Review: Richard Smith on the I Ching

The I Ching: A Biography
Richard J. Smith
Princeton University Press, 2012
ISBN 978-0691145099
Hardcover, 304 pp.
US$24.95
Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World
The Yijing (I Ching, or Classic of Changes) and Its Evolution in China
Richard J. Smith
University of Virginia Press, 2008, 2018 (paper)
Paper, 416 pp.
ISBN 9780813940465
US$35.00
Mapping China and Managing the World: Culture, Cartography and Cosmology in Late Imperial Times
Routledge, 2012
Paper, 288 pp.
US$55.95

Richard Smith, a professor of Chinese history from Rice University in Texas, has written several outstanding books about the Yijing that will be of interest to readers looking to learn about where the Yijiing came from, what it meant, and how it spread around the world.

The first, Fathoming the Cosmos and Ordering the World: The Yijing (I Ching, or Classic of Changes) and Its Evolution in China is an in-depth look at almost every aspect of the Yijing: how it was used and by whom, the schools of thought that used and extended its meaning,  how its use evolved, the key personalities who wrote about it, and how it came to have such a global impact. Fathoming the Cosmos is a key starting point for any English-language Yijing research. Even a cursory look through it will demonstrate that dozens more volumes could easily be written on Yijing topics. The book has recently been reissued in paperback. In a companion volume, The I Ching: A Biography, Smith revisits the material of Fathoming the Cosmos, reworking it to create a volume for a general audience. Both books have thorough notes, indexes, and bibliographies.

 

Smith is author of several other highly regarded books that look at aspects of imperial Chinese history, culture, ritual, and ordering of the world. Fortunetellers and Philosophers: Divination in Traditional Chinese Society (1991) was his first foray into the Yijing, and also looked at topics such as fengshui, mediums, and face-reading.

Smith’s recent book, Mapping China and Managing the World (2013) revises a number of his lectures and articles. Several of these, updated into full chapters, are directly about the Yijing. “The Languages of the Yijing and the Representation of Reality,” is a thorough overview of Yijing studies. “Divination in the Qing” shows how involved the Qing dynasty rulers were with Yijing study and divination (remembering that the Qing themselves were Manchurians, not Chinese), while “Jesuit Interpretations of the Yijing in Global Perspective” covers the intriguing and complex interactions between European Christians and the Chinese during that dynasty. Smith’s introduction to the book also provides a good summary of current questions and issues about Chinese studies in general, and explains how he came to be interested in the Yijing. Central to this was comprehending that the Yijing is deeply connected with all aspects of Chinese culture and society.

Richard Smith’s books are excellent resources for anyone wishing to trace the Yijing’s history, whether for a class paper or for personal enrichment.


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Review: Cheng Yi’s Yi River Commentary of the Book of Changes

The Yi River Commentary on the Book of Changes
by Cheng Yi, edited and translated by L. Michael Harrington
Introduction by L. Michael Harrington and Robin R. Wang
Yale University Press, 2019
ISBN: 9780300218077
Hardcover, 576 pages
$85 USD

Cheng Yi (1033–1107) lived during the Song dynasty, and was one of the era’s great thinkers. His Yijing commentary greatly influenced subsequent generations. Understanding the Yijing was important, but difficult, it was by then already a 2000-year-old book. Translator L. Michael Harrington, a professor of philosophy, gives a succinct overview of Cheng Yi’s thoughts and his influence on subsequent generations, including our own. He notes an important feature of Cheng’s commentary, that it offers full discussion of the hexagram components, rather than the snippets of explanation and terse definitions common to other commentaries. In addition, Cheng Yi creates a “coherent conceptual structure: the principle that governs the interaction between different capacities and functions in any state of affairs.”

Translating the Yijing is a difficult task, and Harrington clearly describes methods used in his effort to see the Yijing through Cheng’s eyes. He explains translation choices, as well. One interesting choice, for example, is the name “Ebb” for Hexagram 59 渙, which is “Dispersion/Dissolution” in the classic Wilhelm/Baynes I Ching. Harrington includes an introduction (written with colleague Robin Wang), notes on Cheng’s quotations of other material, extensive glossary, and a thorough index.

