was based on earlier exegetical texts which have not come down to us because they were written on perishable materials, like bamboo or wood. I believe both hypotheses are entirely reasonable.

In light of this, we could say that the main purpose of the Xici is not to explain the meaning of the Zhouyi, or at least not exclusively. In fact, the main innovation of the Xici, as a unique example of hybrid text-type — hybrid because it is simultaneously a commentary and a treatise of its own right — is that of providing a relatively coherent cosmo-philosophical framework to a textual tradition which lacked this fundamental feature.[17] Even though the Zhouyi was originally devoid of any philosophical value, can we still talk about philosophy of divination ? And how do we relate the Xici to the genre of “philosophical divination commentary” ? The next sections are devoted to exploring these important issues.

II. Divination and Philosophy

What do we talk about when we talk about divination ? In early cultures, divination, or mantic activity,[18] was nearly ubiquitous. It was performed in many distinctive ways in different cultural contexts, during different periods of time. This is reflected by the diverse terminology which has been used by each ancient culture to refer to this phenomenon.[19] Despite this diversity, it is still possible to identify the following common features. (1) Divination was almost always prompted by a human universal concern : uncertainty. (2) This concern was often soothed by gaining knowledge of the hidden meaning of events, situations or things of the past, present or future. (3) Gaining such knowledge was primarily related to drawing conclusions to aid personal and community decision-making. (4) This knowledge was not regularly accessible to people as it usually came from a different realm, which, for lack of a better term, can be called extra-human realm. The extra-human realm includes, among others, gods, ancestors, spirits, or a universal cosmic order. (5) Extra-human knowledge often manifested itself in the form of signs. (6) The divinatory act generally involved a human expert, a mediator, who was able to decipher these signs and translate them into a language which was shared within a specific cultural context. (7) The divinatory sign — either directly found in nature or deliberately obtained — could be, but need not be limited to, the result of a communication with extra-human entities. (8) In most of the cases the divinatory act implied that these non-human entities were closely related to humans, and for this reason directly affected different aspects of their life. (9) In many cultures, divination was also related to power as it concerned the elite’s need to link the mundane enterprise to the divine realm ; in this perspective, divination overlaps with rituality, and it was a means to obtain political legitimacy. (10) Divination played a key role in the private sphere of everyday life, and it was derivative of people’s conception of life and death, divinity and nature, and the relationship between humans and the different dimensions of experience. In short, divination should not be regarded as the mere act of foretelling the future ; rather, it represents a significant feature at different societal levels, embedded in a somewhat coherent hermeneutic system — or indeed shared within a specific community.[20]

According to both palaeographical and the received textual evidence, divination appears to have played an important role in various parts of the territory of what is today mainland China. By the time of the Qin 秦, the first imperial dynasty (221-207 bce), it was performed arguably on a daily basis by people of all walks of life. Even though there were many different techniques, only two were the most widely used : turtle shell and stalk divination.[21] For space reasons, I shall not discuss further the divinatory techniques ; rather, I would like to pay attention to the notion of how divination was conceptualised in early China, which, in turn, bears on the philosophical significance of divination.

In his monograph on the origin and early development of the Zhouyi, Edward L. Shaughnessy, one of the world leading experts in the field of Yi studies, explores the theoretical foundations of divination in China. He suggests that divination might have been regarded as a complementary means to sacrifice and it was meant to facilitate the interaction with extra-human beings.[22] He takes up examples from classical texts, such as the Zuo zhuan 左傳 (The Zuo Tradition) and the Shangshu 尚書 (Venerated Documents), but also excavated texts, such as oracle bone inscriptions and bamboo manuscripts of the late Warring States period. In light of this, I disagree with Lisa Raphals when she argued that, after the Shang 商 (1600-1045 bce) dynasty, divination “progressively de-emphasize direct communication or negotiation with divine powers”.[23] In the Chinese context, the constant search for compliance can be an indication of a rather strong consideration of the extra-human realm. In addition, divination, as noticed by Jao Tsung-I 饒宗頤 back in 1989, required a significant amount of human will as the main goal of the practice was not to ask about the outcome of the diviners’ decision ; rather, it was the search for approval of the decision made a priori.[24] In other words, divination in pre-imperial China was more “a statement on the part of the diviner of what they wished to happen, hoping that the spirits would receive their prayers and bestow blessings in return.”[25]

