Opening a new field for dragons

Edward L Shaughnessy’s Mawangdui Yijing – a review article


Edward L Shaughnessy. 'I Ching: the Classic of Changes translated with an introduction and commentary: the first English translation of the newly discovered second century BC Mawangdui texts.' New York: Ballantyne Books, 1997, hardback, x + 350 pages. $25.95. ISBN 0-345-36243-8.


Rarely can two PhD theses have been so important for their field as 'The Original Yijing' by Richard Kunst (1985) and 'The Composition of the Zhouyi' by Edward Shaughnessy (1983). In these two papers, for the first time since Arthur Waley wrote a short article 50 years earlier, 20th century Chinese ideas about the origin of Yijing were extensively discussed in English. Yet neither thesis was able to take account of a manuscript of Yijing 350 years older than any previously known, discovered at Mawangdui, near Changsha in Hunan, in 1973. Early reports suggested that this find might revolutionise our view of the origins of Yijing, but adequate transcriptions and descriptions were not available until 1993. Edward Shaughnessy, now Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, published a preliminary paper in 'Early China' 19 (1994) and has now made this welcome translation, which he calls 'very much a first effort to make available to a wider reading audience, both general and scholarly, the earliest, yet newest text of one of the greatest books of world literature.'

Professor Shaughnessy is one of the most prolific American scholars now writing on ancient China. In addition to issuing a stream of academic papers, he has been editor of 'Early China' for several years and with Michael Loewe of London University is joint editor of 'The Oxford History of Ancient China'. He stands out among professionals for his interest in Yijing. The first monograph on the Mawangdui silk manuscript of Yijing is a significant achievement, for which no scholar was more obviously well equipped. Its importance deserves more careful presentation than a brief review could offer. Here I offer a sketch of its contents, assuming minimal previous knowledge of the manuscript on the part of the reader, but necessarily containing a considerable sheaf of detail in order to do the book justice. (Throughout this account I refer to hexagrams and lines by their numbers in the received text.)


An introductory essay about the early history of divination in China includes evidence for hypotheses about progressive stages in the divination process that Professor Shaughnessy thought might be implied by the text of Zhouyi itself when he described it in his 1983 thesis. While there can be no doubt that repeated divinations were used with both tortoise-shells and yarrow wands, Professor Shaughnessy's discernment of clear references to them in the text of Zhouyi is not universally accepted – despite the tendency of some scholars to write as though the question had been settled. He himself still allows there is room for doubt. He gives no description of the Mawangdui tomb beyond saying it was the grave of Li Cang, Lord of Dai, who died in 168 BC. Apart from mentioning the Laozi manuscript, he does not discuss the other manuscripts and artefacts in the grave, the historical background or the significance of the finds as a whole (these things can be found in other places). He refers to the 20-year delay before the Yijing material was completely published and to the preoccupations of Chinese scholars who have written about it.


The Mawangdui order of the hexagrams, as is now well known, differs from the mysterious sequence of the received text. It is based on a principle set out in Shuogua (the 8th 'Wing' of Yijing).

An unbroken or yang line is counted as one stroke, while a broken or yin line is counted as two strokes. Trigrams containing an odd number of strokes (i.e., 3 or 5) have one or three yang lines and are treated as yang. The yang trigram with three whole lines is called father; the trigram with its only whole line at the base is eldest son; the trigram with the whole line in the middle is second son; and the trigram with the whole line at the top is youngest son:

Trigrams containing an even number of strokes (i.e., 4 or 6) have one or three yin lines and are treated as yin. They are read in similar fashion, concentrating on the broken lines:

In the Mawangdui sequence the 64 hexagrams are arranged in eight groups of eight. The upper trigram is the same throughout each octet. For the first four octets the upper trigrams are the yang trigrams, with the sons in ascending order of seniority; the 5th to 8th octets have the yin trigrams with the daughters in similar sequence:

The lower trigrams in each octet are arranged in the same order of seniority, but in yang-yin pairs:

Within each octet, however, the first hexagram has the same trigram below as it has above. Thus the second octet (Hexagrams 9–16 in the Mawangdui order) is:

Though this sequence may have had an as yet unidentified symbolic or mantic purpose, since it is simple and rational it was perhaps adopted as a finding order. Professor Shaughnessy gives the reasons for thinking that the received order is older. [Ed's note – see the article on Yijing hexagram sequences for a diagram of the entire Mawangdui sequence.]


