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The Mandate of Heaven

by Steve Marshall, Curzon Press, 2001, 252 pages ISBN 0-7007-1299-2


The Mandate of Heaven is a recent work by London based artist and writer Steve Marshall, uncovering ancient Chinese history, as revealed by close scrutiny of the famous book of divination, the Yi Jing, or Book of Changes.

The most popular translation of the Yi Jing (and still the best) is Richard Wilhelm's. It owes its pre-eminence to the fact it really was a life's work. Wilhelm lived in China for much of his life and spent over twenty years on his translation, working with one of the few remaining traditional scholars. As Carl Jung put it, Wilhelm's translation 'delivered the last message of the old, dying China to Europe ". Its subsequent re-translation into English by Cary F Barnes was indeed a groundbreaking moment in sinological scholarship. However, Richard Wilhelm was steeped in the traditional culture of the book, and for all his formidable scholarly achievements, did not question the received history of the text. This history holds that the 8 trigrams of which the Yi is composed were created at the dawn of human history by the legendary figure Fusi, based on his observation of nature. These trigrams were combined by King Wen, in his incarceration at the hands of the tyrannical Shang emperor, Zhou Xin, thus forming the 64 hexagrams, with the texts on the changing lines added later by his son, King Wu.

Wilhelm was, to my knowledge, unaware of another school of scholarship that was beginning to emerge a few years after the first publication of his translation, arising first in Beijing in the 1930s. This new scholarship held that the traditional history was in fact largely legendary, and that the core text of the Yi Jing was in fact a collection of peasant oracles, omens and fragments of myth and superstition built up over generations in ancient China. The first Western scholar to address this material was Arthur Waley, writing in 1937. This was followed in the 80s with the PhD thesis's of Richard Kunst and Edward Shaugnessy and now this work actually does seem to filtering through to popular discussion of the Yi (see www.onlineclarity. co.uk).

Steve Marshall's book is one which both acknowledges and builds on this work while at the same time challenging it. Though he is fully conversant with modern scholarship, Marshall holds that this has work has in turn become a "new orthodoxy" which may blind scholars to new insights. He holds that the oldest layer of the Yi Jing (the Zhou Yi) is not necessarily a random collection of prophetic fragments but instead contains sections that have a narrative coherence than can tell us much about the book, and ancient Chinese history.

His core argument is that based on a new understanding of Hexagram 55, "Feng". This is commonly translated as "Abundance", but "Feng" is also the name of an ancient town, used by the troops of the Zhou before their assault on the corrupt and tyrannical Shang emperor. This transition of power was a change in the "mandate of heaven" - the mandate being the approval of the ancestors and Gods whose favour the emperor had forfeited. Like many significant occurrences in the ancient world, celestial events, in this case a solar eclipse, were taken as confirmation of this course of action and divine sanction. This eclipse is present in the changing lines of Hexagram 55 but has not been linked to these events until now. Marshall makes these connections with reference to a range of ancient texts and goes so far as tracking down the actual timing of the eclipse, spinning the skies over China back three thousands years to substantiate his case. In doing so he establishes a powerful argument for the date of the battle between the two dynasties, a problem contested by scholars for millennia. This is a wonderful story of historical discovery and what, to me, is all the more amazing and magical about it, is the way in which it all spins off from the simple contemplation of the lines of the Yi.

The book goes on to flesh out these events in full, providing a rich picture of this lost historical moment. Later chapters then go onto explore some of the other mysteries within the text - marriage and fertility customs, rain dragons and ancestral curses can to name but a few.

To me, as an aficionado of the Yi, the strength of this book the way it situates the birth of the text historically. The reader gets a sense of the grand sweep of history, the rise and fall of dynasties condensing down to the hardback tome on your bookshelf. The Yi Jing is transformed from a sometimes cryptic divinatory tome, the undeserving subject of a hundred shoddy new age rip offs into something living and breathing, enmeshed in history, and in this process is made richer and more substantial.

A huge amount of scholarship has gone into this work. Every fragment Marshall cites or line of argument he pursues is substantiated with numerous textual references, which the student of the Yi can learn much from. In addition, the book has a personal feel, as Marshall narrates each step in the piecing together of his argument - the reader is with him on his journey of discovery.

one wishes to explore the roots of this extraordinary text, then this book is an excellent place to begin point. As Marshall himself says of the Yi "The more one examines the text, the more its fragments link together, yet its mystery far from being solved, only deepens".

Indispensable for anyone interested in ancient history or the Yi Jing. - Danny Lowe