Jing Fang: Worldly Skill Without Spiritual Development Leads to His Downfall

Close-up of an I Ching hexagram.

Jing Fang, a master of prophecy and divination techniques, accurately predicted disasters, but he ultimately fell victim to his own predictive abilities. (Image: Rainer via Dreamstime)

Jing Fang (77-37 BC) was a master of Yixue (易学, “the study of changes”), skilled in using celestial phenomena to predict human affairs. He was the founder of divination methods using the six lines and eight trigrams. However, despite being a pioneer in the field, he ultimately fell victim to his own predictive abilities. Why did this happen?

In the Book of Han (a historical text), it is recorded that when Jing Fang was studying the Book of Changes (I Ching) under Jiao Yanshou, Jiao Yanshou said that Jing Fang had received his true teachings, but would ultimately meet his demise because of them. At the time, the students did not understand. If he had received true teachings, he should have been able to predict future disasters. If he knew about the disasters, why would he jump into the pit himself? As it turns out, he did fall into the pit that he dug for himself.

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Jing Fang accurately predicted many disasters

Because of his proficiency in the study of changes, Jing Fang accurately predicted disasters on multiple occasions, which impressed Emperor Yuan of the Han Dynasty and led to his appointment as a governor. He was often at the emperor’s side and his advice was highly regarded. However, there was a cunning and treacherous man named Shi Xian who frequently disagreed with Jing Fang’s political views.

Because of his proficiency in the study of changes, Jing Fang accurately predicted disasters on multiple occasions, which impressed the emperor.
Because of his proficiency in the study of changes, Jing Fang accurately predicted disasters on multiple occasions, which impressed the emperor. (Image: Vogelsp via Dreamstime)

One day, Jing Fang spoke to the emperor and said: “Your Majesty, since you ascended to the throne, the sun and moon have lost their light, the stars have moved in reverse, and there have been various disasters and strange phenomena. All of this is due to the influence of treacherous ministers around you.” The emperor quickly asked: “Where are these treacherous ministers?” Jing Fang replied: “Shi Xian is one of them.” The emperor smiled without saying a word, and nothing happened to Shi Xian afterward.

However, once Shi Xian found out about Jing Fang’s remarks, he took action and had him transferred from the emperor’s side to a regional governorship. At the time, Jing Fang had consulted the Book of Changes and received a hexagram that indicated “separation between ruler and minister, with the ruler being suspicious of the minister’s loyalty.”

It seemed that there was a danger to his life, so Jing Fang quickly wrote to the emperor, pleading to be allowed to stay by his side. However, it was too late. The emperor did not listen to him this time. One month later, Jing Fang was imprisoned and executed. He was only 40 years old at the time of his death.

The reason Jing Fang was killed was that he was not discreet and often talked about his conversations with the emperor to his student Zhang Bo, who in turn would also talk to others. As a result, Shi Xian found out about it and reported it to the emperor. Interpreting celestial phenomena had always been considered a state secret and could not be casually discussed. His loose lips violated the emperor’s taboo, and he could not escape death as a result.

Yao Ping, a student of Jing Fang, once criticized Jing and told him directly: “It can be said that you know the Tao, but it cannot be said that you believe in it.” What he meant was that Jing Fang had only a superficial understanding of the principles of the Book of Changes, and he had not truly devoted himself to its study.

Yin Yang symbol made out of black and white stone chips.
Jing Fang had knowledge of the Tao but failed to embody its teachings. (Image: Paitoon Youlike via Dreamstime)

While the Book of Changes is often used for divination, it is also an important text in traditional Chinese culture, reflecting the Chinese worldview that all things in the world are subject to the principles of the universe and that humans cannot control them. This idea can be seen as an extension of the concept of “the unity of heaven and man” in traditional Chinese thought.

Jing Fang used his knowledge of the Book of Changes as a tool to advance himself in the imperial court, rather than truly understanding and embodying its teachings. He was thus not prudent enough to maintain the secrecy of divination techniques, which is a big taboo in the Book of Changes. There is a statement in the book that says: “Chaos originates in words. Therefore the gentleman behaves discreetly and does not speak casually.”

Jing Fang’s focus on the technical aspects of divination without the corresponding spiritual development limited his understanding of the universe and left him blind to the danger he was in, therefore he could not escape.

Translated by Audrey

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