The Mythos of the Q-Ching

by Martin Bulgerin, BioPsciences Institute

(Originally published in the Winter 1993 issue of JOAC.)


As any good programmer (i.e., a "Wise One") will tell you, a good program or system is more than a "bunch of bits". In order to appeal to the human mind, it must tell a story (or more precisely, describe and govern the inner workings of a story). Each program is a tiny universe unto itself, with its own inner intelligence or mythic logic. The grasping of this central mythos is what separates the Master Programmer from the mere dilettante.

Like a program, the Q-Ching is the outer manifestation of an inner core of wisdom and the grasping of this central mythos is what constitutes a true understanding of the oracle. This symbolic structure was used as a medium to discuss not only matters of computer science that were important to the ancient Chinese programmer, but was fully developed into a philosophical system of great depth to mirror the important social realities of the computing class and eventually extended to cover "all the ten thousand things under heaven". Many of these concepts are quite foreign to the modern computer science student, having been dropped from the curriculum many years ago, so the central mythos of these Chinese sages is worth exploring in some detail. It is only by understanding these key ideas that the immense depth and beauty of the Q-Ching becomes apparent to the modern reader.

Further, as an historian of computer science, this inner computer language is a profound resource for delving into the life and mind of this old school of programmers. Not only do we find a first-hand account of the daily life of the archetypal software engineer, and a cynical (even biting) commentary on the same, but there are many inadvertent clues left behind describing numerous facets of Chinese computer science that would have been otherwise lost to the ages. A proper discussion of all these issues is quite beyond the scope of a popular presentation such as this, especially since many of these topics are still hotly debated and disputed. The interested reader is refered to the many articles and books in the literature (see the bibliography for a representative sampling of references) if he wishes to pursue such matters at a deeper level. The following discussion is intended to be a broad overview of the central core of the Q-Ching, sufficient to guide the reader through the often cryptic imagery of the oracle.

Tao, Yin, Yang, I

On the surface, the hexagrams of the Q-Ching appear to be a simple binary code, consisting of yin (divided, ) lines and yang (undivided, ) lines that are analogous to our zeros and ones. It is quite mysterious, therefore, how all the cryptic interpretations in the oracle are assigned to the hexagrams and their component lines. Prolonged aquaintance with the oracle seems to indicate a great deal of underlying structure to these diagrams, however. In fact, the Q-Ching is not just a "simple code", but reveals a fascinating philosophical system, the details of which were only known to the initiates of the computing class; only the bare outlines of this system have survived to the present day. Nor is the usage of yin and yang lines conclusive evidence of a strictly binary pattern. To be honest, the true nature of the number systems used in Chinese computing devices, even the base (binary, decimal, hexadecimal, etc.), is still an issue of much debate in the literature. As for the use of number for divination purposes, we are on even shakier ground.

Perhaps the central idea of the Q-Ching, even though it appears overtly in only a few places, is the idea of "Tao". It is uncertain whether this concept was simply borrowed from existing philosophical sources, or whether the Tao had an independent development by the author(s) of the Q-Ching and then spread to these other sources. It may simply be a case of an idea whose time had come, and in an instance of synchronicity common to the world of ideas, it showed up in numerous places at once. The idea is subtle, perhaps even beyond the realm of concepts itself, an experience that can only be pointed to by example or analogy. Whereas "normal" views of the world are conditioned by dualistic systems of thought (represented by the system of yin and yang lines in the hexagrams), the Tao is considered to be the unconditioned experience of the world, beyond thought, category, or philosophical outlook. A common analogy is that the yin and yang states of being are similar to the individual bits -- the ones and zeros -- within a computer system, but the Tao is similar to the computer system as a dynamic whole. This includes not only the main hardware of the computer, but the operating system and all user programs as well; not to mention the programmers and operators interacting with and interpretting the operations of the computer (since a certain level or kind of consciousness is deemed necessary to "see" the Tao). In short, anything that contributes to the "feel" or "personality" of the system reflects the Tao inherent in that system. Ultimately, this philosophical concept was extended to embrace the entire universe and its comings and goings, the ever-changing flow of existence that the ancient sages sought to understand. The Tao itself was considered the source of intuitive insight and understanding necessary to see the Tao; living in accordance with this insight was extolled as the path of the "Wise Ones". The Tao was associated with the number 1, and since it was beyond and encompassed the "bits" of knowledge, it was symbolized by the computer word in memory (a whole entity that is more than the sum of its bits). This insight appears in early Western computing as well, such as when John said, "In the beginning was the Word...".