The Mawangdui text of Zhouyi is far from complete. A quick count suggests that of an original 4,910 characters some 363 (7· 4% of the total) are now unreadable, chiefly because the silk has perished. Here the Chinese texts of both Mawangdui and the received version are printed together. In the translation the lost passages are replaced by quotations from the received text set in parentheses. The style of the translation is sometimes a little stilted, because the intention has been to show the peculiarities of the document rather than to provide a text to be read for pleasure. It has, for instance, an unconventional use of suffixed '-like' to represent the Chinese suffix -ru in 'vexatious-like' (83), 'sighing-like' (123), and 'indignant-like' (151). Though this is literally how adverbs are formed in Zhouyi Chinese, it is surprising in English.

The most striking characteristic of the Mawangdui Yijing is the large number of characters that differ from those in the received text. A rough count – a definitive count not being possible until a careful concordance is made – suggests that at least 560 characters (an average of 8 or 9 to a hexagram) differ from those in the received text. They amount to about 12% of what is readable. No single principle has been discerned that underlies all these variations. They sometimes appear bizarre, but bizarreness is not of itself a sound reason for treating the received text as basic and the Mawangdui text as eccentric, as some writers appear to do. Professor Shaughnessy quite properly protests against this. His notes suggest a different conclusion: the Mawangdui scribe may have worked from a good text that is otherwise unknown.

Most of the variants look like phonological or lexical homonyms for characters in the received text. A literal translation according to all their surface meanings, without annotation, would be pointless: the result would be a mere jumble of words. As a result, some might be led to conclude there is no point in attempting a translation.

Daunting though the project must therefore be, there are nevertheless two obvious reasons for making the attempt. One would be to strive for the meaning the text had for Li Cang and his contemporaries, which might illuminate Han commentaries. The other would be textual, using the variant readings to refine our understanding of what the text originally was and meant. In either case the translator would be bound to evaluate each variant, and this must inevitably lead to hypothetical reconstruction. Professor Shaughnessy combines the two purposes, following the meaning of individual characters to draw attention to peculiarities of the manuscript as well as showing the points which he believes may lead to a better reading of the received text. His generous notes are virtually restricted to recording the variant characters, but do not always explain the choice he has made in the translation. Some of the variations are examples of classic scribal errors: omission, dittography, partial resemblance of graphic form, minor mistakes in forming characters. Many are phonetic loans and graphic variations that make little or no difference to meaning and illustrate the orthographical instability of early Han Chinese. Some are elaborate characters, as though the copyist were showing off, such as xi for shi 'pig' in Hexagram 26.5 and sui 'follow' for zhu 'pursue' in 63.2. On the other hand, some characters are written with simpler forms, such as bu for fou 'not' in 7.1, and shi 'stone' for shi 'eminent' in 39.6.

Some variants are certainly mistakes, because they can be checked against the rest of the text. All lines are given descriptive numbers, 9 for a whole line and 6 for a broken one. In ten or more instances these are wrong, as when a 5th line broken is labelled 5:9 instead of 5:6. This feature indicates a certain tendency to inaccuracy on the part of the scribe. Then there are omissions from the received text where at least 8 technical prognostics, such as the 'Auspicious' or 'No misfortune' that frequently close a line oracle in the received text, are missing. This point has already been noted as a characteristic of Early Han.

At least 30 of the variant characters have not been found anywhere else, though they are not all entirely indecipherable. In Hexagram 1.4, for example, an unknown character in which the fish radical is combined with a phonetic element yue can readily be accepted as a superficial variant of the received text yue meaning 'to leap [over the water]'.

