In most starting zones I’ve leveled alone. Not so on Wandering Isle. A new pandaren avatar soon has two companions, a female and male pandaren. In fact, the storyline’s abiding theme is collaboration based on the complementarity of opposite perspectives, genders, and forces, especially for working out knotty problems. Wandering Isle’s ancient Chinese graphic design harmonizes with this theme – a prominent one in Chinese classics like Tao Te Ching and I Ching. In the first section of this post, Yilien’s narrative shows the collaboration of complementary opposites in action. The second section introduces the I Ching. The third shows Master Shang Xi using the I Ching, a kind of case study. The fourth discusses its pedagogical possibilities. And I conclude with an overview of I Ching mechanics.
1. YILIEN’S NARRATIVE: Wandering Isle (from level 1 to level 9)
The pandaren of Wandering Isle are a peaceful people. Here two quite different philosophies exist in harmony. Those who embrace the contemplative life follow the way of the Tushui (Chinese for “earth and water”); they’re idealists – deliberative and highly principled with strong beliefs about justice and morality. Those who embrace the active life follow the way of the Huojin (Chinese for “fire and metal”); they’re pragmatists – practical, decisive, even impulsive, believing that the end justifies the means if it’s likely to lead to the greater good for all. Tushuis and Huojins complement each other; like yin and yang, they’re interconnected and interdependent.
Our homeland is on the back of the Great Turtle Shen-zin Su, who roams the seas. His path has recently become erratic, and our climate steadily grows colder. Something’s terribly wrong. Master Shang Xi, the headmaster of the pandaren academy, has assigned three students to speak with Shen-zin Su, with whom no one has spoken in hundreds of years. I’m honored to be among them.
My teammates are Master Shang’s most gifted students, Aysa Cloudsinger (Tushui) and Ji Firepaw (Huojin). Ji approaches danger by meeting it head on, while Aysa is much more judicious. Ji, for example, once told me, “The time to act is always now.” And Aysa once said, “If you listen long enough, the wind will carry the answer to you.” Despite their differences, Ji is attracted to Aysa, but she seems too engrossed in her disciplines, meditation and martial arts, to notice. My role seems to be to avoid the extremes to which each is prone. In any case, together we make a great team.
On the highest spot of Wandering Isle sits the exquisite Temple of Five Dawns. From this geographic and cultural center, roads radiate in the four cardinal directions. And four is the number of ancient elemental spirits – fire, water, earth, and air – whose home base is the temple. But the spirits have gone astray. Because the spirits are the protectors of the Great Turtle Shen-zin Su and of our land upon his back, it’s crucial that our team reunite them in the temple. Without all four accompanying us, we have little chance of speaking with him and thus little chance of healing him and saving our home.
Through meditation Aysa discovers where and how to find each spirit and the ever-pragmatic Ji determines specific actions to take. Our efforts often include combat. Aysa is an impressive fighter, but her disciplines leave little time for that; so the greater part of the fighting, as well as getting the materials needed to accomplish our tasks, falls to Ji and me.
The first elemental we retrieve is Huo the Spirit of Fire, whose flame needs rekindling. Aysa discovers that he’s in the Shrine of the Dawning Light; and Ji protects me from hostile hozen (“monkey-butts,” he calls them) while I gather the materials needed: dry dogwood roots and a fluttering breeze obtained by defeating a living wind. Rekindling Huo sounds simple enough, but it isn’t. Just getting to Huo presents challenges.
After running through the shrine’s entrance – a tunnel path along which fire geysers suddenly spout – I encounter Huo’s guardian, Master Li Fei. Without so much as “hello,” he lays this piece of wisdom on me: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. There is a path before you, but you choose the trials you will face, and the trials you will overcome.” Then he challenges me to defeat him in combat to prove I’m worthy to meet with Huo. Knowing his skills are far superior to mine, he has me perform a ritual – lighting three braziers – that illuminates my potential and offers me a better chance. The bout is not easy, but I emerge victorious, rekindle Huo’s flame, and eventually take him to the Temple of Five Dawns.
Retrieving the Spirit of Earth and the Spirit of Water present challenges (as well as wisdom) of a different sort, but none of them compare to the difficulty of coaxing Dafeng the Spirit of Air out of the Chamber of Whispers. Frightened by the terrible onyx cloud serpent Zhao-Ren, Dafeng has fled from the sky and cowers in the chamber’s deepest recess. As Aysa says, “We must help him face that fear, or face it for him ourselves.”
Ji places fireworks along Zhao-Ren’s overhead path, fireworks that I run around triggering. It’s an awkward method for bringing down a fire-breathing cloud serpent, but eventually he weakens and falls to the ground where Aysa, Ji, and I engage him in melee combat. But somehow he regains strength and takes to the sky again. The second time he falls, we kill him.
