Wang Bi: The Images Stem from the Ideas

The images stem from the ideas. The words make the images clear. In order to fully express the ideas, there is nothing better than words. The words are a result of the images. This is why you can see the images by looking at the words. The images are dominated by the ideas. This is why you can see the ideas by examining the images. The ideas are fully captured by the images and the images made clear by the words. Therefore, the words are intended to explain the images; once you have captured the images, you can forget the words. The images are intended to explore the ideas; once you have captured the ideas, you can forget the images.
Similarly, tracking the trail of a rabbit has the purpose of getting hold of it. Once you have caught it you forget about the trail. The fish trap has the purpose of catching the fish. Once you have caught it you forget about the trap.
Well, the words are the trail towards the images. The images are the trap for the ideas. Anyone who stops at the words, therefore, will not capture the images, and who stopa at the images will not conceive the ideas. Zimmermann 2007, 64 und Anmerkung 14

In this quote Wang Bi refers to the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes. The view that there are ideas that underlie all things, is not exclusively Chinese, but has also appeared early in European philosophy. Plato’s Theory of Forms, for example, is based on unchangeable archetypal principles that actually exist, but cannot be directly perceived through the senses.  While the supreme instance dominating Plato’s archetypal ideas/forms is “the good” (agathón), the 64 immutable images of the I Ching emerged fall in one in the eternal Dao. What is new for our culture is that with the I Ching, the Book of Changes, we are given a resource to approach those abstract ideas/forms, basis of all things.

Wang Bi, however, takes it one step further – and this is where his approach becomes revolutionary: we can and should abandon this resource (the track of the rabbit, the fish trap, the I Ching) once we have captured the ideas.

The I Ching is widespread and in its traditional form, the Textus receptus, engraved in stone, one of the canonical books of China. In 1972, however, in Mawangdui, China, a grave library was discovered, containing a copy of the I Ching, which is much older and differs in about 25% from the Textus receptus.

Wang Bi’s commentary anticipates a conflict, that today, after the discovery of Mawangdui, is quite current: what is the relevance of the actual book itself, its structure, the terms and words, the order of the hexagrams?

Wang Bi says, that it is merely a tool that will show us the path towards the immutable ideas – and thus solves the conflict in an elegant way. Dominique Hertzer, a German scientist who translated and very meticulously analyzed the Mawangdui Yijing-[I Ching] concludes her research with the following words:

“Regarding the Mawangdui-Yijing and the traditional version eventually as the expression of an idea that allows man to gain insights about the cyclically recurring regularities of cosmic and human events, so that he may be able, through knowledge of the processes of change in the past and though determination of his own present position, to shape his future, the Mawangdui grave-find does not only reveal new, previously hidden perspectives of the Yijing tradition, but also sheds a new light on old, well-known issues… Hertzer 1996, 204