Review: The Classic of Changes in Cultural Context, by Scott Davis

The <i>Classic of Changes</i> in Cultural Context: A Textual Archaeology of the <i>Yi jing</i>The Classic of Changes in Cultural Context: A Textual Archaeology of the Yi jing
Scott Davis
Cambria Press, 2012
US$114.99; ebook editions starting at $8.99
Hardcover, 308 pages
ISBN 9781604978087

The Zhouyi—the core layer of the Yijing—is of unknown origin and authorship, and consists of the sixty-four hexagram figures and their brief texts. The significance of the sequence of hexagrams  is one of its lingering mysteries: all that is clear is that the hexagrams are arranged in graphically related pairs, some of those pairs are in special position, and that the texts only occasionally relate clearly between paired hexagrams. Any further organization of the hexagram order remains unknown, and, in fact, it has long been considered by some to be random.

In The Classic of Changes in Cultural Context, Scott Davis presents a radical idea: that there is a complex underlying matrix to the Zhouyi order upon which textual imagery, placement in the received order, and the graphic figures of the hexagrams are all carefully arranged. Davis uses anthropological structural analysis to frame his theory and to link the Zhouyi to the larger questions of how the early Chinese cultural world was constructed.  This matrix was of great significance at the time of its creation, and, was possibly used for other literary works before its meaning was lost. Davis gives examples of various substructures to the matrix: hexagrams arranged by decades relate to an idealized lifespan; mirrored arrangments of hexagrams with “Great” and “Small” in their names such as Hexagrams 9 and 14 (Small Domestication and Great Wealth, respectively); images such as wine being placed in significant positions, and so on.

The Classic of Changes presents fascinating ideas that challenge long-held presumptions about the Yijing. The book is not, however, an easy read, and could have used more reader-friendly exposition as well as a glossary for specialized terminology. Readers may benefit by first reading Davis’ 2011 article, “Structural Analysis in the Context of Ancient Chinese Text and Culture” (available online through the Zhouyi Center) in which he lays out his argument more concisely, making the case for using both image and text in building an understanding of the Zhouyi’s structure.

The book is available in hardcover and ebook. It is indexed, and has a helpful second index for the hexagrams by number (the first index includes hexagrams by name, but omits the numbers, and the second index gives numbers but not the names). One disappointment, particularly considering the price of the book, is that the illustrations were not prepared at higher resolutions.

The Classic of Changes in Cultural Context is recommended for serious students of the Yijing, early Chinese cultural history, and for those who are searching for fresh departures on old material. Davis’ work is a reminder that a) we are limited in what we know about early China, b)  that we tend to look at things from our own limited perspectives, and c) that we at times are limited by traditional views.