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Maintaining status quo enriches the few

It probably won't surprise anyone to discover that, instead of being guided by this column's steady stream of wise advice and brilliant prognostications, a remarkably large number of people seem to prefer to get their guidance from the horoscope. A couple of years ago an attempt to drop star signs from The Canberra Times resulted in a backlash. They were quickly restored. Everyone wants to know the future.

This probably explains why one of the earliest surviving texts is the I Ching, the Book of Changes. Written in China about 800BC, it's a guide to interpreting a throw of stalks (or sticks) or tossed coins. It helps people make better choices and it's simple. First, frame a question. Then toss the sticks or coins and generate numbers. Then consult the guide and apply the enigmatic phrases and images to your original question for guidance. Get started and you're soon hooked.

"Good fortune; success" - yes, I should eat that ice-cream! "Obstruction; stagnation" - probably not the right time to ask the editor for a raise, after all. Inappropriate examples, of course, because you'd never waste time consulting any oracle about questions to which the answer never changes. But the real point of the I Ching is that it isn't (really) fortune-telling - it's about framing questions in the right way.

Choosing the right question and focussing on how to achieve what you want - that's the real art embodied and mental skill developed by the process. Going beyond a simple, yes/no answer and thinking around the problem; considering other issues. Devotees say it doesn't foretell the future, but rather it helps us think. We can see what we want or fear. It's an appreciation process, a guide to possible courses of action, helping to frame choices and offering a way of resolving doubt.

It filled a crucial gap in a cultural tradition that lacked religious prophets because it offered a way to think about life. Even though it seemed to depend on chance, interpreting the little epigrams got people thinking and reasoning.

Or that's the way it began, anyway.

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Meaning always depends on interpretation and by 136BC the text itself was, quite literally, etched in stone. The fact that it was enigmatic lent it intellectual weight. And, just like astrology, it was never the text itself that was wrong, simply your understanding of what it meant. That opened the way for others to explain what the words meant. It was ripe for exploitation by what might today be called the "culture industry"; people who wanted to tell others how to live and what to think. Original meanings were gendered (meaning women got a subordinate role) and crucially, great emphasis was put on obedience and conformity.

By AD249 the fresh creativity of the original phrases were squashed. Ever more complex commentaries and walls of constricting text surrounded the original pithy images. Binary explanations (good/bad) had become embedded as the (only) way of understanding what the original phrases meant. What had been a free-flowing guide to life gradually evolved into dogmatic and prescriptive instructions for living. The open architecture of the earlier versions became a series of corridors, studded with doors marked "do not open".

Margaret Pearson, a United States academic, has gone back to the original text to discover the effect of the later additions. These, she insists, bind those original open meanings and turn them into a series of prescriptive orders. It's as if the book's focus on change has been turned inside out. Instead of viewing change as necessary, constant and positive, it became a threat and danger. Anything that challenged stability was frowned on.

Pearson points out that "the hexagram for 'peace' (number 11 in a sequence of 64) shows the earth above the sky". This is obviously an unstable image, but change doesn't have to be bad. Pearson insists on the original positive reading. "It actually means the petty depart and the great arrive. In other words it's really good when things are interacting. It's the reverse of immobility. The original book is actually welcoming change - as it's title implies. Change is always with us."

It's a dramatic reinterpretation with the potential to explain much more than just producing a better horoscope. Gunpowder, wood-block printing, paper and the compass were all discovered in China, yet in no case was the potential of the technology realised. There must have been something about Chinese society at the time that prevented the harnessing of the new possibilities such breakthroughs offered. It's a bit much to blame this all on a conservative interpretation of the I Ching, of course, and that's certainly not what Pearson's doing. But the battle over the way we need to view change continues today.

Shuffle forward to our own time and a concept like inflation. This is regularly portrayed as a threat to the steady workings of society: a danger; something bad that must be avoided at all costs. This is nonsense. Look at the economic stagnation that's accompanying steady or falling prices. There's less incentive to take risks, because the price of failure is too high. Failures aren't forgiven. Money accumulates in the hands of those who already possess it. Stasis rules; incentive is crushed.

Change is necessary. It can't be stopped, except at massive cost to future development and opportunity. Change also represents a problem for those in power. They want to stop things moving because they're very happy with things remaining just the way they are. This is the conservative mindset. Unfortunately it isn't the way the world works.

China didn't change in the Middle Ages. It's too much to blame all of that failure on culture, but society needs to expect challenges and welcome change. Otherwise we'll just stagnate.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.