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Espionage and the I Ching

Michael Harrington—

The study of espionage has a long history in China. The classic known as The Art of War, dating from a period of strife between the states of pre-imperial China, contains an entire chapter devoted to the use of spies. One of the overall themes of this short text is that military strategy is a matter of seeing not what things look like right now, but what they are poised to become.

This approach—gathering intelligence so as to see the propensities of a state—became standard in the much longer and richer tradition represented by the Confucian commentaries on the I Ching. Hearing this claim, the reader of this blog may do a double-take. The I Ching? The divination text that New Age enthusiasts consult after flipping some coins and asking a question about their future? If this is the text that informed the statecraft of imperial China, did government officials abandon field work in favor of casting yarrow stalks (the traditional equivalent of a coin flip)?

Well, yes and no. Although the I Ching or Book of Changes may have started life as a divination text, the Confucians of imperial China saw its terminology as a useful shorthand for parsing tensions within states. The sixty-four diagrams that compose the book are variations on a simple theme: positions and people that are suited either to initiate action or to receive and carry it out. Different combinations of positions and people carry different risks and opportunities. The Confucians wrote commentaries, sometimes much longer than the Book of Changes itself, to analyze these risks and opportunities for their ideal reader.

Broadly speaking, this ideal reader is anyone capable of a position in government, but the Confucian Book of Changes belongs especially to those involved in gathering and analyzing intelligence. Its primary subject is the rise and fall of states, not departments within a government, still less the fortunes of individuals. Then, too, it promotes knowledge of “the incipient”—seemingly insignificant things with a strong tendency toward future growth—rather than what is plain to the untrained eye. Any official ought to be able to see things as they are. Readers of the Confucian Book of Changes must see what they are becoming. In practice, this means recognizing groups with the propensity to destabilize what is now a stable state, as well as identifying the obstacles that keep that propensity in check.

Those involved in this trade are never really at home. Unlike the people that surround them, they neither enjoy their wealth in a time of prosperity nor suffer from deprivation in a time of upheaval. Focused on the incipient, they know what threatens the state’s prosperity, and what can restore it from misfortune. Because they see everything in this context, one that they cannot and should not explain apart from their work, they never fully share the motivations and aims of their neighbors. Most of us must keep certain details of our work secret, but readers of the Confucian Book of Changes go farther, at least to some degree becoming strangers wherever they are. In contemporary terms, they are more like agents than analysts, even if they never physically leave their own country.

Of course, the modern intelligence officer who picks up a Confucian commentary on the Book of Changes is likely to put it down again in horror after a sentence or two. It is a text from medieval China, and so we should not be surprised to find that it uses an unfamiliar style: making a point ten times even when it is well understood, translating major principles into poetic imagery, and interpreting the Book of Changes systematically even when it is clearly not systematic. The modern reader who hopes to benefit from this text must cultivate a technique that the Confucians call “savoring” a text: enjoying the task of puzzling through its analogies and implications, particularly when there is no immediate problem to be solved. Whatever effect this has on one’s life and work, it will not be the result of divination.


Michael Harrington is associate professor of philosophy at Duquesne University.


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Featured photo by Theodor Lundqvist on Unsplash

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