Introduction to the
I Ching

by James Legge


1. Confucius is reported to have said on one occasion, 'If some years were added to my life, I would give fifty to the study of the Yî, and might then escape falling into great errors.'

There was a Yî in the time of Confucius

The utterance is referred by the best critics to the closing period of Confucius' life, when he had returned from his long and painful wanderings among the States, and was settled again. in his native Lû. By this time he was nearly seventy, and it seems strange, if he spoke seriously, that he should have thought it possible for his life to be prolonged other fifty years. So far as that specification is concerned, a corruption of the text is generally admitted. My reason for adducing the passage has simply been to prove from it the existence of a Yî King in the time of Confucius. In the history of him by Sze-mâ Khien it is stated that, in the closing years of his life, he became fond of the Yî, and wrote various appendixes to it, that he read his copy of it so much that the leathern thongs (by which the tablets containing it were bound together) were thrice worn out, and that he said, 'Give me several years (more), and I should be master of the Yî 1:2.' The ancient books on which Confucius had delighted to discourse with his disciples were those of History, Poetry, and Rites and Ceremonies 2:1; but ere he passed away from among them, his attention was much occupied also by the Yî as a monument of antiquity, which in the prime of his days he had too much neglected.

2. Khien says that Confucius wrote various appendixes to the Yî, specifying all but two of the treatises, which go by the name of the 'Ten Appendixes,' and are, with hardly a dissentient voice, attributed to the sage. They are published along with the older Text, which is based on still older lineal figures, and are received by most Chinese readers, as well as by foreign Chinese scholars, as an integral portion of the Yî King. The two portions should, however, be carefully distinguished. I will speak of them as the Text and the Appendixes.

3. The Yî escaped the fires of Žhin B. C. 213. In the memorial which the premier Lî Sze addressed to his sovereign, advising that the old books should be consigned to the flames, an exception was made of those which treated of 'medicine, divination, and husbandry 2:2.' The Yî was held to be a book of divination, and so was preserved.

In the catalogue of works in the imperial library, prepared by Liû Hin about the beginning of our era, there is an enumeration of those on the Yî and its Appendixes,--the books of thirteen different authors or schools, comprehended in 294 portions of larger or smaller dimensions 2:3. I need not follow the history and study of the Yî into the line of the centuries since the time of Liû Hin. The imperial Khang-hsî edition of it, which appeared in 1715, contains quotations from the commentaries of 218 scholars, covering, more or less closely, the time from the second century B. C. to our seventeenth century. I may venture to say thatthose 218 are hardly a tenth of the men who have tried to interpret the remarkable book, and solve the many problems to which it gives rise.

4. The Yî before Confucius, and when it was made has come down to us as correctly as any other of the. ancient books of China; and it might also be said, as correctly as any of the old monuments of Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, or Latin literature. The question arises of how far before Confucius we can trace its existence. of course an inquiry into this point will not include the portions or appendixes attributed to the sage himself. Attention will be called to them by and by, when I shall consider how far we are entitled, or whether we are at all entitled, to ascribe them to him. I do not doubt, however, that they belong to what may be called the Confucian period, and were produced some time after his death, probably between B.C. 450 and 350. By whomsoever they were written, they may be legitimately employed in illustration of what were the prevailing views in that age on various points connected with the Yî. Indeed, but for the guidance and hints derived from them as to the meaning of the text, and the relation between its statements and the linear figures, there would be great difficulty in making out any consistent interpretation of it.

(i) The earliest mention of the classic is found in the Official Book of the Kâu dynasty, where it is said that, among the duties of 'the Grand Diviner,' 'he had charge of the rules for the three Yî (systems of Changes), called the Lien-shan, the Kweî-žhang, and the Yî of Kâu; that in each of them the regular (or primary) lineal figures were 8, which were multiplied, in each, till the), amounted to 64.' The date of the Official Book has not been exactly ascertained. The above passage can hardly be reconciled with the opinion of the majority of Chinese critics that it was the work of the duke of Kâu, the consolidator and legislator of the dynasty so called; but I think there must have been the groundwork of it at a very early date. When that was composed or compiled, there was existing, among the archives of the kingdom, under the charge of a high officer, 'the Yî of Kâu,'--what constitutes the Text of the present Yî; the Text, that is, as distinguished from the Appendixes. There were two other Yî, known as the Lien-shan and the Kwei-žhang. It would be a waste of time to try to discover the meaning of these designations. They are found in this and another passage of the Official Book; and nowhere else. Not a single trace of what they denoted remains, while we possess 'the Yî of Kâu' complete 4:1.

(ii) In the Supplement of Žo Khiû-ming to 'the Spring and Autumn,' there is abundant evidence that divination by the Yî was frequent, throughout the states of China, before the time of Confucius. There are at least eight narratives of such a practice, between the years B.C. 672 and 564, before he was born; and five times during his life-time the divining stalks and the book were had recourse to on occasions with which he had nothing to do. In all these cases the text of the Yî, as we have it now, is freely quoted. The 'Spring and Autumn' commences in B.C. 722. If it extended back to the rise of the Kâu dynasty, we should, no doubt, find accounts of divination by the Yî interspersed over the long intervening period. For centuries before Confucius appeared on the stage of his country, the Yî was well known among the various feudal states, which then constituted the Middle Kingdom 5:1.

(iii) We may now look into one of the Appendixes for its testimony to the age and authorship of the Text. The third Appendix is the longest, and the most important 5:2. In the 49th paragraph of the second Section of it it is said:--

'Was it not in the middle period of antiquity that the Yî began to flourish? Was not he who made it (or were not they who made it) familiar with anxiety and calamity?'

The highest antiquity commences, according to Chinese writers, with Fû-hsî, B.C. 3322; and the lowest with Confucius in the middle of the sixth century B.C. Between these is the period of middle antiquity, extending a comparatively short time, from the rise of the Kâu dynasty, towards the close of the twelfth century B.C., to the Confucian era. According to this paragraph it was in this period that our Yî was made.

The 69th paragraph is still more definite in its testimony:--

'Was it not in the last age of the Yin (dynasty), when the virtue of Kâu had reached its highest point, and during the troubles between king Wan and (the tyrant) Kâu, that (the study of) the Yî began to flourish? On this account the explanations (in the book) express (a feeling of) anxious apprehension, (and teach) how peril may be turned into security, and easy carelessness is sure to meet with overthrow.'

The dynasty of Yin was superseded by that of Kâu in B. C. 1122. The founder of Kâu was he whom we call king Wan, though he himself never occupied the throne. The troubles between him and the last sovereign of Yin reached their height in B. C. 1143, when the tyrant threw him into prison in a place called Yû-lî, identified as having been in the present district of Thang-yin, department of Kang-teh, province of Ho-nan. Wan was not kept long in confinement. His friends succeeded in appeasing the jealousy of his enemy, and securing his liberation in the following year. It follows that the Yî, so far as we owe it to king Wan, was made in the year B.C. 1143 or 1142, or perhaps that it was begun in the former year and finished in the latter 6:1.

But the part which is thus ascribed to king Wan is only a small portion of the Yî. A larger share is attributed to his son Tan, known as the duke of Kâu, and in it we have allusions to king Wû, who succeeded his father Wan, and was really the first sovereign of the dynasty of Kâu 6:2. There are passages, moreover, which must be understood of events in the early years of the next reign. But the duke of Kâu died in the year B. C. 1105, the 11th of king Khang. A few years then before that time, in the last decade of the twelfth century B. C., the Yî King, as it has come down to us, was complete 6:3.

5. The Yî is not the most ancient of the Chinese books. It can thus boast of a great antiquity; but a general opinion has prevailed that it belonged to a period still more distant. Only two translations of it have been made by European scholars. The first was executed by Regis and other Roman Catholic missionaries in the beginning of last century, though it was given to the public only in 1834 by the late Jules Mohl, with a title commencing 'Y-King, antiquissimus Sinarum liber 7:1.' The language of the other European translator of it, the Rev. Canon McClatchie of Shanghâi, whose work appeared in 1876, is still more decided. The first sentence of his Introduction contains two very serious misstatements, but I have at present to do only with the former of them;--that 'the Yî King is regarded by the Chinese with peculiar veneration, . . . . as being the most ancient of their classical writings.' The Shû is the oldest of the Chinese classics, and contains documents more, than a thousand years earlier than king Wan. Several pieces of the Shih King are also older than anything in the Yî; to which there can thus he assigned only the third place in point of age among the monuments of Chinese literature. Existing, however, about 3000 years ago, it cannot be called modern. Unless it be the books of the Pentateuch, Joshua, and judges, an equal antiquity cannot be claimed for any portion of our Sacred Scriptures.