According to Shaughnessy, the “prayerful” nature of divination is well reflected in the Xici.[26] This text can be regarded as the first coherent and systematic work which contains philosophical reasoning while commenting on a base text, a divination manual, which clearly does not include such kind of philosophical features. To be sure, we cannot exclude that, prior to the composition of the Xici, similar texts existed. The archaeological discoveries of the past decades may allow us to speculate on the possible existence of works comparable to the Xici. Perhaps one day archaeology will bring to light new evidence which will help us deepen our understating of early divination commentaries.[27]

III. Patterns of Philosophising in the Xici

Even though the main focus of the present paper is the Xici, it is essential to have some basic knowledge of the base text, namely the Zhouyi. In what follows, I first briefly discuss its main components (trigrams and hexagrams). Next, I introduce the Xici, paying particular attention to the textual history and structure. Lastly, I reconstruct the patterns of philosophising by analysing its macro-structure and lexical usage.

1. Zhouyi : Textual History

The relevance of the Zhouyi was officially established in 136 bce, during the Han, when the editors of the Imperial Academy attached the core text (Benjing 本經) to the commentary section known as the Ten Wings (Shiyi 十翼) ; in this way, the book surged to the position of first among the so-called “Confucian” Classics, alongside the Shangshu, the Shijing 詩經 (Classic of Poetry), the Chunqiu 春秋 (Spring and Autumn Annals), and the Li 禮 (Records on the Rites).[28]

What makes the Zhouyi unique is its peculiar basic constituents : the sixty-four hexagrams (gua 卦), which, according to Richard Smith, reveal the “fundamental processes and relationships of the universe.”[29] According to the traditional narrative, these six-line diagrams purportedly owe their symbolic origin to the ancient Chinese cosmic concept of the two primary forces : yin 陰 (the yielding, the dark, the feminine, which is graphically represented by the broken line and by the even numbers 6 and 8), and yang 陽 (the rigid, the light, the masculine, which is graphically represented by the unbroken line and by the odd numbers 7 and 9).[30] When combined in a three-line diagram, the yin and yang lines yield the eight trigrams (bagua 八卦). In order to encompass the whole multiplicity of reality, the eight trigrams were doubled in all the possible combinations, eventually generating the above-mentioned sixty-four hexagrams.[31] The French sinologist Jacques Gernet has defined these symbols a representation of the “transitory state” of all the elements of reality.[32] That is to say, the hexagrams do not symbolise things as they will transpire in the future but, rather, they “figurate” the divinable trends of a given situation embedded in a reality in constant change.[33] Accordingly, the word “Yi,” which can refer to both the title of the book, Zhouyi, and to the broader tradition to which this book belongs, is rendered as “Changes”.[34]

Within the core text, each of the sixty-four hexagram is described in four parts :

  1. guahua 卦畫 : hexagram picture

  2. guaming 卦名 : hexagram name

  3. guaci 卦辭 : hexagram statement

  4. yaoci 爻辭 : line statement

The hexagram picture is further analysed by identifying the two trigrams of which it is composed, as shown in the following example, hexagram 53, Jian 漸 (Gradual Approach) ䷴ :

  • [trigram/hexagram picture]

    ☴ outer/upper trigram Xun 巽 (the gentle, wind, wood)

    ☶ inner/lower trigram Gen 艮 (still, mountain)

    [hexagram name]

    Jian 漸, Gradual Approach (Development ; Gradual Progress)

    [hexagram statement]

    The women return home. Auspicious. Beneficial divination.

    女歸, 吉. 利貞.[35]

    [line statement]

    Six in the first (bottom) line : Wild geese gradually approach toward the riverbank. For the young man, danger. There are words, no trouble.