The Yi River Commentary is an excellent companion to I Ching editions of Richard Wilhelm (translated by Cary Baynes), and Wang Bi (translated by Richard John Lynn). These are all dependable translations that introduce readers to particular strains of Yijing interpretations. In Cheng’s presentation, we can, in particular, see the roots of Richard Wilhelm’s work eight centuries later, both using a “teaching voice” that seeks to engage the student in depth.

Translating the Yijing is a difficult task, and Harrington clearly describes methods used in his effort to see the Yijing through Cheng’s eyes. He explains translation choices, as well. One interesting choice, for example, is the name “Ebb” for Hexagram 59 渙, which is “Dispersion/Dissolution” in the classic Wilhelm/Baynes I Ching. Harrington includes an introduction (written with colleague Robin Wang), notes on Cheng’s quotations of other material, extensive glossary, and a thorough index.

Avid Yijing readers will undoubtedly want to compare this translation of Cheng Yi’s work to others. Harrington’s is a model of transparency, detailing sources, methodology, and what material is included. The other English translation, by Thomas Cleary, is I Ching: The Tao of Organization. As with Cleary’s other Yijing translations, The Taoist I Ching, The Buddhist I Ching, and I Ching Mandalas  (all from Shambhala Books) he succeeds in his effort to reach an educated popular audience. However, in each book he offers little clarity about his methods or source material. In his translation of Cheng’s book, Cleary severely edited the original material, leaving out what Harrington estimates to be more than half of Cheng’s comments, in particular, on the Ten Wings related to each hexagram. An interested reader would have to do their own comparative reading of the original to figure out what Cleary included or omitted, and what of Cheng’s text is actually quotes of other material. Harrington’s translation includes all of this.

The Yi River Commentary is a well-made book physically, with a sturdy hardcover binding, though it weighs in at over two pounds. Unfortunately, the price for this book is set for libraries and specialists, not for the average Yijing reader, who would undoubtedly find this book of interest. The book is missing two key items for general readers: a hexagram finding chart and instructions for how to use the Yijing. Fortunately, these are easily found elsewhere (see our Basics and Resources pages for such).

The Yi River Commentary is highly recommended for Yijing readers who enjoy pondering the deeper meaning of this ancient book and what it meant to the philosophers of imperial China, and for those readers who may be interested in the sources of modern interpretations.

 

Book Review: Yijing, Shamanic Oracle

Yijing, Shamanic Oracle of China: A New Book of Change

Richard Bertschinger, translation and commentary
Singing Dragon 2012
Hardcover/ebook, 336 pp.
US $30 / £25.00
ISBN: 978-1-84819-083-2

Yijing, Shamanic Oracle of China is a nicely presented contemplative book. Richard Bertschinger, an acupuncturist and student of  Gia-fu Feng, has done an engaging job of presenting his thoughts about the Yijing. With occasional cross-cultural philosophical comparisons, Bertschinger presents a translation of the core Zhouyi and selected Wings, enhanced with his comments, and including a helpful glossary.

“The Yijing can reveal the seeds of the future, but above all it teaches reverence for those small inklings in the present which determine the science of change. It encourages us all to be alive to the world, and take a stand on destiny.”

Bertschinger’s translation emphasizes finding one’s path. “You can transform those observing below, by observing the causes of your own life. Observe yourself within and contemplate the evens of your own life. At no time neglect to seek the middle path and at all times act properly” (from Hexagram 20).

This is a very accessible Yijing book, drawn from the author’s reading of traditional Chinese texts, accessible to beginners, but meaty enough for experienced users.

Review: A Companion to Yi Jing Numerology and Cosmology by Bent Nielsen

A Companion to Yi Jing Numerology and Cosmology: Chinese Studies of Images and Numbers from the Han (202 BCE–220 CE) to Song (960–1279 CE)

Bent Nielsen
Routledge, 2003, paper 2015
Paper, 391 pp
US$39.96
ISBN 9781138862678
Also available in hardcover and eboook

A better title for this splendid book might have been A Quite Comprehensive Encyclopedic Companion to the Yijing. Despite the focus on Han-Song dynasties, devotees of any era or type of Yijing studies will find this book invaluable. The author, Bent Nielsen, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen, has drawn from a good range of source material in covering the many schools of Yijing thought.

