Chinese divination: The magic square, The I Ching, Trigrams and Hexagrams
When most ancient peoples believed that their gods lived on mountain tops or in the sky, the Chinese believed that their deities inhabited rivers. This is not illogical when one considers the vast size of these natural waterways, added to the fact that they were a source of life in terms of fish and other foodstuffs, and also their main means of irrigation.
The Magic Square
Legend has it that Emperor Yu, who lived around 3000 BC, saw a magical tortoise climbing out of a river. he noted the square pattern, along with the lines and colors, on the creature’s back and decided that this was to be the basis of the Magic Square. It is this which forms the background to the Lo Shu and Feng Shui. Other sources suggest that the seven stars of the Dipper constellation, in addition to the nearby Pole Star and Vega, form the basis of these divinations and also the earliest forms of Chinese astrology. It is known that the study of the stars was outlawed at some point in Chinese history, which is why it never developed in the same way as it did in India or in the western world. Despite this proscription, Buddhist monks were allowed to practice the I Ching and the Lo Shu, and the combination of these techniques eventually developed into the spin-off that we know as Chinese astrology.
An early form of divination involved burning tortoise shells in a fire and reading the resulting cracks that formed when the shells had cooled. Emperor Fu Hsi was credited with noting down early agricultural and civil engineering ideas, especially those that are connected to rivers. He was also credited with bringing ethics and civilized conduct into the world. His ethical texts were translated into easily remembered verses and some of these became absorbed into the I Ching and other writings.
The I Ching
The most ancient of all the forms of divination seem to be the I Ching. Thousands of years ago, Oriental shamans tried to obtain answers to vexing questions by reading part of the bodies of animals. After a goat or sheep had been killed for food, its shoulder blade would be roasted over a fire until a crack formed in the drying bone. In these very early divinations, a crack that formed an unbroken line was considered to be Yang, and this would give a positive “yes” answer to a question. A broken Yin line gave a negative “no” answer.
Trigrams and Hexagrams
Once again, it is Emperor Fu Hsi who is credited with turning this original one-line idea into the trigrams of the I Ching. In this case, he seems to have been inspired by the sight of a magical animal called a Hippogriff, which is said to have climbed out of a river and revealed the trigrams of the I Ching along its flanks. From that time onwards, the I Ching used the three lines of the trigrams rather than the single lines as displayed in the burnt offerings.
The verses of the I Ching were passed down by successive generations of scholars until the 17th century BC, when they were noted down on strips of bamboo. In the 12th century BC, King Wen wrote the first commentaries on the trigrams of the I Ching. Over time, King Wen, his son Tan and the Duke of Chou continued to work on the I Ching and it is the Duke who is crediting with setting two trigrams atop one another to make a hexagram. In the 6th century BC, Cunfucius and Lao Tze became interested in the system and Confucius wrote further commentaries, also giving the system its name, “I Ching“, which became known in the west as the “Book of Changes”.
Much later, Emperor Chin outlawed hundreds of books on religion and philosophy. And, as later did Hitler, Stalin, the Khmer Rouge and Mao Tze Tung, the I Ching was on the list of forbidden knowledge. Nonetheless it survived and was passed on orally by the Gipsies, who had the advantage of never setting anywhere long enough to be controlled by any government. During the last imperial dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1912, the original roots of the I Ching was once again discovered and studied- and this time they remained in print. The Chinese communists disapproved of Chinese divination, considering them to be useless superstitions, but they realized that it was too late to ban them altogether.
Source: “Secrets of Chinese Divination” by Sasha Fenton – Sterling / Zambezi