Dafeng takes courage from our efforts and returns to the Temple of Five Dawns. Now all four ancient elemental spirits are there; and Aysa, Ji, and I can prepare to speak with the Great Turtle Shen-zin Su with the hope of unraveling the mystery of his plight.
2. THE I CHING: A Brief Introduction
Originally I planned to tie the classic book of Taoism, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (Daodejing), to students’ work on this zone; but after digging into its recent scholarship, I realized I needed to do the same for the I Ching (Yijing or Book of Changes), which highly influenced Lao Tzu, as well as Confucius. The I Ching is, I believe, the better choice for the yin-yang theme that plays out during the Wandering Isle experience: the necessity for the cooperation and harmonizing of opposite perspectives, attributes, and powers. Besides that, this book can have a lasting impact on students’ lives. I was introduced to it as an undergraduate and have consulted it many times since. The Sage has always given me much on which to reflect. It’s one of my all-time favorite books.
The I Ching, as well as the ancient yin-yang philosophy that underpins it, is not easily grasped by most Westerners. It’s difficult “to find the right access to this monument of Chinese thought” because it “departs so completely from our ways of thinking” about cause and effect, says Carl Jung in his foreword to the now-classic English version called The I Ching or Book of Changes (Princeton UP, 3rd ed., 1967). We typically think of causation as linear – moment A causes B which causes C and so on to the end of time. The I Ching, however, recognizes that within each moment is the seed for change from one state to its opposite, as symbolized by the small circles within each swirl of the t’ai-chi (taiji), also called the yin-yang symbol – moment A has a tendency toward not-A. (The t‘ai chi symbol below is a public domain image from Wikipedia.)
Everything is in flux. As it is in nature – the seasons, phases of the moon, the birth and death of stars – so it is in human life. Rest-exertion-rest-exertion…. Peace-conflict-peace-conflict…. Hunger-satiation-hunger-satiation…. And so on. Such cycles are often long and often beyond our control; however, how we handle (or not) the good times and lessen (or not) the impact of the bad times is within our power. The I Ching can help us recognize the tendencies of situations that are significant, confusing, or problematic and in this way help us make wiser decisions on how to handle them.
The I Ching is based on 64 hexagrams; each presents an archetypal situation or attribute of the human experience. A handy index to all of the Richard Wilhelm hexagram translations is available here. Later in this post I provide an overview of the specific mechanics for seeking the I Ching’s advice by receiving hexagrams through the use of coins. But first, as an example of the way the book’s wisdom moves, let’s look at the momentous challenge facing Wandering Isle.
3. MASTER SHANG XI CONSULTS THE SAGE
An enormous wounded turtle spiraling toward a huge maelstrom in the middle of the sea: this image depicts Wandering Isle’s situation. Although our young heroes are unaware of their homeland’s impending doom, they answer the call to heal the turtle. Their teacher, old Master Shang Xi, directs their actions, but how did he decide what they should do? Perhaps he consulted the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book of wisdom and divination. If so, he may have asked the Book (which I call the Sage) a question like this: “Our Great Turtle is ailing. What actions should we take?”
In the role of Master Shang Xi, I threw the virtual coins (available at I Ching Online) and, to my delight, received a highly appropriate hexagram, #29 The Abysmal (Water). Each hexagram is composed of two trigrams, in this case k’an (the abysmal) doubled. K’an means “a plunging in” and the doubling makes for a “repetition of danger.” Though Shang doesn’t know it, Wandering Isle is indeed headed toward an ocean abyss. The hexagram gives him a vision of the situation, and the commentary offers hope: “… if one is sincere when confronted with difficulties, the heart can penetrate the meaning of the situation. And once we have gained inner mastery of a problem, it will come about naturally that the action we take will succeed. In danger all that counts is really carrying out all that has to be done – thoroughness – and going forward, in order not to perish through tarrying in danger.”
The Sage, in effect, tells Shang that if something is not immediately done in the right way, Wandering Isle will perish. Then Shang, I imagine, meditates and arrives at a plan for “all that has to be done”: First the four ancient elemental spirits who have gone astray – Fire, Water, Earth, and Air – must be found and gathered in the Temple of Five Dawns. He believes that his most gifted students, Aysa and Ji, can do this. And, together with the four elementals, they can discover what ails the Great Turtle, on whose back Wandering Isle sits.
At this point Shang has gained insight on the current situation and formed a plan on how to deal with it. But he notices that his hexagram Abysmal has two “changing lines,” lines that move in opposite directions, which means that the hexagram is unstable and is transforming (see “Mechanics” below). A “transformed hexagram” signals that further consideration is needed and offers a potential future should we persist on our current path. In Shang’s case, the Abysmal changes to hexagram #6 Conflict, the image of heaven rising and water falling, the two going in opposite directions. The Sage gives him a strong warning to amend his plan and offers this advice: “If rights and duties are exactly defined, or if, in a group, the spiritual trends of the individuals harmonize, the cause of conflict is removed in advance.”
