A Study of Rational/Natural Symbolism in I Ching From a developmental Point of View

Vol. 18 No. 2   12/1988   


A Study of Rational/Natural Symbolism in I Ching From a developmental Point of View 


Shu-hsien Liu









Key words



    At least four layers of meaning can be identified in the Book of Changes, each is succeeding the other and yet each is also interpenetrating into the other; this explains why it is so difficult to have a comprehensive understanding of the implications of this classic. The four layers of meaning referred to are: a system of mystical symbolism, a system of rational/natural symbolism, a system of cosmological symbolism, and a system of ethical/metaphysical symbolism. I have completed my study of mystical symbolism, the article was East Asian Philosophies in Singapore in 1987. this article proposes to study the second dimension of though in the classic. 

    From a developmental point of view, the mystical symbolism is gradually superseded by a system of natural symbolism. Each trigram would then stand for a certain natural phenomenon in the universe. For example, the trigram ch’ien is Heaven and is the father, the trigam k’un is Earth and is the mother. In seemingly fantastic mythological references there are already certain natural elements in them. For example, dragons are constantly referred to in phrases such as “hidden dragon”, “flying dragon in the heavens”, and so on. From a modern point of view dragons do not actually exist, hence these are only figurative speeches. But in ancient times dragons were regarded as real, hence there must be certain empirical elements even in seemingly fanciful mythological tales handed down to us from the past. We now know many lines in the book of changes actually refer to events happened in the past. From this perspective the book may be regarded as a valuable source to study the conditions of the ancient civilization in the past. 

    When symbols are believed to be in some ways correlated to natural phenomena, they may be further employed to invent utensils and institutions at our service. Modern scholars such as Needham would seriously doubt that such an interpretation actually reflects the development of Chinese science in ancient times. But possibilities of institutions and inventions originating from ideas should not be totally precluded. Furthermore, the book of changes has a whole system of numbers and forms which are closely related to its understanding of nature. Ancient people easily had a profound mystical feeling about the numbers, especially those within ten. When numbers are arranged in a certain way, they exhibit certain characteristics which may dazzle the minds of the people, hence it is not uncommon that they are believed to have come out of a divine origin, a rational elements is inextricably interwined with a 



Author: Shu-hsien Liu
Genre: Article