The I Ching and the Adaptation of Western Science in Tokugawa Japan

Wai-ming Ng
1998 East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine  
He is an intellectual and cultural historian currently working on a book manuscript on the role of the I Ching in Tokugawa thought and culture.] * * * T he / Ching (Book of Changes) and the Chinese scientific system were inseparable in East Asia. The book contains two powerful concepts that became integral to Confucian metaphysics: yin-yang and wu hsing (five basic agents or phases). Yin and yang denote the two primal forces of the universe that oppose and supplement each other, and that
more » ... er, and that control the five basic agents: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Among the five agents, there are two types of relationship: some agents work with each other, while others oppose each other. This has been called the wu hsing theory of promotion and control. The doctrines of yin-yang and wu hsing served as the major theoretical framework for science, philosophy, and culture in the East Asian tradition, and they served as well as a metaphysical basis for accommodating Western science. 1 Inasmuch as traditional Japan was within the Chinese cultural orbit and its scientific ideas were largely borrowed from China, the / Ching was an integral part of pre-modem Japanese science. From the Heian (794-1186) to Tokugawa 1 Joseph Needham separates the yin-yang wu hsing doctrine from the / Ching: "While the five-element and two-force theories were favorable rather than inimical to the development of scientific thought in China, the elaborated symbolic system of the Book of Changes was almost from the start a mischievous handicap. It tempted those who were interested in Nature to rest in explanations which were no explanations at all." Needham, et. al., Science and Civilization in China, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1956), p. 336. This dismissal is ahistorical, since yin-yang wu hsing theory was incorporated into the I Ching system by the Ch'in and Han periods.
doi:10.1163/26669323-01501007 fatcat:ysszuaoofrbv7ajs4od2zxo4zi