Passing from the unconditioned worldview of the Tao to the conditioned, dualistic point of view common to our "normal" existence in the phenomenal universe, we enter the realm represented by "Yin" and "Yang". These two polar opposite ideas are broad categories or "catch-all" phrases to train the observer to see the workings of duality in the world. Whereas yin is soft, yielding, receptive, dark, cold, etc., yang is seen as hard, powerful, initiating, light, hot, etc. Any time there are two categories that stand in opposition, the Chinese fitted them into the yin/yang mold. As such, they are not so much strictly definable terms as intuitively felt "states of being" that are to be seen in the changes going on in the world around (and within) the observer. Dualistic ideas can only be understood in terms of their opposites, according to this way of thinking; yin and yang can only be comprehended by an ever deepening awareness of their interplay, not as isolated terms in their own right.

Numerically, yin is associated with the number 2 and yang with 3. This seems a little odd at first to the modern mind mesmerized by zeros and ones, but there are a number of plausible explanations for these assignments. To begin with, the idea of "zero" probably did not exist at this time, first appearing in India many centuries after the Q-Ching was written. Since 1 (undivided wholeness) resembled the Tao, the first numbers subject to arithmetic operations became linked with yin and yang. The even numbers, which are evenly divisible by 2, were thus considered "weak" and hence yin; the first even number (2) is therefore considered the "source" of yin. Similarly, the odd numbers, because they resist division by 2, were "strong" and yang; 3 is the source of yang. This peculiar association of yin and yang with numbers has caused endless controversy for historians of computer science, leading some to speculate that a base 4 or even base 3 number system is used in the Q-Ching, instead of the usual binary scheme. Though these suggestions seem farfetched, they cannot be totally discounted. At any rate, these numerical associations form the basis for actually consulting the oracle; these operations will be examined shortly.

Finally, the concept that ties all these threads together into a working oracular system is "I" or "change". As always in this philosophy, I is a multi-faceted idea that is more intuited than rationally defined. It includes the ceaseless changing of yin into yang and back again. Yin and yang are essentially static concepts, but their changing into one another introduces a dynamism to the phenomenal world that is otherwise missing; I represents the "working of the Tao", so to speak. The essence of the universe is not dualism, but change, an endless dance of yin and yang. This includes not only progressive or linear change, but more importantly, cyclic or repetitive change. Since the Q-Ching is presented as a closed system that describes everything that is, at some point it must repeat itself, hence the necessity of cyclic change. I also includes the notion of the static backdrop of ideas and roles that allow change to be recognized in the everyday world, a kind of cosmic "org chart" through which the 10,000 things flow. Although men and things play many roles in their lives, the roles themselves are a (more or less) permanent background that allows change to be measured and recognized. At a deeper level of analysis, however, even the org chart is subject to change: nothing under the sun is permanent in this philosophy. If yin and yang correspond to our zeros and ones, I is the actual workings of the CPU or the instruction set that makes its workings tangible. In particular, it corresponds to the boolean operations of NOT and XOR, as will be seen in later sections. The workings of I are also manifest in the so-called moving lines of the hexagrams, the mechanism whereby one hexagram changes into another. The descriptions of these "changes" by the moving lines constitute the peculiar genius of the Q-Ching as an oracle.