The arrival in East Asia in the nineteenth century of people in steamships from the industrializing West was a shock to the educated elite there, and they struggled to understand why it was that there were people in the world who had created technologies that were so different, and so much more powerful and advanced, than anything in East Asia at the time.

Many scholars looked into the ancient texts that they studied in an effort to pass the civil service exams and declared that there was nothing about Western technology that did not already exist (or which the potential to emerge did not exist) in ancient texts.

The Classic of Changes (Yijing 易經) was particularly important for these efforts, as it declared that in antiquity the sages had “fashioned implements” (zhiqi 制器) by “regarding the images” (shangxiang 尚象) of the 64 hexagrams in that work.

The passage in this text that described this process was the second chapter of the second half of the Appended Commentary [Xici xia 繫辭下] where examples were provided of the implements that had been fashioned from 13 of the 64 hexagrams after those respective hexagrams had been regarded/observed by the ancient sages.

The reason why this was important was that it gave people a sense that anything, including steamships and trains, could ultimately be fashioned by regarding the images, and that therefore, there was nothing superior about the West.


Not everyone in East Asia agreed with this line of thought. The Chinese reformist scholar, Liang Qichao, was one such person. Liang Qichao was similar to the people who saw equivalence with the West in the Classic of Changes in that he did want his fellow Chinese to discover the intellectual strength to stand as equals with Westerners, but he did not see equivalence with Western ideas in the Classic of Changes.

Instead, in 1904 he wrote an essay in which he argued that it was the ideas of the Warring States-era philosopher Mo Di (a.k.a. Mozi) where one could find a kind of logic that resembled the logic of Western thought.

This essay was part of a body of reformist writings at that time that were known as New Writings [Xinshu/Tân Thư 新書].

In 1910 the opening question in the Vietnamese palace exam, the highest of the civil service exams, was about this issue. After the exam this question and a “model answer” were published, and together they provide a fascinating insight into the world of ideas in Vietnam at that time.


Here was the question:


“As a book, the [Classic of] Changes is vast and great, and is totally complete. The images of the 13 hexagrams that were regarded in order to fashion implements is [a topic that is] discussed in detail in the Appended Commentaries. Can those who study the Changes today still obtain the essence of observing the 64 hexagrams and fashioning implements? Recently the New Writings have been promoting Mo Di as the forefather of the Middle Kingdom’s school of investigative scholars [gezhi jia 格致家], but do not mention the Changes. Is this an appropriate interpretation?”


And this is how the model answer begins (I have included some references to the Yijing in brackets and to Richard John Lynn’s translation in parentheses when I use some of his wording, but there are more passages that could be cited):


“The sages created the Changes. The principles of myriad events and myriad objects were laid out bit by bit to become a text. There is the Way of Heaven in it, the Way of Earth in it, and the Way of Man in it. It is vast and great, and in no way is it not totally complete. [Xici xia 10]

[The sages] exhaustively examined all of the profundities in the world [Xici shang 8], and in fashioning implements, they regarded the images. This began starting with the snare nets for catching fish and animals that came from the hexagram Li (77) and ended with the written tallies that came from the hexagram Kuai (80) [Xici xia 2]. That which was developed from these 13 hexagrams was nothing other than following the Way of comprehending transformation that benefit the people. This is discussed in detail in the Appended Commentaries. If those who study the Changes sincerely are aware of the numinous and bring it to light (68) [Xici shang 12], then in talking about the Changes all day they will surely never be disconnected from the principle (lí 理) of All Under Heaven.”


The model answer then goes on to offer examines of “implements” that have been “fashioned” from certain “images,” or hexagrams. This information comes from the Explaining the Trigrams (Shuogua 說挂) section of the Classic of Changes.

Following that information, the model answer then suggests that forms of modern technology such as passenger ships and trains could also be fashioned from regarding the images in the Classic of Changes.