The book entries cover the gamut of Yijing topics, from the towering personalities such as Wang Bi and Yu Fan, to intriguing theories such as the Six Gateways (liu men), to obscure terms like the “Hexagrams of the Returning Souls” (gui hun gua), and to numerous explanatory charts and tables. The entries are in alphabetical order in pinyin, with traditional characters and translation.

A Companion assumes a certain level of familiarity with Yijing terms. One hates to quibble about such a wonderful book, however, given all the time periods, ideas, terms, and languages involved, a thorough index with cross-references would have been a nice addition. A small example: the word jing is explained as meaning “classic,” however, there is no entry or cross-reference under “classic.” Another example: the ideas of influential Ming dynasty Yijing writer Lai Zhide (1525–1604) feature in entries such as about hexagram order (guaxu) and “laterally linked hexagrams” (pangtonggua), yet there is no entry for Lai himself, presumably because he is from a later century beyond the scope of the book. We can only hope that Nielsen or another scholar will soon tackle creating the  companion to this Companion, one that will cover pre-Han and post-Song Yijing topics.

This book is highly readable on its own, or as a companion to others. Nielsen’s work is to be commended, and the publisher is to be thanked for issuing these new, affordable paper and ebook editions.

Review: Book of Changes: The Original Core of the I Ching by Lars Bo Christensen

Book of Changes: The Original Core of the I Ching
by Lars Bo Christensen
CreateSpace 2015
paperback, 392 pages
US$30
ISBN-13: 978-1508848400
audio edition available
Excerpt available as
I Ching: The Core Kindle Edition
US$7.77

The Book of Changes by Lars Bo Christensen is a compendium of material suitable for close study of the Zhouyi. The book has discussion of the historical backdrop of the Zhouyi, including selections from the Zuozhuan, one of the earliest texts that mentions the Zhouyi. Hexagrams are presented in Chinese with English translation and concordance, including discussion of the meanings of specific characters that allows the reader to follow Christensen’s thought process. Frequently occurring characters are  provided in a separate glossary.

The Zhouyi translation is repeated at the end of the book, for easy access for divination purposes, along with the author’s terse summary of hexagrams and line meanings. Instructions are given for yarrow stalks and coins. (It should be noted that, taking advantage of the flexibility of self-publishing, the author has since issued I Ching: The Core Kindle Edition, described as a “simpler and more handy alternative” aimed at general readers who may not be as interested in his in-depth analysis of the Chinese text.)

This translation is helpful for anyone exploring details of the core Zhouyi text, and can be used in conjunction with Richard Rutt’s Zhouyi, Richard Kunst’s thesis notes (available online), Stephen Field’s Duke of Zhou Changes, Bradford Hatcher’s online I Ching works, and Edward Shaughnessy’s many books on the Yi. As a concordance, it draws from much prior scholarship and is much more topic- and era-specific than earlier Riitsima/Karcher concordances.

The book has a few problems in editing and formatting. One is that in the solo translation in the back, the paired hexagrams are not on facing pages. This is unfortunate, as Christensen has some important discussion of the pairings in an earlier chapter, and it would have been helpful to be able to compare the hexagram pairs without having to turn pages. Another puzzling choice: the Zuozhuan section is supplied in Chinese, with Christensen’s English summary and comments, but without full translation.

Overall, the Book of Changes: The Original Core of the I Ching is a good choice for the serious student of the Zhouyi; the tools it provides will help readers take an even closer look at the text, even if they do not have specialized language training.

Book Review: I Ching: The Essential Translation by John Minford

minford i chingI Ching:
The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom

John Minford
Viking, 2014 , $39.95
Hardcover, 855 pp
ISBN 978-0-670-02469-8.
Also available in paperback, audio, and ebook

When it comes to the Yijing, it is wonderful to encounter translations and commentaries that are done with a love for the book, rendered in approachable ways, yet rooted in solid thinking and research. John Minford has created an Yijing that is monumental and multilayered in so many ways.

