Wen Will We Meet Again?

The story goes that long ago Ji Chang (later King Wen) of the Zhou Dynasty was er…socially distanced by the so-called Tyrant of Shang. The Shang had been in control for some centuries and the masses became more and more restive as Shang rule became by degrees more cruel and unreasonable. Chinese history is littered with tyrants who are deposed and replaced by liberators whose descendants themselves become tyrants. The current PRC regime is sadly no exception. In this case the Zhou family were just awaiting the moment to rise up which would be signalled by the simultaneous appearance of all five visible planets.

Chinese Accounts differ as to how long Wen Wu was isolated but the fact is that the conjunction indicating that the so-called Mandate of Heaven had shifted from the Shang to the Zhou, did not occur until about seven years later.* Which was when they rebelled, founding the Zhou (pronounced “Joe”)  Dynasty whose rule was to last close to a thousand years. You can see a reconstruction of the night sky that inspired them in the first episode of Michael Wood’s excellent “Story of China” series. https://bbc.in/3botUap.

Like Nelson Mandela, facing indefinite solitary confinement, King Wen appears to have realised that he was going to have time to think very deeply. Some of us may be considering this right now. Going profoundly into alpha rhythms – call it prayer or meditation if you will – he is said to have given names to the Sixty Four Hexagrams of the Book of Changes. With time on his hands and knowing he would not be interrupted, he must, I think, have looked at those simple diagrams from many different directions. Some of the images spoke most powerfully of family relations, some of more abstract connections. Some were purely visual. Some showed particular balances of Yin and Yang#. However long he was confined, his names for diagrams that were already ancient in his time, would survive him by thousands of years.

Much Chinese legend of course, like our own, is hokum but this one may be literally true. Shakespeare is said to have written King Lear in quarantine from the plague and Nelson Mandela emerged from Robben Island with clear foreign and domestic policy and a named cabinet. So why not?

And sitting here at my window, mouthing “Good morning” at my neighbour whose hand I cannot shake as he wipes his brow, sips his tea and takes a break from mowing the lawn, I think I may know the space the King was in.

We respond to separation in different ways. For some it’s unbearable to see our kids and friends on a screen and not be able to touch them. For some however, it’s a huge opportunity as well as a restriction.

Meanwhile I continue to teach online the Early Bird price for my Book of Changes class expires this week. There are only a couple of places left but with sufficient demand we’ll set up another. You can join from the comfort of your home. There could be worse sentences.
* May 1053BCE.
# Though these were very basic concepts in the 11th Century BCE.

Richard Ashworth March 24th 2020

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