How to Read China

Story Stream
recent articles

China today is one of the world's most fascinating countries to visit and study, whether you are interested in economics, politics, religion or, actually, pretty much anything. Plenty of books and online guides give all sorts of good advice for tourists and longer-term visitors, and I make no claim to be a China expert. But I do want to report on one approach that massively repays study, however odd this may sound in the context of a modern super-power that notionally is home to the world's largest population of the non-religious.

The more you know about the I-Ching (Yi-Jing), the Book of Changes, the better you will be able to "read" China, its landscape and its history, and the more seriously your hosts will take you as someone who has active sympathy for the culture. On a recent visit to Beijing, I was surprised to migrate from hearing a politely tolerant "Oh, you know a lot about China" (you've read the history section in a guide book) to a quite impressed "Oh, you DO know a lot about China." I really don't claim that degree of expertise, beyond recognizing that this is an invaluable key to the wider culture.

Traditional Chinese religion and philosophy -- and the two are impossible to separate -- assumed a balance of forces. These forces could be strong, hot, active and masculine (yang) or weak, cold, passive and feminine (yin). Both are necessary to the workings of the universe, and neither is either good or evil of itself. The whole world can be defined in terms of shifting balances between forces, including the five geographical directions (north, south, east, west and here/center). Yang forces are strongest in the south, the realm of the sun and the color red, where summer heat and fire predominate; yin powers are cold, northerly and black. Each direction has its own variations of balance, its distinctive colors, elements, symbols and animals.

And that brings us to the I-Ching. Thousands of years ago, Chinese courts had a passionate interest in divination and fortune telling. Taking only one technique from a range of several, diviners cast yarrow sticks to determine shapes and patterns. These were organized initially in rows of three horizontal lines, trigrams, depending on whether they were solid (yang) or broken (yin). Three yang lines indicate Qián, Heaven; three yin lines symbolize Kun, Earth. There are eight possible combinations, which include such elements and features as Water, Wind, Fire and Mountain.

The eight trigrams are commonly mapped as the bagua, "eight symbols," surrounding the Yin-Yang circle. The bagua is a fundamental tool of feng shui, which is still essential to designing living spaces, from simple rooms to ultra-modern office towers. Thoroughly familiar in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, this ancient world-view is being rediscovered enthusiastically on the mainland. You also see these symbols in neighboring Chinese-influenced cultures. The trigrams feature in the modern flag of South Korea, and in the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam. I-Ching principles underlie the game of Go, which has shaped East Asian concepts of strategy and warfare.

The trigrams combine to form 64 possible hexagrams, or blocks of six lines, each of which bears a name with its Chinese character. In response to a query, a diviner casts stalks (or tosses coins), producing a hexagram that can be interpreted through the allusive commentaries built up over the centuries -- and trust me, no answer ever comes near a straightforward yes or no. There are lots of English translations, of varying degrees of obscurity, adding to its mystical appeal in the West. I first discovered I-Ching in the 1960s, reading Philip K. Dick's mind-stretching novel The Man in the High Castle.

The crucial importance of these ideas becomes obvious when you visit any of China's spectacular historic sites, such as the Imperial Palace or the Ming Tombs near Beijing. Everywhere, you see signs of that older world-view, in the colors of particular buildings or roofs, and especially in their directional alignments. The halls and residences of the Forbidden City are grouped in threes and sixes, reflecting the Heavenly trigrams and hexagrams.

You also see that I-Ching structure, with buildings displaying the characters and symbols of trigrams. Of course that particular structure is to the north, as it is a place of old age and death, just as that other building symbolizes the rising strength of the east. Who could have built it differently? Similar patterns underlie humbler buildings, and the outlines of whole cities and their street-plans. Nothing is left to chance.

With some awe, you soon realize that the whole built landscape -- and over several thousand years, the human imprint on the Chinese landscape is very deep -- is a legible text for those with the symbolic and visual literacy required to read it. And although acquiring true expertise in these matters is a lifelong commitment, even recognizing that the text is there to be read vastly enhances your appreciation of the places. Conversely, if you don't begin to see the symbols and the design, you are missing most of the story.

Making this kind of study even more valuable is that many mainland Chinese people are painfully conscious of having lost their connection with these ancient techniques. Quite apart from the impact of Westernization, the Communists struggled hard to uproot older religions (though they were happy to associate their own power with the ultimate strength of redness, and the yang forces). Any familiarity with traditional wisdom could be lethally dangerous in the horrific years of the Cultural Revolution.

Today, though, particularly among educated younger people, there is a real thirst for old learning, a desire to reconnect with Chinese history. That's also true of people who would reject any formal interest in religion or spirituality. They really want to discuss these things, even with a scantily educated foreigner (although true scholars always wear their learning lightly, and display it allusively).

There's a whole world there, just waiting to be read.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles