1902 Encyclopedia > China > Chinese Literature (cont.) - The Book of Changes

(Part 43)


The Book of Changes

One of the earliest published works on which we can lay our hands is the Book of Changes, the first, and the most revered, because the least understood, of the nine classics. This work first saw the light within a prison’s walls. In the year 1150 B.C. its author Wan Wang was, we are told, imprisoned for a political offence, and sought to while away the tedium of his confinement by tracing out a system of general philosophy from the eight diagrams and their 64 combinations invented by the Emperor Fu-he. These diagrams have been likened to the mystical numbers of Pythagoras, and the leading idea of Wan Wang’s system seems to have been founded upon the Chinese notions of the creation of the world, according to which all material things proceed from two great male and female vivifying elements, the Yin and the Yang, which in their turn owe their existence to the Tai keih, or the first great cause. As Sir John Davis says, this "might with not great impropriety, be styled a sexual system of the universe. They, that is to say the Chinese, maintain that when from the union of the Yang and the Yin all existences, both animate and inanimate, had been produced, the sexual principle was conveyed to and became inherent in all of them. Thus heaven, the sun, day, &c., are considered of the male gender ; earth, the moon, night, &c., of the female. This notion pervades every department of knowledge in China. It exists in their theories of anatomy and medicine, and is constantly referred to on every subject. The chief divinities worshipped by the emperor as high priest of the state religion are heaven and earth, which in this sense appear to answer in some degree to the _____ and _____ in the cosmogony of the Greeks."

The style and matter of Wan Wang’s writings were, however, so cramped and vague that Confucius among other attempted the task of elucidating their dark places. Many years the sage spent in endeavours to make straight that which was so crooked ; and the only result attained has been to add some inexplicable chapters to an incomprehensible book. But the fact that it gave rise to a system of divination saved it from sharing the fate which, in the year 221 B.C., befell all books except those on medicine, divination, and husbandry, at the hand of the Emperor Che Hwang-ti of the Tsin dynasty. This monarch ordered, for political reasons, the destruction of all books to be found within the empire, except those on the subjects just mentioned. Fortunately, no monarch, however powerful, is able to carry out to the letter an order of so inquisitorial a nature ; and the roofs of houses, the walls of dwellings, and even the beds of rivers, became the receptacles of the literary treasures of the nation until the tyranny was overpast. The works of Confucius, the Book of History, the Book of Odes, the Spring and Autumn Annals, together with the Book of Rites, and the Four Books by the disciples of the sage and of Mencius, were all alike condemned to flames. How all these were preserved we know not, but history tells us that, when in after years efforts were made to restore the Book of History, 28 sections out of the 100 composing the entire work were taken down from the lips of a blind man who had treasured them in his memory. One other was recovered from a young girl in the province of Honan. And these are all which would probably have come down to us, had not a complete copy been found secreted in the wall of Confucius’s house, when it was pulled down in the year 140 B.C.

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