I-Ching: China’s Ancient Fortune-Telling Tradition Could Be Relevant to the Modern Age

by EditorT

The terraced rice fields in Hani, southwest China’s Yunnan Province, on May 11, 2012. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

By Eddie Leung


During the 1920s, there was a debate in China between science and the school of metaphysics.

“Metaphysics,” in this context, has a different meaning: it refers to traditional Chinese mysticism, of which one salient example is, of course, I-Ching (易經). Shen Yuting (沈有鼎 1908–1989), a pioneer mathematical logician, was also a leading exponent of I-Ching.

This debate is considered a sequel to the “May Fourth New Culture Movement,” an intellectual revolution and sociopolitical reform movement, which grew out of student protests in Beijing on May 4, 1919. It was a push toward independence and rebuilding society and culture. This period marked Western domination in China.

Facing the possibility of national extinction, many intellectuals such as Hu Shih (胡適) urged for complete Westernization. In contrast, others argued that the Chinese identity could only be maintained by bolstering traditional culture rather than relinquishing it.

“Those who are knowledgeable keep silent; those who are ignorant are loquacious,” the Chinese saying goes. The irony of this so-called “Western science versus Chinese metaphysics” debate is that none of those heavily involved in the debate knew science—or metaphysics.  One who is qualified for this debate is knowledgeable in both science and Chinese mysticism.

Nowadays, few people remember Shen. Mathematical logic is such a technical subject that many students find it hard to master even now. However, without mathematical logic, there will be no modern computer.

At the beginning of the 20th century, mathematicians such as David Hilbert were searching for the foundation of mathematics. This led to the rediscovery of the logical paradox, for example, “all Cretans are liars” (coined by a Cretan). The search for a logical foundation of mathematics is a happy failure. Even though the project was unsuccessful, English mathematician Alan Turing turned the self-referential nature of logical paradox nature into a “Turing machine,” which is a conceptual prototype of the modern computer.

Shen’s major contribution to mathematical logic is his groundbreaking paper, titled “Paradox of the Class of All Grounded Classes,” published in the Journal of Symbolic Logic (1953). There is no need for us to delve into the details of this paper. The interesting part of the story is that Shen was also a keen student of I-Ching. He did not study it as an academic subject but used the classic text for oracle consultation. It had saved his life in a dangerous incident during the Second World War.

According to the eminent historian Qian Mu (錢穆), in the late 1930s, many famous scholars and professors fled to Yunnan to escape from the bombing by Japanese invaders. While on the road, Qian shared the same house with Shen and other scholars. They heard a rumor that Japanese planes would bomb the place. As Qian remembered, all of them were frightened. Shen told the others that he would consult with the I-Ching oracle to check whether their lives were in danger.

It was ironic that among the scholars in the house, Shen was the only scientist and the others were historians and poets. The latter was very knowledgeable in ancient classics and familiar with I-Ching, but Shen was the only one confident enough in his prophetic power to do the reading. Shen’s fame in this area was so great that the poet/scholar Wen I-do (聞一多) wrote a poem to celebrate Shen’s accurate predictions. However, only a few appreciated Shen’s groundbreaking works in mathematical logic, even among Chinese logicians, because their mathematical knowledge was limited.

When Shen checked the oracle, it was an omen. The housemates were alarmed and decided to go outside during the day and only stay in the house at night (because the Japanese aircraft were usually out during the day). They learned later that the hospital nearby was bombed. One would have thought that the housemates were thankful to Shen for saving their lives. On the contrary, they all disliked Shen because of his eccentric behavior, such as arrogance, bad table manners, lack of hygiene, always counting the coins in his purse in front of other people, etc. With the hindsight of modern psychology, we now know that Shen may have been autistic. Some studies have shown that autism is associated with mathematical skills. In short, Shen was a misunderstood genius.

If Shen were not a mathematical logician, we would have called his consultation of I-Ching “superstitious” or even “nonsense.” The binary system of I-Ching was highly appreciated by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). During the “May Fourth New Culture Movement,” I-Ching and other ancient classics were considered “useless.” They had forgotten that many Western intellectuals, such as Voltaire and Leibniz, had a very high opinion of ancient Chinese culture.

It is also wrong to assume that there is a conflict between science and mysticism. Take the Cambridge physicist Brian Josephson (Nobel Prize laureate in Physics, 1973) as an example: he believes that fringe subjects such as transcendental meditation, water memory, and parapsychology—all considered by the Western scientific mainstream as “pseudoscience”—deserved to be studied scientifically. He is still pursuing research in this area.

Many Chinese scholars study I-Ching for its worldly wisdom. This is the mainstream approach because the Confucians are not keen on studying “supernatural phenomena.” “Why would one talk about death when the questions of life are not answered?” the Master argued. This limitation did not bind professor Shen. His intuitive understanding of the nature of I-Ching was far beyond that of most classicists.

The lesson we can draw from Shen’s story is that preserving ancient texts is not enough. We need to go into the fundamental nature of ancient oracles and understand why they are still relevant to the modern age.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of NTD Canada.


Eddie Leung

Eddie Leung is a veteran Hong Kong journalist who has been working in various news media for more than three decades. His main interests range from Hong Kong affairs, international politics, movies, and Chinese kung fu. He is one of the pioneers of Hong Kong internet radio broadcast.

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