    初六鴻漸于干. 小子厲. 有言無咎.[36]

Such is the kind of material contained in the core text of the Zhouyi. For each of the sixty-four hexagrams, a hexagram picture, a hexagram name, and two kinds of statements, one concerning the hexagram, the other explicating the symbolism of each of its lines,[37] are given. As one can see from the example above, these statements are far from clear : what is the relationship between the “wild geese gradually approach toward the riverbank” and “a young man” in danger ?[38] The Ten Wings are supposed to provide explanations to this cryptic material. This corpus includes seven sections, three of which are comprised of two parts :

  1. Tuan 彖 (On the Hexagram Statements), in two parts

  2. Xiang 象 (On the Images),[39] in two parts

  3. Xici 繫辭 (Appended Sentences or), also known as Dazhuan 大傳 (Great Commentary or Great Tradition), in two parts

  4. Wenyan 文言 (Sayings on the Words of the Text)

  5. Shuogua 說卦 (Explanations of the Trigrams)

  6. Zagua 雜卦 (Hexagrams in Irregular Order)

  7. Xugua 序卦 (Hexagrams in Regular Order)

The Xici will become the locus classicus of the Yi major concepts and terminology, especially for the Song 宋 (960-1279 ce) dynasty Neo-Confucian commentators and cosmologists.[40] Its diverse linguistic style and content suggest that the received text is most likely the result of a long editorial process, which pieced together the works of different authors.[41] While scholars generally agree on the composite nature of the Xici,[42] the issue of dating is, on the other hand, a particularly controversial one. Some scholars suggest that the text belong to the early Warring States period.[43] Others argue that text mostly presents a mid-to-late Warring States pedigree.[44] I am more inclined to follow the assumption that the bulk of the text was written during the transition period between the Warring States and the foundation of the Han dynasty, that is, by the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 2nd century bce.[45] Of course, by saying this I do not intend to deny that the Xici does include more ancient elements.

The received text of the Xici is divided into two parts (A and B) ; the former includes twelve chapters (zhang 章), the latter includes nine chapters, according to Kong Yingda’s 孔穎達 (574-648) arrangement of the text in his Zhouyi Zhengyi 周易正義 (Correct Meaning of the Zhou Changes). The other famous arrangement is the one by Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), which includes two parts of twelve chapters each. Apart from the received text, one manuscript version has been discovered at Mawangdui 馬王堆 (Changsha 長沙, Hunan 湖南) in 1973. The Mawangdui text, written on a silk sheet, represents the oldest extant version of the commentary dating approximately to the 190 bce.[46] It should be noticed that, to date, we do possess an earlier version of the Zhouyi ; however, this does not include the commentarial section.[47] The Mawangdui manuscript contains almost all of the same parts as the received Part A and Part B. Part A fundamentally presents the same ordering of the received text ; the only remarkable difference is that chapter A9, usually referred to as the Da yan zhi shu 大衍之數 (The numbers of the Great Expansion) passage, is missing. Part B is reorganised under different sections, i.e. Yao 要 (Essentials) and Yi zhi Yi 易之義 (The Properties of the Changes).

As I mentioned in the introduction, the Xici is generally regarded as a commentary on the core text of the Zhouyi. However, Joseph A. Adler, in his translation of Zhu Xi’s Zhouyi Benyi 周易本義 (Basic Meaning of the Zhou Changes), argues that the Xici is not a commentary, but rather a collection of statements about the Yi as a divination book.[48] I believe that the loose definition provided above[49] allows us to consider the Xici a hybrid text which oscillates between two genres : commentary and philosophical treatise. On the one hand, the Xici actively engages with the base text, quoting verbatim passages of it ; on the other hand, it substantially adds philosophical value — and, I would dare say, legitimation — to what was “only”, as it were, a divination manual.

2. Reconstructing the philosophical strategies of the Xici

As we have seen, one of the main purposes of a commentary is to cast light on the base text which should be (1) authoritative, ideally by virtue of the fact that it has been written by an authoritative author ; (2) of obscure meaning. But what happens when the commentary itself is as much (if not more) enigmatic than the base text ? This is indeed the case of the Xici. At first reading, the text appears to be a “random miscellany of scraps about an old divination text”.[50] However, exactly forty years ago, Willard Peterson, in his excellent analysis of the Xici, affirmed that the text “does present a coherent intellectual position”.[51] If Peterson is correct, what are the textual strategies which make this text a coherent whole, despite its indisputable composite nature ? Given its apparent difficult style, does it require further interpretation by a third “actor” (other than the base text and the commentary itself), as suggested by Dirk Meyer’s typology ?[52] Can either the “context-dependent text” or “argument-based text” category be employed to describe the Xici’s argumentative and philosophical strategies ? Can its final form be regarded as a stand-alone philosophical piece of work ? Before attempting to provide an answer to these questions, I shall briefly review the analysis made by Shaughnessy, who insightfully pointed out the different layers of the text.