“Li [Cohesion] is military affairs [the Yijing actually has 戈兵, which Lynn translates as “the halberd and the sword” (124)]. Gen [Restraint] is the gate tower. The drains and ditches are Kan [Sink Hole]. The great cart is Kun [Pure Yin].” And there are those who connect this to [the fashioning of] passenger ships, and those who connect this to [the fashioning of] trains. If we expand this to the 64 hexagrams, then one can certainly still obtain the essence of observing the 64 hexagrams and fashioning implements.”


Having thus suggested that the hexagrams in the Classic of Changes can serve as guides for fashioning such modern phenomena as passenger ships and trains, the model essay then goes on to talk about how various aspects of Western knowledge and science can be found in the Classic of Changes as well.

觀此則易為究神盡變之書,其歐亞家格致之大尊乎。西人言理,莫精於四行,即先天正位陰陽四象之挂也。西人言器,莫精於十字,即河圖五數縱橫十字之說也。推而至於乾曰天行健,則可考夫天文,坤曰厚載物,則可察夫地理。謙以稱物平施,則重學之始乎。離以重光繼炤,則光學之始,既[濟 this character should not be there]未濟之水火,又非化學之始乎。

“Observing this, as a text that probes the numinous and fully fathoms all transformations, this is the great respected progenitor of the investigative scholars of Europe and Asia.

“Westerners talk of principle, [but] there is nothing as essential as the four elements, that is, the hexagrams [created by] yin-yang and the four images that are in the central positions in the Former Heaven [Chart]. Westerners talk of implements, [but] there is nothing more essential than the ten characters, that is, the theory of the number five and the ten vertical and horizontal characters in the Yellow River Chart. If we expand on this, [the 1st hexagram] Qian states that ‘the action of Heaven is strong and dynamic.’ (130) This can be observed in astronomy. [The 2nd hexagram] Kun states that “it is the generosity [of Kun] that lets it carry everything.” (143) This can be investigated through geography. [The 15th hexagram] Qian ‘weighs the amount of things and makes their distribution even.’ (230) Is this the beginning of mechanics? [The 30th hexagram] Li holds that double radiance continuously casts its brilliance. (324) This is the beginning of optics. And is [the 64th hexagram] Weiji’s fire and water not the beginning of chemistry?” (539)


Finally, the model essay talks about some of the claims that Liang Qichao made about equivalents of Western forms of science in the ideas of Mozi, and then concludes that these topics were all earlier manifested in the Classic of Changes.

聖人既有以開戶牖于斯民,後人始因之而研夫哲理。均髮均懸,以言重學,臨鑒立景,以言光學,言化學則鑠金離木之說也。墨子所論原不外乎竹[what does 竹 refer to?]易之書。近者新書有推墨翟為中國格致家初租,而不及易,此後儒不究深淵之論也,豈足為當論哉。

“The sages enlightened the people and later individuals examined their philosophical principles. ‘Equal, hair equally suspended,’ talks about mechanics. Facing a mirror and establishing ones reflection is talking about optics, and talking about chemistry is [fire] melts gold and burns wood. The topics that Mozi discussed were none other than those in the Changes.

“Recently the New Writings have been promoting Mo Di [Mozi] as the forefather of the Middle Kingdom’s school of investigative scholars, but do not mention the Changes. This is an extreme claim that the later scholars [i.e., the Song dynasty Neo-Confucian scholars Cheng Yi, Cheng Hao and Zhu Xi] did not bother to investigate. How is it worth discussing?”


While it is difficult to determine how many people at that time might have agreed with what was written in this model essay, this document is nonetheless fascinating for a couple of reasons.

First, the essay reveals a world of extremely sophisticated ideas. And although that world of thought ultimately disappeared in the twentieth century, this document demonstrates how deep the ideas from this world still were among some members of the elite in 1910.

Second, at the same time that the ideas in this essay were sophisticated, they were also extremely conservative. This essay is both anti-Western and anti-reformist. At the same time, the fact that this essay mentioned mechanics and optics and chemistry also shows ways in which even the most conservative members of Vietnamese society had “modernized” to some extent.

It’s a fascinating document that opens up a window onto a world that we still know so little about, in no small part because it is so difficult for so many people today to access and understand the language and ideas in an essay like this one. That world has disappeared.