Tao to Taotie

The I Ching: The Classic of Changes has its origins in “dragon bones.” In 1899, when the young missionary Richard Wilhelm the future translator of the I Ching was arriving in China for the first time, epigrapher Wang Yirong discovered a curiosity on sale in an apothecary in Beijing: ancient “dragon bones,” speckled with holes, filigreed with cracks, and marked with esoteric characters. The scholarly Wang recognized the prehistoric script on the bones as the same as on ancient Shang dynasty era (2nd Millennium B.C.E.) ritual bronze vessels. Wang’s discovery led to official archeological digs and academic scrutiny, and it was soon determined that these old odd pieces of bone were from ox scapula and turtle plastrons, that they had been poked with hot iron by ancient shaman to cause cracks that were then interpreted — as others had interpreted the viscera of slaughtered beasts or the flight-patterns of birds or tea-leaves or tarot cards or stars — for portents of the future. Linguists scrutinizing the bones discovered that crucial characters from the I Ching had been carved upon the ancient “dragon bones.” For example, the character for “perseverance” — perhaps the most common virtue The Classic of Changes advises its devotees to cultivate — meant in ancient times “to inquire by crack-making.” So archeological and literary evidence suggested that the canonical divination manual had its origins in the sacrificial rituals of the most ancient Chinese dynasty. (See Edward L. Shaughnessy’s Unearthing the Changes).

The I Ching is based upon a vision of the Tao, symbolized by Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are opposites that conflict but that also attract, complement, cooperate, coordinate, and so, from the proper cosmic perspective, can be seen to circulate harmoniously. The world changes constantly, but in a natural rhythm akin to the seasons, the rising and setting of sun and moon, and the creation via copulation of male and female. Even the arbitrary, the random, chance has its role in the Taoist order. When consulting the I Ching, one relies upon chance to generate the hexagram that will tell one’s situation and foretell one’s future: the traditional way is an elaborate system of randomly shuffling yarrow stalks, the dried stems of a humble plant; thus the I Ching is literally rooted in agriculture, in botanical nature, in other words, in civilized contrast to the violent, barbaric, and bloody animal sacrifices of ancient Shang ritual. Not only did the Shang kill cattle and turtles to complete their rites, the Shang also made human sacrifices, seeking to gain favor or power from the spirits of ancestors or from the realm of demons.

The presiding spirit of Shang ritual was the monster known as Taotie (饕餮). His image is a pervasive motif on ancient bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou eras. (These are the same vessels that Wang Yirong recognized as echoing the script upon the dragon bones.) Jorge Luis Borges in his Book of Imaginary Beings offers a wonderful reflection on the Taotie:

“The T’ao-T’ieh: The existence of this creature is unknown to poets and mythology alike, but all of us, at one time or another, have come upon it, in the corner of a capital or the center of a frieze, and have felt a slight shudder of revulsion. Orthus, the dog that guarded the cattle of the three-bodied Geryon (and that Hercules quickly dispatched), had two heads and one body, the T’ao T’ieh inverts this image, and is even more horrible, for its huge head is attached to one body on the right and another on the left. It generally has six legs, since its forelegs serve both bodies. Its head may be that of a dragon, a tiger, or a person; historians of art call it the ‘ogre-mask.’ It is a monster of form, inspired by the devil of symmetry in the imagination of sculptors, potters, and ceramicists. Fourteen hundred years before the Christian era, during the Shang dynasty, it already figured on ritual bronzes. ‘T’ao-T’ieh’ means ‘glutton.’ The Chinese paint it on porcelains in order to ‘warn against self-indulgence.’”

The cosmic horror conveyed by the Taotie with a “slight shudder of revulsion” must be contrasted with the harmonious cosmic image of the Tao. Yet if Yin and Yang can be imagined to separate from their mutual embrace, turning away form one another, one can perhaps glimpse the shape of the ancient ogre Taotie staring out at us hungrily. If I indulge in speculation, I wonder if the yarrow stalks of the I Ching grew from a ground long soaked with the blood of sacrifice.

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