To demonstrate the different authorial layers of the Xici, Shaughnessy isolated two distinct strata based on their style of writing, ruling out the chapters which are not present in the Mawangdui manuscript.[53] The first stratum, which he calls “Essay on Qian and Kun” (Qiankun lun 乾坤論),[54] is mostly concerned with the union of the dual forces, yin and yang, and with the role that the two pure trigrams/hexagrams — i.e. Qian and Kun, which refer both to the first and second of the eight trigrams, or to the two first of the 64 hexagrams — play in this process of life generation within a “constantly changing” cosmos. This essay is mostly written in what Rudolph Wagner has defined the Interlocking Parallel Style.[55] According to Shaughnessy, this particular style, which sees the combination of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, best represents the content of the first stratum of the Xici, demonstrating how Qian and Kun “combine to produce the world”. The second stratum is called by Shaughnessy “Essay on the Appended Statements” (Xici lun 繫辭論). It is written in what is known as Equational Sentences, in which a noun, or a noun phrase, is defined through a second noun or noun phrase. The typical structure of such sentences is : A zhe 者 B ye 也, or simply AB ye 也.[56]

While I appreciate the value of this kind of linguistic analysis, I shall not try to identify additional layers. Rather, my goal is to outline how the different textual units are intertwined in order to produce a self-contained whole. On the macro-structural level, the Xici unfolds in what can be described as a spiral pattern : it first mentions topica, it moves forward to topicb, it goes back to topica, to then expand on topicb. As we shall see, such format appears immediately evident already in the opening lines of the text. Another striking feature of the Xici is that it makes strong claims about the topics that it mentions, as though it takes for granted that the targeted audience will be able to grasp their full meaning. I shall now clarify what I refer to as spiral pattern, and what I mean with topic a and b.

Let us start with a close look at topica. Following Peterson’s phrasing, I call topica “establishing connections”. I should immediately clarify that, at this point, the text does not explicitly state that the connections are established ; rather, the text wants us to accept the scenario described in the first chapter (A1), which reads as follows :


Heaven is venerable, Earth is low, and so Qian and Kun are established.


Low and high are displayed, and so loftiness and lowliness are positioned.


Motion and quiescence have constancy, and so the firm and the yielding [lines] are distinguished.


Dimensions are gathered in categories, things are divided in groups, and so good and bad fortune are produced.


Images are established in Heaven and forms are established on Earth, and so alterations and transformations are made visible.


This is why the firm and the yielding rub each other and the eight trigrams displace one another.


[In Heaven] they arouse by thunder and lightning ;


[on Earth] they moisten by wind and rain. The sun and the moon revolve ; once it is cold, once it is hot.


The way of Qian completes the male ; the way of Kun completes the female.


Qian controls the Great Beginning. Kun works on the completion of things.


It is through easiness that Qian controls ; it is through simplicity that Kun is capable.


Being easy, one easily controls ; being simple, one easily follows.


As one easily controls, then there is intimacy ; as one easily follows, then there is accomplishment.


There being intimacy, one can last long ; there being accomplishment, one can be great.


Being able to last long is the worthies’ virtue ;


being able to be great is the worthies’ undertaking.


Because of easiness and simplicity, the patterns of all under Heaven are apprehended.


Once the patterns of all under Heaven are appre-hended, completion establishes its position in their midst.[57]

The connections, supported on a textual level by the parallel structure mentioned above, involve entities which pertain to different realms of reality, i.e. among the yi (cosmic change), the Yi (the book) and the humans ; these connections can be described as “vertical”. In the first two sentences, Heaven and Earth are paired with Qian and Kun, which encompass all the different combinations of the yin and yang lines. In the following sentences, we learn that (1) it is through “easiness” (yi 易) and “simplicity” (jian 简) respectively that the two pure trigrams/hexagrams operate ; (2) it is by adopting the qualities of Qian and Kun — being “easy” and “simple” — that we humans are able to apprehend (de 得) the patterns (li 理) of “all under Heaven” (tianxia 天下). Once the patterns of the world are apprehended, “completion establishes its position in their midst” (cheng wei hu qi zhong yi 成位乎其中矣).[58] This is made plain and explicit only in the last sentences of the first chapter.[59]