The book is constructed of two halves, each with its own translation. The first part is titled the “Book of Wisdom” and contains the complete Yijing text along with Minford’s extensive commentary. For this, Minford draws from a number of sources including the eighteenth-century Daoist Liu Yiming, contemporary philosopher and Daoist Chen Guying, and Professor Mun Kin Chok. Minford draws as well from Wang Bi, James Legge, and others, and from Chinese poetry. Minford uses Latin translations of the oracles (e.g., Transire magnum flumen for “To cross a Great Stream”) and the trigram descriptions within the Great Images (Coelum in medio montis for “Heaven within the Mountain”). He explains that he has done so in order to evoke a “timeless mood of contemplation” and to connect between Chinese and European traditions of self-cultivation. The hexagrams are here numbered with roman numerals.

The second part is the “Bronze Age Oracle,” and contains the Zhouyi core text and Minford’s comments. Hexagram names are given in ancient script and pronunciation, and numbered with arabic numerals. For this section’s distinct flavor, Minford draws on contemporary research into the ancient Zhouyi—pre-Daoist, pre-Confucian, pre-Buddhist. The translations are distinct from Part One, giving the reader a chance to mull on the lengthy history of the Yijing and the evolution of how people thought about it and used it. To contrast the two sections, here is Line One from Hexagram 6 Conflict:

Part One: The matter / Does not endure, / Non diu durabit / There is some slight talk. / Ultimately / All is Auspicious / In fine optimum.

Part Two: Service / Cut short. / Slight complaint. / Auspicious Conclusion.

Minford states that his is not “a scholarly translation for specialists” but for lay readers to use the book in consultation. However, this does not mean that it is superficial in any manner. It has the hallmarks of a mature scholar’s wide-ranging insights, and melds information from many commentary traditions, including Daoist and Confucian, into something unique.

The main sections of the book are supplemented by a very helpful annotated bibliography grouped by topic, a list of names and dates (without Chinese characters), an extensive glossary, and index.

Minford’s book is not perfect, though. With so much material, at some point book design becomes an issue. Citing the already great number of pages for his book, Minford elected to make seventy pages of detailed notes available online at the author’s website. Reading the notes is interesting in itself, to follow his thinking, or to read poems and other quotes that he decided to remove from the main work. In addition, while centered lines for the original text create a sense of poetry and great esteem for the original text, they are somewhat harder to read. Double-spacing is used to distinguish the Zhouyi layer and is enhanced by a seal-style graphic, but all of these conspire to use up lavish amount of space that further contributes to rendering this book a bulky 850 pages at 1.2 kg (close to three pounds).

In his I Ching: The Essential Translation, John Minford has created a multilayered, insightful work that deserves much contemplation.

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Review: The Duke of Zhou Changes

field duke of zhou changes yijingThe Duke of Zhou Changes: A Study and Annotated Translation of the Zhouyi
Stephen Field
Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015
Softcover, 283 pages
58 € (approx. US$62)
ISBN 978-3447104067

Hidden behind this plain, yellow cover is an Yijing treasure-trove. Stephen Field, a professor of Chinese and an Yijing researcher, has created a book that will appeal to all levels of Yijing readers. He creates a compelling read out of viewing the Yi through the life of the Duke of Zhou, who, according to legend, was instrumental in its formation. This method leaves out the layers of later interpretation and commentary by focusing on the oldest layer, the Zhouyi. Others have used this approach (Richard Rutt’s Zhouyi, Greg Whincup’s Rediscovering the I Ching, and so on), but Field’s version stands out for creating what almost feels like a gripping historical novel about the epic story of the early Zhou dynasty.

Part One of The Duke of Zhou Changes is an introduction giving a concise history of ancient China, from prehistory through the Zhou; an overview of the field of divination and mythical and historical origins of the Yijing. Part Two consists of the Zhouyi hexagram texts, which Field has uniquely formatted in tables that inform the reader of the varied sub-elements within the texts. The head of each table has the Chinese name of the hexagram written in bronze script (jinwen), the hexagram number, the hexagram figure, and then the pinyin romanization and English translation.