Supposing them to be the work of Confucius, though it will appear by and by that this assumption can be received as only partially correct, if indeed it be received at all, the sage could not have entered on their composition earlier than B.C. 483, 660 years later than the portion of the text that came from king Wan, and nearly 630 later than what we owe to the duke of Kâu. But during that long period of between six and seven centuries changes may have arisen in the views taken by thinking men of the method and manner of the Yî; and I cannot accept the Text and the Appendixes as forming one work in any proper sense of the term. Nothing has prevented the full understanding of both, so far as parts of the latter can be understood, so much as the blending of them together, which originated with Pî Kih of the first Han dynasty. The common editions of the book have five of the Appendixes (as they are ordinarily reckoned) broken up and printed side by side with the Text; and the confusion thence arising has made it difficult, through the intermixture of incongruous ideas, for foreign students to lay hold of the meaning.

6. Native scholars have of course been well aware of the difference in time between the appearance of the Text and Labours of native scholars on the Yî the Appendixes; and in the Khang-hsî edition of them the two are printed separately. Only now and then, however, has any critic ventured to doubt that the two parts formed one homogeneous whole, or that all the appendixes were from the style or pencil of Confucius. Hundreds of them have brought a wonderful and consistent meaning out of the Text; but to find in it or in the Appendixes what is unreasonable, or any inconsistency between them, would be to impeach the infallibility of Confucius, and stamp on themselves the brand of heterodoxy.

At the same time it is an unfair description of what they An imperfect description of their labourshave accomplished to say, as has been done lately, that since the fires of Žhin, 'the foremost scholars of each generation have edited the Text (meaning both the Text and the Appendixes), and heaped commentary after commentary upon it; and one and all have arrived at the somewhat lame conclusion that its full significance is past finding out 9:1.' A multitude of the native commentaries are of the highest value, and have left little to be done for the elucidation of the Text; and if they say that a passage in an Appendix is 'unfathomable' or 'incalculable,' it is because their authors shrink from allowing, even to themselves, that the ancient sages intermeddled, and intermeddled unwisely, with things too high for them.

European Chinese scholars have made translations of the Yî, and have, if possible, made confusion worse confounded,' he only shows how imperfectly he had made himself acquainted with the subject. 'The host of European Chinese scholars who have made translations of the Yî' amount to two,--the same two mentioned by me above on pp. 6, 7. The translation of Regis and his coadjutors 9:2 is indeed capable of improvement; but their work as a whole, and especially the prolegomena, dissertations, and notes, supply a mass of correct and valuable information. They had nearly succeeded in unravelling the confusion, and solving the enigma of the Yî.


1:1:1 Confucian Analects, VII, xvi.

1:1:2 The Historical Records; Life of Confucius, p. 12.

2:2:1 Analects, VII, xvii.

2:2:2 Legge's Chinese Classics, I, prolegomena, pp. 6-9.

2:2:3 Books of the Earlier Han; History of Literature, pp. 1, 2.

4:4:1 See the Kâu Kwan (or Lî), Book XXIV, parr. 3, 4, and 27. Biot (Le Tcheou Lî, vol. ii, pp. 70, 71) translates the former two paragraphs thus: 'Il (Le Grand Augure) est préposé aux trois methodes pour les changements (des lignes divinatoires). La première est appelée Liaison des montagnes (Lien-shan); la seconde, Retour et Conservation (Kwei-žhang); la troisième, Changements des Kâu. Pour toutes il y a huit lignes symboliques sacrées, et soixante-quatre combinaisons de ces lignes.'

*James Legge, Translator. Oxford, the Clarendon Press [1882]

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