In his translation Professor Shaughnessy has taken account of only about 260 of the 560 variants (about 50% of all variants, or 4 to each hexagram). Some of these are regular substitutions, such as dong 'winter' for zhong 'end' (8 times); fu 'return' for fu 'sincerity' or 'prisoner' (30 times); zheng 'upright' for zheng 'go on campaign' (12 times); wang 'lose' for sang 'die' (10 times); fang 'fragrant grass' for xiang 'sacrifice' (6 times); pu 'servant' for chen 'minister'; and jiao 'pastures' for jiao 'suburbs'. The character sang, usually translated 'top', to indicate the top line of a hexagram, is consistently replaced in the Mawangdui text by the more elegant shang, here translated as 'elevated'.

A cursory reading of the annotations suggests that the number of variant readings likely to be helpful in establishing the text or its meaning may be no more than 30 or fewer, though some of these may be of considerable interest. Professor Shaughnessy does not give full explanations of his textual decisions, because he wants his work to be accessible to non-specialists and thinks sinologists will readily perceive his reasoning. In his introduction he gives fuller, but still tantalizingly brief, discussions of only a few points.

For instance, he says there is no reason for preferring zheng meaning 'upright' rather than zheng meaning 'campaign', but he chooses 'upright' because that is the surface meaning of the Mawangdui text. This results in such sentences as 'To be upright is inauspicious', which looks like an overzealous application of the classic editorial principle 'the more difficult reading is to be preferred'. The 'upright' character is a short form of the 'campaign' character and 'Inauspicious for campaigning' would appear to make better sense. The same might be said of preferring dong 'winter', which is a short form of zhong 'end'. When he says there is no reason to prefer either 'return' or 'sincerity, prisoner' for fu, one wonders what he would think of the suggestion that the meaning 'prisoner' (which he has championed in the past) had been lost by 200 BC, so that the Mawangdui scribe was tempted to substitute a homonym, even though the homonym led to such phrases as 'There is a return' – whose sense requires glossing.

He goes into more detail about Hexagram 48.2 (p 32), which he translates as 'If the well is murky, shoot the smelt; it is only because of the worn-out fishtrap'. 'It' presumably, though not grammatically, refers to murkiness; but the received text, 'Shoot the little fishes in the well; the jug is broken and leaks [which is why it cannot catch the little fishes]', makes equally good, if not better, sense. Why should a worn-out fishtrap make the water muddy? In the first half of the oracle, the received text has an obscure character, but no mention of murkiness. Professor Shaughnessy thinks that in the original text the obscure character meant 'murky' because mud is mentioned in the first oracle of the same hexagram. The scribe may indeed have introduced the word 'murky' because 'muddy' in the first line prompted him to solve the problem of the obscure character in the second line; but analogy with other hexagrams would lead one to expect the different lines originally to have described different conditions.

The following examples illustrate Professor Shaughnessy's solutions to some other problems presented by the variants. (Again, hexagram numbers are given according to the received text.)

(a) He translates Hexagram 33.6 (p 43) as 'Fattened wielding', a bewildering phrase, made more puzzling by chuan 'rafter' appearing in his transcription of the lines, wherever the manuscript has yuan 'wield'. The received text has dun 'retreat'. All three characters could be variants for tun 'pig', the translation he accepted in 1983. 'Fat pig' makes sense – but I do not forget that principle about the more difficult reading being preferred.

(b) Hexagram 40.4 (p 97) is rendered as 'Untangling his hemlock'. The character for 'hemlock' is otherwise unknown in China, though it is used in modern Japanese for the coniferous forest tree known in America as hemlock. The difference between this character and the received text mu 'thumb(s)' or 'toe(s)' is one tiny stroke distinguishing the hand radical from the tree radical. In the manuscript this stroke is smudged. The more obvious basic meaning is 'Loosing his thumbs', which Waley related to archery or to prisoners being mutilated. Why has the modern Japanese 'hemlock' been preferred? In what sense can a forest tree be untangled?

(c) One phrase occurs three times: in 3.2 (p 83), 22.4 (p 65) and 38.6 (p 143). The received text always has fei kou hun gou, translated by Kunst as 'They are not bandits; it is a marriage match.' Mawangdui has fei kou, translated here as 'It is not robbers'; followed in Hexagram 3 by min hou, translated as 'who confusedly enrich'; in Hexagram 22 by min gou, translated as 'who confusedly slander'; and in Hexagram 38 by an unknown graph (the gate radical with mo 'evening') and hou 'enrich', translated as 'who in the evening have intercourse'. Professor Shaughnessy gives an explanation of the unknown character in 38, but does not say why the same meaning may not have been intended in each instance, as in the received text, which in 1983 he translated as 'It is not bandits with marriage proposals'.

