America and China are as different as two cultures can be.
America is young, just over two hundred years old; China has a
five-thousand-year past. Their languages are startlingly alien to
each other, the currents of their philosophies flow in nearly
opposite directions, and their principal religious traditions could
not be more distinct. And yet a friend of mine recently remarked,
"The I Ching is my bible."
This remark is surprising, not only because the I Ching, or Book
of Changes, developed millennia ago in the staggeringly foreign
traditions of China, but also because it is not a religious text at all,
at least not in any conventional Western sense. It's not scripture,
and there's nothing like it in Western religion or literature.
In fact there's another surprising thing about the remark: It was
not the first time I've heard it. Several highly intelligent
Americans have said the same thing to me in the past few decades.
The friend who introduced me to the I Ching in 1974 said it to me.
A few years later a woman said it to me in exactly the same words.
Another friend, one of the most acutely intelligent people I've ever
known, said it to me in the mid 1980s, and later, so did my wife.
The I Ching is utterly unlike the Old and New Testaments of the
Bible. It tells no stories, and its text is oracular, a highly
metaphorical kind of poetry that is decipherable to Westerners and
most Chinese only through the detailed commentaries of both
Chinese sage-scholars and Western translator-interpreters. The
best known translation and commentary on the I Ching by a
Westerner is the one made by Richard Wilhelm, a German scholar
who lived in China during the first part of the twentieth century,
and it is his translation that my friends referred to, and that I am
most familiar with.
The I Ching is neither scripture nor a literary work, nor even a
work of rationally coherent philosophy. It is, in fact, a
three-thousand-year-old book of divination - a fact even more
difficult for scientifically minded Westerners to square with
traditional ideas about religious texts. When my friends say, "The
I Ching is my bible," however, they are indicating that the I Ching
provides them not with predictions of the future, but with
religious ideas or sensibilities in a way that replaces the Bible.
How does a well-educated American come to the conclusion that
an ancient Chinese book can function the way the Bible does for
Jews and Christians, or the Koran does for Muslims? I'd like to
give a picture of Western history that addresses this question. In a
nutshell, it was cultural conditions that compelled my friends to
cut their ties to traditional Western religion and seek the new in
the very, very old.
The story begins two thousand years ago when Christ questioned
the authority of Roman law and Middle Eastern religious leaders.
But let's skip ahead about sixteen hundred years, only mentioning
that during all those years most Europeans remained convinced
that some sort of divine authority existed and felt compelled to
recognize it. Then around ad 1600, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo,
Descartes, Francis Bacon, and other Europeans began setting
religious authority on its ear-often without intending to do so.
That is, the methods of objective science emerged and began to
reveal that when you look closely at the physical world, it's
different from what traditional religions describe.
Galileo encountered serious problems with the Catholic Church
when he argued that the Earth revolves around the Sun, instead of
the Sun around the Earth, as the Bible indicates. The new science,
or New Philosophy as it came to be known, "call'd all in doubt," to
quote the English poet John Donne, and questioned the Bible's
reliability and therefore the church's authority. This triggered a
centuries-long moral crisis for Western culture because religious
leaders were the traditional teachers of moral values. To
oversimplify the situation, because of the success of science,
people's confidence in religious authority diminished.
This did not happen overnight, but gradually over the
seventeenth,eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the mid 1800s,
most Westerners were hanging onto their family and community
habits of attending church and reading the Bible, but their
How Ancient China Came to America:
The I Ching as Bible
attention was turning more and more to the material world and the
ways science and technology could make them healthier and more
comfortable. Traditional moral values taught by the church and
Bible began to seem old-fashioned. Philosophers like Friedrich
Nietzsche and writers like Charles Baudelaire and Gustave
Flaubert in their own ways mounted sharp attacks on the
hollowness of European morality. In America, philosophers like
Emerson, Thoreau, and William James asked the same questions in
gentler ways. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was
clear to many people that the Western world had a serious moral
crisis on its hands.
The church was losing its credibility and authority in the face of
scientific findings. There was also the serious problem that the
church upheld social, political, and economic values that enabled
relatively small numbers of wealthy, greedy people to exploit and
make profoundly miserable millions upon millions of other
people. Just after the turn of the century, World War I
(1914-1918) devastated Europe and other parts of the world. It
became clear to many educated Westerners that a moral system
that could result in such a disaster was bankrupt. The Christian
church was seen as part of the bankrupt system, and its
congregations and influence declined as the twentieth century
wore on. Religion in general was condemned as superstition put to
political use by businessmen, landowners, politicians, and
At the same time, some people realized that human beings' inner
lives need attention. In the nineteenth century, organizations like
the Theosophical Society and the Unitarian Church sought to
create new, fresh forums for the nurturing of religious feeling. In
the 1920s and 1930s there was a popular notion that art could
replace religion. But more powerful than art in people's
consciousness by this time was science itself; science began to be
seen as the savior of humanity, and this view continues today. But
the trouble is-and many scientists tried to warn of this-science
treats the material world, not the inner life, and cannot by its
nature offer any moral guidance.
A morality of economics and of politics, which manifested itself
as nationalism, grew up from scientific, materialist views of
human activity in order to provide a system of community values
that would bind people together. Although the notion that
economics and politics are the binding forces in people's lives
persists today, the fact is that a morality of politics and economics
does not work either. This is because economics and politics are
not moral systems, even though people try to make them so. Moral
systems underpin economics and politics.
The moral crisis was not confined to the Western world. In the
nineteenth century, China itself, despite its enormous life
independent of the West, had grown very brittle morally as well,
and it has wrestled with the same general problems as the Western
world. The twentieth century was a shockingly painful time in
human history because practically every civilized country was
struggling with old moral systems. Things came apart virtually
But while moral systems have been torn down everywhere, the
world has floundered in replacing them. No culture, country, or
civilization can hold up for long without a system of shared
values. Since World Wars I and II, the whole world has been in a
state of marvelous material possibility but simultaneously a state
of moral chaos. In the 1950s and 1960s, many Americans realized
that old moral dicta by and large no longer applied in the modern
world, and they rebelled. Young people of my generation refused
to go to church. They became cynical about politicians,
government, and much else.
So what does the I Ching have to do with all this? The breakdown
of the old moral order and the necessity for a new order to replace
it makes the I Ching's relation to American cultural history really
not so obscure.
In the 1960s, many well-educated young Americans realized that
something extremely important was missing from the materialist