Stalk Divination

A Newly Discovered Alternative to the I Ching

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C. A. Cook, Zhao Lu
C. A. Cook
Zhao Lu
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stalk Divination, edited by Constance Cook and Zhao Lu, is a critical translation of a recently discovered divination manual dating from around 300 BCE called Shifa 筮法. In this first English translation of the Shifa, the translators provide a meticulous analysis of the manual and in so doing have produced a valuable resource for anyone studying divination techniques in pre-imperial China. But the book is more than an excellent textual analysis of the manual. Its discussion reaches beyond the textual aspect of the Shifa and into the cultural and historical milieu as well. The translators compare the Shifa manual to several important elements of the Zhouyi 周易 (or I Ching 易經), which is believed to have been the standard tradition of interpreting divination results in imperial China. The established paradigm of using hexagrams as the fundamental units in divinations proposed by the Zhouyi tradition is, in many ways, challenged by the Shifa. And this is the notion that drives the larger argument of the book: that the Zhouyi was not the only divination tradition in pre-imperial China.

Cook and Zhao’s underlying argument in this critical translation is that the Shifa and the Zhouyi represent two different divinatory traditions in pre-imperial China. What differentiates the Shifa and the Zhouyi is the former’s method of interpretation of divination results. According to the Zhouyi tradition, trigrams are read in pairs to form the fundamental units—the sixty-four hexagrams (gua 卦). However, the Shifa proposes a completely different approach to reading divination results. Based on Cook and Zhao’s interpretation, the Shifa’s distinctive method reads each trigram as an individual unit. The divination records on the Shifa bamboo manuscript show that typically, four trigrams are grouped together under one entry for the result. Cook and Zhao believe that when one interprets a divination result, the four trigrams are read in a two-by-two matrix. They then assert that Shifa essentially represents a “counterclassic” to the Zhouyi. They are further convinced that with the Shifa’s distinctive method of interpreting divination results, “all pre-Qin divinatory results” should be reevaluated.

The structure of the book is clear and accessible. It begins with a preface and an introduction including a brief analysis of the cultural and historical background of fourth-century BCE China. In clear prose, the two translators outline the literary style of the Shifa manual, the use of the text by diviners, the context in which it was employed, and the distinctive features of the Shifa manuscript that differentiate it from other divination manuals of the same period. The main body of the book consists of three chapters on the general principles of interpreting divination results in the Shifa, the traces of Shifa-style divination in other textual sources, and a complete transcription and translation of the Shifa manuscript itself.

In chapter 1, Cook and Zhao examine several important features of the Shifa’s unique method of interpreting divination results. The translators detail the distinctive positioning of trigrams in the Shifa, which they call a “matrix.” Based on the translators’ observations, the four trigrams in a given divination result do not function as four individual units or even as a large dodecagram. Instead, the positioning of the four trigrams determines how the divination result should be read. Two types of positioning of trigrams are illustrated by Cook and Zhao: relative and fixed. The relative positions of the trigrams, on the one hand, determine the “outcome” of the divination. On the other hand, the trigrams’ fixed positions determine the possible roles of each trigram in a particular spot in the two-by-two matrix. In explaining the possible factors influencing the Shifa method, Cook and Zhao argue that this striking difference between the hexagram-based method of the Zhouyi and the matrix-based method of the  Shifa might be the result of the latter’s strong inclination towards practicality over cosmological elaborations on the original divination events. However, Cook and Zhao are careful in their speculations. They note that since there is no other extant text from the Shifa tradition, the extent to which this separation of philosophical and practical functions can be applied to the entire Shifa tradition during the Warring States period is unknown. However, they have made a convincing case that the Shifa text is not one of the  typical divination texts upon which literati have often commented since the Han dynasty.

In chapter 2, Cook and Zhao delve into textual evidence from the Warring States period in search of traces of Shifa-style divinations in records from beyond the boundaries of the state of Chu. Although at three pages, this chapter is quite short, Cook and Zhao present compelling examples that illustrate the relationship between the Shifa and the Zhouyi traditions. For example, Cook and Zhao show that in the “Jinyu 晉語” section of the Guoyu 國語, it is clear that some divination results reflect important elements of the Shifa, such as its metaphors for images of the Yin-Yang and the Wuxing 五行. Although traces of the Shifa as a divination method are not readily apparent in later historical periods, Cook and Zhao demonstrate that its principles have impacted the understanding of the Zhouyi tradition and the use of hexagrams for diviners and intellectuals alike.

The final chapter of the book is devoted to a transcription and annotated translation of the Shifa manuscript. As the manuscript itself is written in the Chu-style script, translating the manuscript is a challenging task. However, Cook and Zhao have done an admirable job in translating and presenting the text in an accessible fashion to even the non-specialist who lacks significant knowledge of pre-imperial Chinese divination texts. The chapter shines in the two translators’ interpretation of each of the thirty sections of the manual (a total of sixty-three bamboo strips).

Stalk Divination has accomplished the goal of introducing an important text to an Anglophone audience. With a comprehensive glossary, a detailed chart of the Shifa trigrams and their correlations, a supplementary table of correlations compared to the Zhouyi hexagrams, extensive notes, and a bibliography, Stalk Divination is a useful resource for anyone interested in the study of Chinese divination methods in pre-imperial times.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Chan is a doctoral student in Chinese Religion and Culture at the University of Michigan.

Date of Review: 
January 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

C.A. Cook is professor of modern languages and literature at Lehigh University.She specializes in excavated texts of BCE China and has published in English and Chinese (under the name Ke Heli) 

Zhao Lu is research fellow at the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities, Friedrich-Alexander-University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. He studies the creation and transmission of knowledge in early imperial and early medieval China.


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