(d) The translation 'Approaching deer without ornamentation' in Hexagram 3.3 (p 83) suggests that either the deer are plain-coloured or the stalker is in drab. Mawangdui has hua 'flower(s), ornament' (camouflage? spots of the sika deer?) where the received text has yu 'huntsman'. 'Huntsman' seems the more obvious choice; there must be some reason for choosing 'ornament'.

(e) 'A well criss-crossed with springs' in Hexagram 48.5 (p 85) is hard to visualise. Perhaps the Mawangdui character li 'turning back, perverse' is a variant for the received text's lie 'clear water'. Lynn's 'well is icy clear, from a cold spring' has evident advantages. What would the Mawangdui variant really mean?

(f) Xian lu in the received text of Hexagram 43.5 (p 121) is obscure: 'edible greens, dry land', translated by Wilhelm/Baynes as 'dealing with weeds'. Professor Shaughnessy translates it poetically as 'The amaranth burns.' Amaranth is the equivalent given by Giles (1892); but in English literature amaranth means a mythical never-fading plant, while for botanists it means a tropical American plant family including cockscomb and love-lies-bleeding – unknown in Han China. For lu, which may be a variant for 'jump', Mawangdui has an otherwise unknown character in which le 'bridle' stands over the fire radical. Professor Shaughnessy derives a meaning from the fire element. Gao Heng, the Kangxi dictionary and some other context critics suggest xian may mean 'goat', which might accord either with the bridle element in the Mawangdui character for lu or with the idea of jumping.

(g) 'Aquatically the mole-cricket' and 'Aquatic his horns' (Hexagram 35, lines 4 and 6: p 139) have a zany appeal, but are only partly explained. The received text begins both with jin 'proceed'; Mawangdui has the same character with the water radical added, meaning 'aquatic'. Wilhelm/Baynes says 'progress like a hamster' and 'making progress with the horns'. The exact species of the animal is less interesting than the unexplained reason why this translation uses the surface value of the Mawangdui form of jin, in spite of the awkward results.

(h) 'Holding aloft a horse' in Hexagram 59:1 (p 161) suggests a display of Herculean strength. Here the received text reads zheng ma zhuang (Lynn 'saved by a horse's strength'). Mawangdui has cheng ma. Professor Shaughnessy explains why he treats cheng as an alternative form of zheng, 'save, help, lift up' and mentions the omission of zhuang. Perhaps the horse is lifted out of a hole.

(i) In Hexagram 63.1 (p 81) and Hexagram 64.2 (p 145) the received text has yi qi lun, translated by Wilhelm/Baynes as 'He brakes his wheels'. Mawangdui has lun with the silk radical instead of the chariot radical. Professor Shaughnessy's notes say that in 63.1 it means 'azure-coloured silk ribbon' and in 64.2 'sash or string'. He translates 63.1 as 'dragging his ribbon' and 64.2 'dragging his sash'. Here Mawangdui gives support to an emendation suggested by Gao Heng, who believed that cord was intended. The variant character is identified in Shuowen as a blue (or green) triple cord. Ribbon probably was woven in early Han, but the character fundamentally means twisted cord and, suggestively for the riverine context of these two hexagrams, can be used for fishing line.


The six documents that accompany Zhouyi among the Mawangdui finds are previously unknown compositions or parts of the Ten Wings in previously unknown versions. All six are presented as literal, rather than literary, translations, close set in solid prose, with no typographical devices to suggest passages of verse, parallel construction or other literary structures. The author may be wise not to comment on literary qualities at this stage of Mawangdui studies, but this layout does nothing to relieve the initial impression that what is new in these documents tends to be opaque and unexciting. Since Professor Shaughnessy offers no general assessment of the documents as a group, it may be worthwhile to draw attention to some fairly obvious points. All six were probably composed not much earlier than the date of the manuscript. Parts of them have been compared to Wenyan (the 7th Wing), but, apart from the sections that are also found in Dazhuan (the 5th and 6th Wings) and Shuogua (the 8th Wing), by and large they lack the lucidity of the Ten Wings. They are primarily concerned with interpreting line oracles, treating Zhouyi as a 'book of wisdom'. They say almost nothing of divination, and show no interest in trigrams. They do not mention changeable lines or ruling lines. All six claim to quote Confucius.

