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Originally a divination manual in the Western Zhou period (1000–750 BC), over the course of the Warring States period and early imperial period (500–200 BC) it was transformed into a cosmological text with a series of philosophical commentaries known as the "Ten Wings".

After becoming part of the Five Classics in the 2nd century BC, the I Ching was the subject of scholarly commentary and the basis for divination practice for centuries across the Far East, and eventually took on an influential role in Western understanding of Eastern thought.

The basic unit of the Zhou yi is the hexagram (卦 guà), a figure composed of six stacked horizontal lines (爻 yáo). The received text of the Zhou yi contains all 64 possible hexagrams, along with the hexagram's name (卦名 guàmíng), a short hexagram statement (彖 tuàn), The statements were used to determine the results of divination, but the reasons for having two different methods of reading the hexagram are not known, and it is not known why hexagram statements would be read over line statements or vice versa.

The method of divination is not explained, and none of the stories employ predetermined commentaries, patterns, or interpretations. The Zuo zhuan does not contain records of private individuals, but Qin dynasty records found at Shuihudi show that the hexagrams were privately consulted to answer questions such as business, health, children, and determining lucky days.

The most common form of divination with the I Ching in use today is a reconstruction of the method described in these histories, in the 300 BC Great Commentary, and later in the Huainanzi and the Lunheng.

From the Great Commentary's description, the Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi reconstructed a method of yarrow stalk divination that is still used throughout the Far East.

The word zhēn (貞, ancient form ) was also used for the verb "divine" in the oracle bones of the late Shang dynasty, which preceded the Zhou.

It also carried meanings of being or making upright or correct, and was defined by the Eastern Han scholar Zheng Xuan as "to enquire into the correctness" of a proposed activity.

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