Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Fall of the Shang

An excerpt from The Magician's I Ching:

The Fall of the Shang

In the era of the Shang dynasty, when the I Ching was already in use but not yet quantified into a book, the great Shang wizard-kings were expected to make regular auguries. At that time, the Shang used bones thrown in fire for their divination; turtle shells and ox bones (the cracks the fire caused in the bone or shell would reveal the lines of yin and yang).

In the earlier Shang archeological records, you see auguries about all sorts of subjects, and auguries where the King proclaimed good luck or bad: "we should attack this country", "if we attack now it will be disaster", "the king's second wife will have a child", "the queen will have a stillborn son". Prosperity and famine, bounty and disaster were both predicted.
However, by the later period of the Shang dynasty something interesting happens: the oracles the wizard-king declares become quite different, suddenly they are all very vague and generally good, one after another. There are thousands of declarations that say something like "the next period will be truly auspicious, with no misfortune".

The notable difference is that the earlier era was one where the Shang were the mightiest kingdom in their known world. The latter era, however, was one where the Shang had become corrupt: their last king was tyrannical toward his outlying provinces while engaging in decadent behaviour at home (legends hold that near the end he had built an artificial lake of wine with a paradisaical island filled with deer meat at its centre, and sumptuous palaces where he held degenerate orgies that included the sadistic torture of commoners). Rival powers were emerging and the Shang dynasty would soon be overthrown, their kingdom being over-run by the Zhou (including the great King Wen, who wrote the text of the I Ching and thus proved he had superior magical power and wisdom than the decadent kings of Shang).

It seems that in the earlier era, the people were willing to hear, and thus the king to declare, bad news as well as good. But in the latter era, when things had gone bad, the people didn't want to hear anything realistic from their government, they just wanted to keep being told everything was going to be great and there wouldn't be any problems; they wanted to be given reassuring lies. These oracles were the equivalent of "campaign promises" in modern elections; and by the end time of the Shang dynasty no ruler dared demands "blood, sweat or tears" from the people, or ask them to make sacrifices; instead he had to constantly repeat the story that everything was great, that they were the best country in the world, that every problem would be solved and no sacrifice would be needed. Thus, the last Shang king was blinded by his own lesser nature, to the extent of having executed wise counsellors who attempted to warn him of the dangers his kingdom faced.

This is what the Confucian commentaries of the I Ching would describe as the preponderance of the Inferior Person: a time of decadence that has spread to the moral, intellectual and vital faculties. At that point, only revolution (by the Zhou) could restore society. And indeed, King Wen's son fulfilled his father's dreams by uniting 11 of the border territories against the Shang, defeating their armies and conquering the kingdom. The last King of the Shang committed suicide on his deer meat island while his palaces burned.

In this little piece of I Ching history, there is a very interesting example of the kind of teaching the I Ching promulgates (and explanation of the context of the times in which the actual text of the I Ching was written); and likewise the ways someone can use it effectively, or fail to apply it correctly. Its also an interesting message for our modern era, showing off just how relevant the I Ching continues to be, 3000+ years after the time of writing of the I Ching, because the same problems keep happening.
The I Ching has, for thousands of years, warned us what happens to those individuals, as well as societies as a whole, who are fat and complacent, only wanting to hear 'good oracles'.

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