The Mandate of Heaven

S.J. Marshall

I’m not terribly knowledgeable about the I Ching, and only recently started using it—an interesting experience, but not one I’ve become immersed in. Nevertheless, Marshall’s narrative here, digging deep into the foundational myths and history of this famed Chinese oracle, is highly compelling even without a heavy investment in the subject.

He tries to steer a novel course between those charted by traditionalists—asserting that the hexagrams and the basic texts were conceived by King Wen—and the modernists—who poo-poo such romanticism and see the oracle as a compendium of divinatory folk wisdom. Drawing on the latest textual analysis, archaeological discoveries, and, most crucially, a vigorous and grounded capacity for sharp insights, Marshall creates a compelling argument that one of the key historical events surrounding the origins of the I Ching—King Wen’s son Wu overcoming the tyrannical Shang dynasty—can in fact be accurately dated via previously undetected allusions to a solar eclipse in one of the hexagrams. Many of the apparently oblique and cryptic references that the text is known for may be revealed as deft references to specific historical events.

The inherent and fascinating ambiguity of Chinese characters can make the process of reconstructing such references a tricky process, but Marshall’s scholarly rigour doesn’t get in the way of rendering this process as something exciting, like a detective’s quest for a lost image in history. The image here—of Wu’s mourning for his deceased father being dramatically interrupted by that most dramatic of “signs”, darkness at noon—is gripping. Marshall’s moves towards it are set against the abstracted divinatory meanings that many translators have, lacking this historical insight, made out of the hexagram’s text; and one might be tempted here to think that his work is modernist in the sense that it replaces the magic of divination with the literal reality of history. However, the potent drama of the “literal” image uncovered here made me think less of the flatness of orthodox history, and more of James Hillman’s call to avoid immediate, abstracted interpretation in working with dreams and to “animate the image”. Of a dream of a snake he said: “In our eagerness for conceptual meanings, we ignore the actual beast.” With this word “actual” he isn’t, of course, doing the dismissive “a snake is a snake” move. But neither is he diving straight into the “it’s a penis / a goddess / your fear” game. Insight is coaxed from the image by remaining with it. I think a similar process is involved in Marshall’s quest to unveil the historical reality behind the I Ching.

Supplemented by a few extra essays in a similar vein on other I Ching mysteries—including a wonderfully evocative exploration of “clouds follow the dragon” from hexagram 1—and appendices, notes and a glossary that will be a real boon to anyone wanting to explore this area further, Mandate of Heaven is a richly rewarding book.