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For some strange reason Amazon has been posting in some places that my new book, I Ching Inspirations: Paintings and Prescriptions by Adele Aldridge with foreword by Katya Walter as Katya being the author. I don’t know why this error is happening. In any case, I am too busy to figure out why. The error has inspired me to add a chapter that Katya Walter has added to my book that discusses the misconception about the naming of the order of the trigram diagrams as Early Heaven and Later Heaven.

Diagram of Early Heaven arrangement of trigrams in the I ching. Diagram of Later Heaven arrangement of trigrams in the I ching.



Katya Walter Discusses Early Heaven and Later Heaven

Co-Chaos Patterns, Chapter 11, Section 10. The “chicken” of Xian-tian & the “egg” of Hou-tian

Yes, the I Ching is indeed old. Just how old? In A Global History of History, Daniel Woolf makes this cautious assessment: “Significant Chinese thinking about the past can be traced back to ancient canonical text such as the Yijing (or I Ching, ‘Book of Changes’), which reached a definitive form about the end of the second millennium BC.” The I Ching began as an oral tradition before any written documentation. When writing did arise, it was first inscribed as scratches in dirt with a stick, and later on bones and turtle shells.

The Chinese have long kept written records of the I Ching. However, confusion was spread a thousand years ago by scholars who artificially re-sequenced the I Ching history. Those Chinese names for the two main I Ching orders—xian-tian and hou-tian—would lead you to assume that surely the binary xian-tian order called Early Heaven must have developed earlier in history than the analog hou-tian order called After Heaven or Later Heaven.

But no, that is not so. In the 1970s, an emerging “modernist” history of the I Ching revealed that the last thousand years of Chinese scholarship suffered under a false impression about which came first, the “chicken” of xian-tian or the “egg” of hou-tian. Actually, the After Heaven or hou-tian order appeared far earlier in historical documents, long before the Early Heaven or xian-tian order showed up. Archeologists and other scholars have established this modernist viewpoint quite well. It is based on much research into Shang and Zhou dynasties, and it includes the examination of oracle bones, Zhou dynasty bronze inscriptions, and other relic resources.

The “modernist” findings of the 1970s came as a shocking rebuttal to the teachings of many generations of Chinese scholarship. The customary “before” and “after” designations for the hexagram orders apparently are due to a historical revisionist campaign initiated by Chinese scholars close to a thousand years ago, just after the binary order first showed up historically in documents. When it appeared, ancient scholars gazed upon this new, mathematically elegant, binary order of trigrams, and they found it sublime.

In The Genesis of an Icon: The Taiji’s Diagram’s Early History, Francois Louis explains it this way: “By the twelfth century the xiantian trigram order was hailed as a sublime, naturally perfect arrangement, for it provided the most systematic known way of organizing the trigrams. To leading twelfth-century intellectuals, most notably Zhu Xi, this order, whether in its linear sequence or in the inverted pairing of the circle, represented a natural principle of organization, corresponding to the original conception of Fu Xi.”

In fact, those scholars found this new binary order of trigrams to be so beautiful, so pure, so mathematically satisfying that they deemed it worthy of the legendary ancient Fu Hsi, whose apocryphal discovery of the I Ching trigrams was said to go back perhaps even as far as 3322 BCE. So they attributed this new order to that legendary first emperor. How? They simply decreed it so by giving this new binary order the name of xian-tian, which means “original order”…and in English, may be translated as Early Heaven, Before Heaven, Primal Heaven, World of Thought, Old Family order, and so on.

Likewise, those scholars rebranded the old trigram order that they’d long been using to consult the I Ching oracle for the past several thousand years. In their revisionist history, time got reshuffled as they simply bestowed on the old order a new moniker: hou-tian, which translates into English as the order of After Heaven, Later Heaven, Manifest Heaven, World of Senses, New Family order, etc. Thus the old was made new, and vice versa.
Those terms of xian-tian and hou-tian are actually compound names made of two characters each. Their shared word—tian—by itself is translated literally as sky or heaven, with an inference of coming from higher law or order. The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that “Scholars generally agreed that tian was the source of moral law, but for centuries they debated whether tian responded to human pleas and rewarded and punished human actions or whether events merely followed the order and principles established by tian.…Chinese rulers were traditionally referred to as Son of Heaven (tianzi), and their authority was believed to emanate from tian.”

Two other words remain in those compound names. Xian and hou can be translated alone as early and later, but when compounded in the fashion of xian-tian and hou-tian, their meanings morph into something more like “ideal, primal way of heaven” and “real, manifesting way of heaven.” In other words, the underlying concept is that there’s many a slip twixt the ideal and the real.

In the Imperial court, other scholars soon heard the names of xian-tian and hou-tian so often and so officially that within a hundred years they were assumed to be historically accurate, and ever since then, many Chinese scholars over the generations have been misled. It fooled me too for awhile, until I had the good fortune to be able to read up on more recent archeological findings. And who knows? Time-wise, this “modernist” history may go topsy-turvy again, due to some future archeological find. Maybe in the tomb of Chin Shi Huang Ti?
Those misleading order names are a major reason I wanted to update this series in a second edition. To correct any wrong assumptions people may have made from the names I’d been using for the orders, I changed them from Old Family and New Family orders into the Binary and Analog orders.

Certainly long ago, that transitional time of rebranding the two orders of trigrams must have induced some cognitive dissonance. In The Genesis of an Icon: “The Taiji’s Diagram’s Early History, Francois Louis said, “…intellectuals like Lou and Zhu were well aware of the relative novelty of the xiantian symbols, yet insisted on their primordial perfection and timelessness, which resulted in the paradoxical tension in their texts ‘between the simultaneous modernity and antiquity of the diagrams.…“ Undoubtedly, the manufactured antiquity of the xiantian trigrams was a means of promoting the new arrangement [of trigrams in binary order].… In fact, the adoption of the suggestive terms ‘Before Heaven’ and ‘After Heaven’ to distinguish the two trigram cycles was so effective that it eventually led to the anachronistic perception that the younger sequence was the older one; and vice versa.”


Katya Walter has an interdisciplinary PhD. She spent 5 years of post-doctoral study at the Jung Institute of Zurich, and a year of post-study in China. Dr. Walter taught in colleges and universities in the USA and abroad for sixteen years before focusing on writing, lecturing, and workshops. Dr. Walter is author of the Double Bubble TOE series of books: Vol. 1: Double Bubble Universe, Vol. 2: Co-Chaos Patterns, Vol. 3: Tao of Life, Vol. 4: The Universe is Alive & Well, Vol. 5: Master Code Tree, Vol. 6: Fractal Graviton Soup. She also authored Dream Mail, a handbook on the fractal messages carried in the deeper structure of dreams.

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1 Comment on Katya Walter Discusses Early Heaven and Later Heaven in the I Ching

  1. SteveNo Gravatar says:

    The difference is that the xiantian order can be generated, whereas the houtian order is manufactured based on the seasonal cycles

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