(1) The first document, containing about 2,600 characters, is called 'Ersanzi wen', 'two or three disciples ask'. It consists of answers allegedly given by Kongzi (Confucius) to queries by several of his followers. The manuscript is divided into 32 sections that are neither logically divided in the text, nor clearly shown in the translation. Seventeen of them are devoted to the first two hexagrams of the received order. The rest of the document deals with line oracles from 15 other hexagrams, treated for the most part in the order of the received text, which is sometimes quoted. The commentary is wholly discursive, seeking for wisdom rather than explaining omens.

(2) Greater interest attaches to the second document, containing about 2,000 legible characters out of what were perhaps originally 3,344. It is called 'Xici', 'appended statements'. Both title and text belong to the Great Treatise (the 5th and 6th Wings), which is complete save for the following three passages. (References are to Zhu Xi's chapter and section numbers as found in most modern editions and translations.)

(a) Part I Chapter 9, the famous Dayan section on wand-counting, which is not found anywhere among the Mawangdui texts.

(b) Two passages in Part II Chapter 5.9–11 and 12–end, which are found in another Mawangdui document, 'Yao' (see 4 below).

(c) Most of Part II Chapters 6–11, which appears in the Mawangdui document 'Yi zhi yi' (see 3 below), though one short part of Chapter 9 is included in the Mawangdui 'Xici'.

Variant readings, not all noted by the translator, resemble those in Zhouyi, giving a general impression that the received text is superior. The translation makes no pretence at elegance, gives scant indication of divisions in the text (which many believe is not monolithic) and does not indicate such structural features as the six-verse rhymed stanza in Part I Section 8.6.

(3) The third document, containing about 3,100 characters, is called 'Yi zhi yi', 'meaning(s), or essence, of Yi', which Professor Shaughnessy translates as 'Properties of the Changes'. I am unhappy about this rendering for two reasons. First, it may suggest that the document deals with the changing relationships between and within the hexagrams. Second, because, in traditional English philosophical terms, properties are qualities and the document begins by stating that 'the yi of Yi is yin and yang.' Yin and yang are the essence of Yi, not its qualities.

The short opening section on the essence of Yi is followed by a defective and muddled chain of notes on the hexagram tags, more or less in the received order and reminiscent of the chain in Xugua (the 9th Wing). The Professor says Shuogua, but this must be a slip, because Shuogua does not mention hexagram tags. The slip is easily forgiven, because the next part of 'Yi zhi yi' consists of the three opening sections of the real Shuogua (the 8th Wing). These sections contain a notable variant, 'Fire and water vie with one another', where the received text says they do not vie. Here Mawangdui seems preferable to the received text. 'Yi zhi yi' then has an extensive commentary on the first two hexagrams in the received order, Qian and Kun. The translator points out that this section establishes correspondence between Qian and wu, the martial arts, and between Kun and wen, the civil arts – which is contrary to what later Neo-Confucian orthodoxy would accept. The document concludes with pieces found in 'Xici' Part II Chapters 6–11 of the received text, mentioned above (2c).

(4) The fourth additional Mawangdui document is short, with about 1,040 characters still legible out of the original 1,648. It is called 'Yao', 'important' ('Essentials' in the translation), but this is a tag rather than a title. The first third of the manuscript is so defective as to be beyond reconstruction, and the first intelligible section begins with a report of Confucius saying that he has realized what is yao 'important' in Yi. Here most of the second part of 'Xici' Part II Chapter 5 in the received text (see 2b above) is interpolated. Then the words of Confucius are resumed. His disdain for spirits and soothsayers was famous, and 'Yao', clearly attempting to install Yijing as a reputable Confucian work, gives his answers to one Zi Gong, who suggests that he is being inconsistent if he uses a work of divination. Admitting that divination has a 70% success rate, Confucius replies that he and soothsayers travel the same road but arrive at different goals. What interests him in Yijing is not divination, but de 'virtue' and yi 'rightness of conduct'. This firmly establishes Yijing as a book of Confucian wisdom.