The balance of each table is devoted to the hexagram texts. Field has numbered the Judgement text “0” and subsequent line texts 1–6. Additionally, a corresponding visual cue for each line is given: the numbers for yang lines  are printed in black ink on a white square, and yin line numbers are white on a black square. The texts are then subdivided into three elements: Omen, Counsel, and Fortune, in the following manner for Hexagram 6:

Omen: There are prisoners, frozen with fear.
Counsel: It is time to see the great one. It is not good to ford the great river.
Fortune: There is good fortune now, but in the end there will be misfortune.

Field then gives explanations of the meaning of the hexagram name, along with historical and cultural information. For instance, “Bundle the offering” in Hexagram 12 is explained as “This omen depicts a common form of sacrificial offering: steamed food wrapped in leaves.” Field further explains the class differences between this kind of offering when done by a commoner versus that by a noble, done with a bronze cauldron.

Part Three of the book instructs the reader in how to cast and interpret hexagrams, whether using yarrow, coins, or an eight-coin method. Rounding out the book are a glossary, bibliography, index, and finding chart.

As Field’s translation of hexagram names differs from others, a cross-reference chart, or in the index by number in addition to name, would have been helpful. For example, Hexagram 36 is indexed as “Calling Arrow-Bird, The” followed by the Chinese characters, and then by the hexagram number (in Wilhelm/Baynes the hexagram is titled Ming I—Darkening of the Light). At first glance, the index seems good enough, but with use, lacks the level of detail one might wish for deeper research. An example: Hexagram 19 Wailing, is interpreted as being about mourning rituals, but that topic is not found in the index.

There is a lot to chew on in this book, particularly when compared with later “Confucian” commentaries. Hexagram 52, as an example, is dramatically different than traditional readings that take it to mean “stillness” and as inspiration for self-cultivation and meditation.  Field instead takes the hexagram theme to be “obstructions” in various parts of the body.

The book is quite expensive, which will unfortunately limit its reach to academic libraries and to online purchases. It is deserving of a wider readership.

Stephen Field nicely captures the ancient layers of the Yijing in a way that makes it greatly useful for all audiences. The Duke of Zhou Changes is highly readable, clearly laid out, compact, well-organized, easy to dip into, and an interesting read.

Review: The Designer’s Book of Change

designers book of change i chingThe Designer’s Book of Change: The Ancient Wisdom of the I Ching for Today’s Designers.
by C.G. Garant
Green Dragon Books, 2002, US$25
Paperback, 130 pp.
ISBN 9780893343934

There have been many trends in interpreting ancient Chinese books such as the Yijing. One is to view the text through the “lens” of a specific theme or occupation. The Designer’s Book of Change does just this, as have numerous other titles from the same publisher (formerly Humanics Press).

“Designer” in this case has nothing to do with the specifics of graphic art, fashion, or home decor trends. Rather, the author, C. G. Garant, a professor of design education, has given careful thought to how the Yijing conforms with meaningful and universal principles of design, from the cosmic to the local. He writes, “….design creates the structure upon which the expansion of awareness, i.e. consciousness, is experienced. Design is the vehicle that actively transports our consciousness from one symbol to the next and from one pattern to another across dimensions.”

The hexagram entries each take up two pages: on the left page, a large, handwritten character for the hexagram name, hexagram figure, number, name, trigrams and nuclear trigrams. On the right page is a poetic interpretation of the hexagram, followed by a discussion of the hexagram’s meaning.

The introductory thirty pages present Garant’s ideas on how design underlies everything. His interpretations of hexagrams are not formulaic in any manner, and offer thoughtful insights that nicely blend philosophy and practice. An example from Hexagram 41 Sun:

“It is imperative that designers attempt to refrain from immediate and self-centered gratification, but rather focus on cultivating the mind so that the harmony between meaning and purpose can be truly felt and experienced.”

Garant’s prior books are The Tao of Design and The Tao of Circles. The Designer’s Book of Change is a refreshingly interesting and relevant take on an ancient classic. While it may be of particular interest to those involved with creative, problem-solving kinds of work, it is worth taking a look at for those with general interest in the Yijing.

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.