The connections between the yi and the Yi are clarified in chapter A4, facilitated by the use of terms like zhun 準 (“to model”), xiangsi 相似 (“to resemble”, “being alike”), and fan 範 (“mould” ; “pattern” ; by extension “to imitate”).[60] Furthermore, from this point we assist to the beginning of a conflation of the Yi system and the “human actor” who makes use of this system and of the book which contains it. This is particularly evident on a linguistic level as the text makes it extremely difficult to discern between the human and non-human subject (i.e. the Yi). The translation below attempts to render this conflation of subjects. Lastly, it is interesting to notice that in the text quoted below, which I labelled “consequences of the connections”, the word gu 故 (“thus”, “therefore”, but also “reason”, “cause”) and shigu 是故 (“this is why”) is repeated many times :


The Yi is equal to Heaven and Earth ; thus (gu 故) it is capable to encompass the ways of Heaven and Earth.


Directing one’s gaze up to observe the signs of Heaven and directing one’s gaze down to scrutinise the patterns of Earth ;


this is why (shigu 是故) one [through the Yi] comprehends the causes of darkness and brightness.



Tracing the beginning and reverting to the end, thus (gu故) one [through the Yi] comprehends the discourses on life and death.


Essence and Breath (qi) become the creatures ; their floating becomes alterations.


This is why (shigu 是故) [one] comprehends the dispositions and the manifestations of the spirits.


[The Yi] is alike Heaven and Earth ; thus (gu 故), one does not go against them.


Its comprehension encompasses the myriad things, its way equalises all under Heaven ; thus (gu 故), one does not err.


Since it goes everywhere and does not drift away, one is content with and comprehends Heaven’s mandate ; thus (gu 故), one is not troubled.


One finds safety in their land and shows sincerity in humaneness ; thus (gu 故), one is capable of caring.


One models oneself on the transformations of Heaven and Earth and does not err ;


one has many methods to accomplish the myriad things without any loss.


It thoroughly pervades the ways of day and night and comprehends them.


Thus (gu 故), the spirit is boundless, and the changes are indeterminate.[61]

The vastness and greatness of the Yi, its ability of “tracing the beginning and reverting to the end”, thus encompassing all the different aspects of reality, far as well as near, past as well as present, is again treated in chapters A6 and A7, where the qualities of the Yi as a book are described. Here, we can observe the primary role of Qian and Kun as both the two pure hexagrams (A6), but also as the epitome of Heaven and Earth (A7). Once these are established in their proper positions, “cosmic change takes place in their midst” (yi xing hu qi zhong yi 易行乎其中矣).[62] In A6 we assist once more to the literary strategy of a conflation between the Yi and the human subject, which in the Chinese text is evidenced by the fact the subject of the sentence is not explicit. While when the text refers to Qian and Kun, it uses the demonstrative pronoun “qi 其”, which helps the reader identify the subject of the following sentence.


The Yi (易) is vast and great.


Using [the Yi] to speak of what is distant, [one] has no limit ;


Using [the Yi] to speak of what is near, [one] is quiescence and correct.


Using [the Yi] to speak of what is between Heaven and Earth, [one] is fully equipped.


As for Qian, in quiescence it (qi 其) is collected, in motion it (qi 其) is straight ;


in this way, greatness is therein brought forth.


As for Kun, in quiescence, it (qi 其) is shut ; in motion, it (qi 其) is open ;


in this way, breadth is therein brought forth.


Breadth and greatness correspond to Heaven and Earth ;


alterations and continuities correspond to the four seasons ;


the meaning of yin and yang corresponds to the sun and moon ;


the goodness of the easiness and simplicity corresponds to the utmost potency.[63]

The interaction between these elements — the Yi (the book) and the yi (cosmic change), Qian and Kun — is finally mentioned in chapter A12 which Wilhelm rightfully calls “summary”, where once again we read :


May we not say that Qian and Kun are the secret and substance of the Yi [the book] ?


Qian and Kun having achieved their arrangement, the Yi was established in their midst.