Shang rethinks his plan. As a yin-yang scholar, he understands that seeking harmony is a response to change and is, in fact, a continual process of reconciling and transcending differences among individuals and circumstances. He initially thought that the different ways in which his two gifted students handle situations would naturally complement each other: deliberation preceding each act on difficult matters and reflection following each act. But now he realizes that conflict is highly likely given each student’s tendency toward excess: Aysa to overly deliberate and Ji to impulsively act.
So Shang decides to include Yilien, a promising new student who is neither too yin (reflective) nor too yang (active), believing that her moderating tendencies offer the team a better chance of harmonizing and thus a greater chance to succeed. And, of course, they finally do succeed – but it’s not easy (no spoilers here on how the Great Turtle is healed :-).
4. PEDAGOGICAL POSSIBILITIES
What approach, then, should I take to the I Ching? For students who choose to quest on Wandering Isle, what kind of assignment should I give them? Certainly an interactive lecture with a slideshow would be in order to provide background, mechanics, and motivation. And selected parts of both Carl Jung’s Foreword and Richard Wilhelm’s Introduction to The I Ching or Book of Changes would provide more depth. They might also enjoy looking at some of the reader reviews found on Amazon. And they need to be aware of the Richard Wilhelm Hexagram Translations. Although I doubt that I would require scholarly articles on this book, some introductory students may appreciate having a short list of those in our library databases that I found both enlightening and more or less accessible to non-scholars.
As for the assignment specific to Wandering Isle questers, I’m thinking that students could consult the Sage at various times during their adventures, especially beginning around level 8 or 9 after all the elemental spirits have been gathered (this zone takes players to level 11 or 12). It’s about this time that serious ethical and strategic questions emerge. Students could present each question and their interpretation of the Sage’s response, with support from relevant quotes in the text.
Here are several sample questions regarding the storyline. These are intentionally vague so as not to spoil the plot (note that questions to the Sage should not be susceptible to yes and no answers): Why did Master Shang Xi do what he did in the Wood of Staves? Why do our heroes need the four ancient elemental spirits present when they speak to Shen-zin Su? Why don’t the Alliance and Horde cooperate in the face of common foes? What if Aysa rather than Ji had determined how to heal Shen-zin Su? To leave Wandering Isle and continue the game, I have to join either the Alliance or the Horde; please offer advice on choosing the right one for me.
To receive a hexagram, students have the option of throwing their own coins and using the actual book (I’ll put my extra copy of the I Ching on reserve), or they can throw virtual coins and get their readings on I Ching Online, which has its own summaries of each hexagram, quickly gets one to the changing lines and transformed hexagrams, and includes Wilhelm’s classic version from the original Chinese – all of which I’d want students to consult.
5. MECHANICS OF USING THE I CHING SIMPLIFIED
For our purposes, hexagrams are created by tossing three coins together six times. Coins have heads and tails, each of which is assigned the number two or three depending on whether it’s heads (let’s assign it 2) or tails (let’s assign it 3). By adding the values of each toss, we get the number 6, 7, 8, or 9. The even numbers become yin lines (— —) and the odd numbers yang lines (——). The lines are stacked, with the first line received on the bottom and the last line on top . The bottom three lines form the first trigram and the top three the second. In this way we get a hexagram of two trigrams of three lines each, six yin-yang lines total. Master Shang’s throws, for instance, produced two identical trigrams, the Abysmal sitting on top of the Abysmal, producing the image of being submerged in deep in water. (See Wikipedia’s entry on the I Ching for a view of the 8 trigrams and 64 hexagrams).
The initial hexagram you receive describes the situation of the very recent past or the present time as it pertains to you. Frequently this hexagram has one or more “changing lines,” in other words, lines created by all heads (yin, 6) or all tails (yang, 9). These lines are so powerful that they change to their opposite (yin becomes yang and yang becomes yin). They create a transformed hexagram that describes the future tendencies of your current or proposed path and in this way offers further advice or even a warning. For instance, the two yin lines in Master Shang’s upper trigram were changing lines; the transformed hexagram was Conflict, which warned him that his current plan needed revision.
There’s so much more to the I Ching than I will ever know, let alone be able tell you about here. But that’s not surprising given the vast scope of its wisdom. In his introduction Richard Wilhelm says, “In its judgments, and in the interpretations attached to it from the time of Confucius on, the Book of Changes opens to the reader the richest treasures of Chinese wisdom; at the same time it affords him a comprehensive view of the varieties of human experience, enabling him thereby to shape his life of his own sovereign will into an organic whole and so direct it that it comes into accord with the ultimate tao lying at the root of all that exists.”