From Numerical Cyphers to Symbolic Lines: Exploring the Process of Graphic Standardisation within the Shuzi Gua Corpus

By Flaminia Pischedda

Imagine stumbling upon a collection of ancient texts hidden from the world for centuries, only to be surrounded by controversy upon their discovery. This is the essence of the shuzi gua corpus—a remarkable assemblage of writings which dates back to the late Shang dynasty and spans through the Warring States period. In this blog post, I reveal part of the captivating discoveries from my recent PhD thesis, which explores the controversial aspects of this corpus. This collection of enigmatic texts has intrigued scholars and enthusiasts, sparking controversy and curiosity. By delving into my extensive research, I shed light on the ongoing academic debate surrounding the shuzi gua corpus and its profound implications for a re-evaluation of early Chinese cultural history.

What sets these texts apart is their unique feature: specific sequences of numbers inscribed within them. These sequences bear a striking resemblance to the trigrams and hexagrams found in the revered divination manual called the Yi, or “Book of Changes.” The Yi became the first of the Confucian Classics in the 2nd century BCE. The intrigue lies in deciphering the relationship between the shuzi gua corpus and the ancient Yi tradition. In 1980, Chinese palaeographer Zhang Zhenglang proposed a connection, suggesting that the numerical cyphers could be converted into trigrams and hexagrams. However, subsequent scholars have challenged this hypothesis, casting doubt on the assumed genetic relationship between the two. A pivotal moment came with the publication of the *Shifa manuscript in 2013, forcing researchers to reconsider their assumptions and delve deeper into the subtleties of the shuzi gua.

To navigate this complex topic, I categorise the multifaceted shuzi gua corpus based on material, visual presentation, and linguistic characteristics. I then explore the various interpretations proposed over the years, showcasing the evolving scholarly discourse surrounding this enigmatic collection. Additionally, I delve into the process of standardisation within this unique graphic system. Despite diverse divinatory traditions coexisting until the late 3rd century BCE, there emerged a trend of standardising various divinatory systems based on numerical notations, culminating in the survival of a single tradition: the Yi.

Drawing from my comprehensive analysis, I unveil intriguing conclusions. While the earliest evidence of the odd/Yang and even/Yin correspondence might be traced back to a handful of artifacts dating to 10th-9th century BCE, it is crucial to exercise caution in assuming that all shuzi gua texts can be converted into Yi gua. The limited written evidence hampers our ability to establish a definitive link between these distinct traditions.

As my presentation nears its conclusion, one thing becomes clear—the coexistence of diverse divinatory traditions throughout history. However, their true interconnectedness remains elusive. Archaeological records provide a compelling narrative, revealing that the prominence of the Yi tradition was not as pronounced as initially assumed. Questions regarding origin, prevalence, and mutual influence persist, leaving us with a tantalising sense of uncertainty. It becomes evident that there was no single dominant tradition but rather a vibrant tapestry of cultural practices that shaped ancient China’s spiritual landscape.

In the fascinating journey of uncovering the history of early China, we find ourselves rewriting the narrative with the aid of a vast array of new materials. These invaluable discoveries include alternative versions of existing texts as well as previously unknown manuscripts. The prospect of reshaping our understanding of early China is undeniably exhilarating. However, in this exciting endeavour, we must exercise caution and remain mindful of several crucial factors. One such factor is the tendency to view this newly discovered material through the lens of one specific textual tradition—the imperial tradition, which emerged at a later period. This approach can inadvertently introduce anachronistic interpretations and biased perspectives. It is imperative to recognise that these newly exhumed texts predate the dominant imperial tradition, and their meanings may have been shaped by different cultural and social contexts. By avoiding a narrow and limited perspective, we can strive for a more accurate understanding of these ancient writings.

These considerations are particularly relevant when examining the shuzi gua materials, which has captivated scholars and enthusiasts alike. It is crucial to approach these texts with an open mind and resist the temptation to interpret them solely through the lens of the Yi tradition. By doing so, we can avoid misleading biases and uncover the true significance of the shuzi gua corpus within its historical and cultural context.

Shuzi gua and jian bo yi(数字卦与简帛逸). Image credit: Shi Shangang 史善刚



Flaminia Pischedda pursued a BA (2013) and a MA (2017) in Oriental Languages and Civilisations at ‘La Sapienza’ University of Rome. She explores the different manifestations of early Chinese divination traditions and communities as seen from both newly retrieved palaeographical evidence and the received literary production. She just defended a PhD thesis titled “The shuzi gua corpus and Yi traditions: A critical study” at the University of Oxford. She has been visiting research fellow at the IKGF (October 2022-April 2023). She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at REPAC (University of Vienna).


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Image credits: © Shi Shangang 史善刚  Source:

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