If Qian and Kun were taken away, there would be no means of seeing the yi [cosmic changes] ;


and if the yi were not seen, Qian and Kun would almost cease to act.[64]

In this passage Qian and Kun, being the purest expressions of yin and yang, are presented as the essential elements of the Yi system ; without these two elements, the system cannot operate, and, as a consequence, the transformations which happen in the cosmos remain unseen. Which is to say, without the “system of signs” devised by the sages, the intricacies of the entire cosmos would not be intelligible to humans. Furthermore, in the translation I deliberately distinguished between Yi and yi : in the first sentence, the text is obviously referring to the [Book of] Changes, while in the sentence “there would be no means of seeing the yi” (yi bu ke jian 易不可見), the word “yi” should be understood as “[cosmic] changes”. In fact, as repeatedly stated in the Xici, the Book of Changes and its system are modelled after the changes underlying the cosmos ; however, without them, the Changes and the system it contains could not exist.

From the passages analysed above, it appears clear that the connections and conflations of meanings can also be identified on a lexical level. Polysemantic words are used throughout the text, with the word yi/Yi易 (“change,” or the “[Book of] Changes,” but also, as we have seen, “easy,” “easiness”) being arguably the most striking of all.[65] Despite the apparent ambiguity, which is indeed confusing as the example of chapter A12 has shown, the Xici in most cases does signal how we should understand these words depending on the context. For instance, in chapter A1, the word yi undoubtedly means “easiness”, the quality of Qian, as it is paired with jian (“simplicity”), the quality of Kun. On the contrary, in the opening sentence of chapter A4, Yi refers to the Book of Changes as “it is modelled after Heaven and Earth”. Indeed, the distinction between Yi (the book) and yi (cosmic change) is more difficult to establish, but this aspect should not surprise us given that one of the main arguments of the Xici is that the Changes is a duplication of, and thus overlaps with, the cosmic changes.

I shall now look into topicb which I call “the Yi and the humans” and starts in chapter A2. As it appears from the first line, the passage discusses the creation of the Yi by the sages, and then moves to detail the different elements which make the system operative. First, specific concepts, which occur formulaically in the core text (e.g. “good and bad fortune”, “regret and repentance”, “alterations and transformations”, “firm and yielding lines”) are related to their images. Next, the movement of the basic element of the Yi system (the lines) are equalised to what in the Yi tradition have become symbols of Heaven, Earth, and humans : san ji 三極 (“Three Ultimates”). Finally, the text assesses the usefulness of the Yi for the noble man as it provides the means he needs to act properly according to the (incipient) situation. Let us now have a look at the text.


The Sage devised the hexagrams and scrutinised the images therein ; he appended the statements to them so that the good and bad fortune [indicated by the statements] were made clear. The firm and yielding [lines] push each other, thus bringing forth [the representation of] alterations and transformations.


This is why good and bad fortune are the images of gain and loss.


Repentance and regrets are the images sorrow and worry.


Alterations and transformations are the images of advance and retreat.


The firm and yielding lines are the images of day and night.


The movements of the six lines [of a hexagram] are the Way of the Three Ultimates.


This is why what the noble man resides in and feels safe in is the sequence of the Changes ; what he enjoys and delights with are the lines statements.


This is why, in time of rest, the noble man scrutinises their images and delights in the statement appended to them ;


when undertaking actions, he scrutinises their changes and takes delight in their prognostications.


Therefore, “using the support which comes to him from Heaven, [the noble man] will have good fortune and there will be nothing that will not be beneficial.”


The Judgments refer to images.


The lines [statements] refer to alterations.


“Good fortune” and “bad fortune” refer to loss and gain.


“Repentance” and “remorse” refer to minor imperfections.


“There is no trouble” refer to it is favourable to repair previous transgressions.


This is why the ranking of loftiness and lowliness resides in the [lines’] positions ;


the equalisation of smallness and greatness resides in the [entire] hexagram


the distinction of good and bad fortune resides in the statements ;


concern over repentance and remorse resides in intermediate situation


the arousing of “there is no trouble” resides in re-pentance.


This is why the hexagrams entail [both] smallness and greatness and [that] the statements entail [both] danger and easiness.


As for the statements, each of them points at where [a hexagram or a line] is going to.[66]

The last sentence is particularly relevant as it indicates the importance of the notion of “incipiencies” (ji 幾), which indicate the tendencies of the situations which the hexagrams figurate. This aspect of topicb is further expanded in chapter A10 where it said that the Yi “contains” the way of the sages and that the book is the “means by which” (suo yi 所以) the incipiencies are “thoroughly understood” (yan ji 研幾) by the sages. This quality of the sage to identify the ji is called “being spirit-like” (shen 神), which indicates a state of complete clear mindedness.[67] We are thus brought back to chapter A2, where a sage (or more than one ?) is responsible for the creation of the entire Yi system in order to assist other humans to make sense of the cosmic changes. Here we see the spiral pattern which mirrors the text’s main topic, which in turn duplicates the movement underlying reality.