(5) The remaining two documents are possibly parts of one composition. The first part, containing about 5,000 characters in 24 paragraphs, is called 'Mu He' from the first of the five teachers who in the first 12 paragraphs are questioned about individual line oracles and their significance for virtue and right conduct. The next six paragraphs are sayings of an unnamed Master; the last six each contain a story from the political history of the 7th–5th centuries BC, concluded by an appropriate quotation from Zhouyi. The theme of the whole section is virtue and right behaviour – an exemplification of the view of Yijing professed by Confucius in 'Yao'. The apocryphal character of the attributions to Confucius is underlined by anachronistic mentions of the Five Phases and Eight Trigrams.

(6) 'Zhao Li', the last document or part-document, containing about 1,000 characters, tells of Zhao Li asking an unidentified teacher about the political value of Zhouyi oracles. There are three paragraphs: one giving a quotation for ministers of state, one for princely rulers, and the last for common people, specifically merchants, urchins, layabouts and unmarried girls.


Professor Shaughnessy's book has an air of having been produced in something of a hurry. There are several intimations of swift editing: one passage of 'Yi zhi yi' appears in two different translations (pages 23 and 221); there is no index (though there is a useful bibliography of titles, mostly recent and Chinese); and there are no running titles at the head of the pages. And as one who still bears scars from engagements with American editors, I wonder whether hastiness explains why there was no editorial attention to such things as 'expostulation' for 'postulation' (p 22); 'rather unique' (p 23); 'chronogram' (an inscription in which all letters with Roman numerical value are calculated to express a date) for 'earthly branch character' (p 300); 'tessera' (dice or mosaic fragment) for guai 'baton or sceptre' (p 322); 'disambiguated' (p 325); and above all the frequent use of 'variora'. (For many years variorum 'of various commentators', a genitive plural, has been used jocularly as nominative singular for 'a variant reading'; twisting it into a non-existent nominative plural is either a sign of the general decay of 20th century Latinity or a piece of American linguistic creativity that I have not yet absorbed.)

All serious students of Yijing must be grateful for this book. It provides a much-needed Chinese text, remarkable for the newly created type of the otherwise unknown characters; and both translation and notes have done the spadework of a helpful pioneer guide, opening up the Mawangdui field. The author says, with engaging modesty, 'I look forward to the corrections that others will make', but we hope more for discoveries than for corrections. What relation have the commentaries to other writings of the period? Who wrote them? What is their status as literature? Why are the variant readings of the kind that they are? Does the peculiar order of hexagrams have a symbolic meaning? What is the true story of the hexagram tag Kun, here called Chuan? (In Grammata Serica Recensa 422a, Karlgren identified it as 'primary form' of Kun.) Can the story of the 'foolish boy' be unravelled? And soon, perhaps, a critical edition of the Chinese text … ?

[First published in 'The Oracle: Journal of Yijing Studies' Vol. 2, No. 8 (February 1999), pp 38–47.]


Ed's note – Richard Rutt is the author of Zhouyi: The Book of Changes, a translation of the Yi as a Bronze Age document with extensive notes and a comprehensive overview of 20th century scholarship; and, with Keith Pratt, of 'Korea: A Cultural and Historical Dictionary' (London: Curzon, 1999).

Richard asks just above: 'Can the story of the "foolish boy" be unravelled?' Readers interested in that might want to read pp 96–98 and pp 199–200 n57 of S J Marshall's The Mandate of Heaven.


Those using Shaughnessy's book often express frustration that he gives a chart listing the hexagrams in Mawangdui order (pp 28–29) but not in the King Wen order, making it difficult to look up a hexagram if one knows the King Wen number but not the Mawangdui number. Here is a chart [PDF] that addresses this need, conveniently sized so it can be trimmed and glued at the back of the book. (Shaughnessy's PhD dissertation is available for purchase online from University Microfilms International – order number 8320774.)