The Mandate of Heaven: Hidden History in the Book of Changes

Submitted by Field Stephen on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:26
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THE MANDATE OF HEAVEN: HIDDEN HISTORY IN THE BOOK OF CHANGES. By S. J. Marshall. London: Curzon Press; New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Pp. xviii + 252; illustrations; maps; index. Cloth, £25/$32.50, ISBN 0-7007-1299-2.


According to tradition, the Yijing, or Book of Changes, was originally a divination manual whose omen and prognostication texts were conjured by the sagely founders of the dynasty—culture heroes elevated almost to the status of gods by Confucius and his school. Supposedly the earliest layers of the text were written by Chang, crowned posthumously as Wen, first king of the Zhou dynasty, in the 11th century B.C.E. This attribution was not seriously questioned until the introduction of the critical apparatus of scientific methodology into China in the 20th century. Questions of origin were first raised by such scholars as Gu Jiegang and Li Jingchi in the 1930s, and since then the academic world has considered the sagely authorship of the Yijing to be the stuff of myth and legend. In the book under review, S. J. Marshall attempts to overturn this "complete disavowal of tradition" (7) by uncovering historical references to the founding fathers that have remained hidden in the cryptic text for thousands of years.


The book's fundamental argument hinges on the author's interpretation of the text of hexagram 55, "Feng." Two lines in the hexagram depict the Big Dipper constellation appearing in the middle of the day, which is only possible during a total eclipse of the sun, according to some. Marshall's remarkable insight is to identify the word feng in the same lines not as the common word for "abundance," which is the standard interpretation, but as the name of the capital city of Zhou, a feudal state at the western periphery of the ancient kingdom of Shang. Chang, Chief of the West, had begun to consolidate his power and move his sphere of influence toward the east at this time, but died unexpectedly soon after founding his new capital at Feng. Marshall deduces that Chang's son, Fa, saw the eclipse as a sign or "mandate" from Heaven that he was chosen to lead the rebellion against the evil Shou, last king of Shang. A check by Marshall of modern research verifies the occurrence of a total eclipse in northern China around noon on June 20, 1070 B.C.E., a year that was also calculated by 4th century B.C.E. calendrical scholars to have been the time of the conquest. Section I of the book, "The Mandate of Heaven," frames this basic argument and buttresses it with clever readings from other hexagram texts. 


Section II, "Further Mysteries of the Changes," continues the same line of reasoning by seeking in other hexagrams historical references to events of the conquest. For example, hexagram 36, "Ming Yi," has always baffled scholars. Ming, an ideograph composed of the pictographs for the sun and the moon, usually means "bright" or "light." Yi is the pictograph of an arrow with a cord tied around the shaft and means "to wound, injure." Since many of the lines in the hexagram clearly picture a bird being hunted, modern scholars have speculated that mingyi is the forgotten name of a bird, specifically the "calling pheasant." Marshall does not completely refute this interpretation, but he believes the literal meaning of wounding or "darkening" the light also refers to the phenomenon of the eclipse. To bolster his reading he makes another interesting deduction, this time in reference to an ancient Chinese myth. The earliest variant of a popular myth asks literally "Why did the Great Archer shoot the sun?" and, after having done so, "Why did the crow lose its feathers?" (my translation). The standard answer, verified in later variants of the myth, is because there were ten suns in the sky whose intensity was scorching the earth. Feathers scattered because the ten suns were in reality ten sun-ravens who roosted in the east before one normally took flight every morning of the ten-day week. Marshall believes the later versions of the myth were accretions meant to explain an occurrence whose purpose had been totally forgotten, namely, that the mythical archer shot at the black bird that had eaten the sun, thus killing it and releasing the sun from the eclipse. Other hexagram texts reinterpreted in Section II are 1, 18, 43, and 44.


Section III of the book is a collection of five appendices that clarifies such things as "genealogical matters" (the family tree of King Wen), the "sexagenary cycle" (the sixty-term numbering system of the ancient Chinese), and the "sinological maze of Wilhelm-Baynes" (the puzzling format of the most popular English translation of the Yijing, that by Richard Wilhelm and Cary Baynes). Following this last section are over fifty pages of notes, an extensive bibliography of Western language works on the Yijing and related subjects, and a comprehensive index. 


S. J. Marshall's intriguing work will be read with great interest by Yijing aficionados, and it will also attract the attention of contemporary scholars. The former will be immensely grateful for the clarity that Marshall brings to such an enigmatic text. The latter will initially scoff at the absence of Chinese language sources and point out a contradiction here or an anachronism there before grudgingly admitting that the thesis is basically sound. Everyone who reads The Mandate of Heaven will return to the Book of Changes with a renewed historical perspective. 


Stephen L. Field

Trinity University

September 10, 2003