Topica and topicb merge in chapter A5, which I call “abstracting connections” :


Once yin once yang, this is called “Dao”.


What ensues from it is good ; what accomplishes it is inner nature.


Those who have humaneness see it and call it “humaneness.”


Those who have knowledge see it and call it “knowledge.”


The common people use it daily, and yet have no knowledge [of it].


Thus, the way of the noble man is rare.


[The Way of yin and yang] manifests itself in humaneness ; it is hidden in daily operations.


It arouses the myriad things and does not share the sages’ worries.


Its flourishing potency and its great undertaking are the utmost indeed !


Possessing in abundance is called great undertaking.


Daily renewal is called flourishing potency.


Life perpetuating itself is called cosmic change.


The establishment of the images is called Qian.


The imitation of models is called Kun.


Exhausting the procedures in order to comprehend what is to come is called prognostication.


Fathoming alterations is called pursuit.


That in which yin and yang cannot be fathomed is called spirit.[68]

In this chapter, the cosmological process of change, which is referred to as “the way” (dao 道), is described as the alterations of yin and yang (yi yin yi yang zhi wei dao 一陰一陽之謂道). Here we also learn that the dyadic nature of the cosmic change cannot be fully grasped by all humans, who partake in the process but do not possess the ability to comprehend it. The comprehension of this dynamic can only be experienced by the “noble man” (junzi). Finally, the process of giving birth to life (shengsheng 生生) is called yi (cosmic change). As Anne Cheng points out, if we combine the two meanings of yi, we come to the conclusions that “there is nothing easier than change”.[69] The sentence is particularly relevant if we think about the notion of the book and the world mirroring each other : in fact, the cosmological dynamic of change is once again described through the categories of the book.


The Xici presents a composite and multi-layered nature. On a macro-level, the different topics are mentioned following a system of overlapping spiral patterns : topica is first introduced in a textual unit, followed by topicb, but then the text immediately goes back to the topica, sometimes even by using the same phrasing, or at least the same sentence structure, as we have seen above. Therefore, in this sense, the Xici can be regarded as a kind of argument-based text, meaning that the philosophical stance is exhausted within the text itself. Moreover, this “moving forward and backward” resembles that of the text’s main topic, i.e. the system of change underlying the entire cosmos. This is performed on both a macro-level but also on a lexical level. Form, text and object are thus conflated. I should clarify that the text is not concerned with giving explicit definitions of the concepts it mentions. For instance, we are not told what “easiness” and “simplicity” are, we must infer the meanings of these two crucial concepts by ourselves. As I have mentioned at the beginning of this section, the Xici takes for granted that all these meanings are familiar to the text recipient(s) because they are entirely consistent with the worldview dominant during the periods in which the text was being conceived by multiple authors (5th-2nd century bce). The sixty-four hexagrams — which purportedly stem from the numerical progression 1, 2, 4, 8, 64 — ultimately corresponds to the “myriad things” (wanwu 萬物), which is the way most philosophical texts, mainly belonging to the so-called Daoist tradition, refer to the “multiplicity of reality”.[70] Indeed, the Zhouyi, far from being the product of the sages of the past, “emerged from a world of diverse but related practices that fundamentally shaped it.”[71] What was most likely the outcome of a stochastic distribution was given philosophical legitimacy,[72] ultimately establishing a credible cosmo-philosophical framework for the numerological system of one of the many divination manuals in 3rd century bce China. If read in this way, the endeavour of the authors of the Xici appears even more remarkable.

In conclusion, to paraphrase Mark E. Lewis, with the Xici we are assisting to the “blurring” of not only text and object, but also of text and form.[73] We could venture to push this interpretation even further by positing that the conflation of these three elements might have facilitated the comprehension of such an obscure text during the act of philosophical performance, as suggested by Dirk Meyer for the Qiushui chapter of the Zhuangzi. In the case of the Xici, the form can also be considered part of the message as the form reduplicates the main notion discussed.[74] “Form and content are one”, and they are easily (inter)changeable.