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.

“360º I Ching” — Art by Walter De Maria

“The late artist Walter De Maria was known for making sculptures with enormous mounds of dirt and even bolts of lightning. Presented as a sort of enigmatic puzzle, “360° I Ching” measures nearly 10,000 square feet in its newest incarnation, sprawling over two large galleries at Dia:Beacon, the museum for minimalist and monumental art in upstate Beacon, N.Y. The work, surrounded by an aura of mystery and quiet contemplation, opens Sunday and will remain on view through summer 2017.”

View the complete article at the Wall Street Journal.

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.

Review: The Living I Ching

deng living i chingThe Living I Ching: Using Ancient Chinese Wisdom to Shape Your Life
by Deng Ming-Dao
HarperOne, 2006, US$21.99
Paperback 408 pp
978-0060850029

Deng Ming-Dao is the prolific author of several early popular English books on the Daoist lifestyle, compiled as Chronicles of Tao: The Secret Life of a Taoist Master. He has since written the bestselling daily meditations 365 Dao, The Lunar Tao: Meditations in Harmony with the Seasons, and many other inspirational books.

In The Living I Ching, Deng has created an entire universe for readers by blending divination, meditations, artwork, history, and even the book design into a whole cloth. Deng’s writing is engaging, with powerful, densely written poetry worth reading on its own:

How can I ever soar
as high as this old tree
where the birds sing at dawn?

(from his interpretation of Hexagram 46)

Dissatisfied equally with the interpretations of Yijing masters who follow tradition without questioning, and with academics who question without engaging with the tradition, Deng asks, “What does the Changes mean? How can it be used? How can we hear it directly?” Indeed, his book is conceived as a pilgrimage: “we go to hear the Changes speak to us.”

Deng is not content to give a commentary from a remote distance, or to riff on existing interpretations. He has constructed an eight-layer set of musings set in original prose, poetry, and translation, from wu-wei to the entire group of sixty-four hexagrams.

Each hexagram entry has the graphic, character, number, name, trigrams, basic meaning, the Sequence of Hexagrams, a poetic rendition of the hexagram theme, a translation of the original text and image, and a two-page discussion of the meaning of the hexagram. The book’s ten appendices offer more detailed ideas related to current topics of interest in Yijing studies, such as translation, history, and the hexagram sequence.
Handsomely produced and printed on sturdy paper with a good binding, the book will hold up to repeated use. One confusing editorial problem: the book provides four eight-grid charts for reference, the Fuxi (which he numbers 0-63, on pages xv and 50), the received order (numbered 1-64, on page xvii), and, as an insert in the back, the Fuxi chart again, but this time numbered according to each hexagram’s received order number. This last chart, in fact, looks like an afterthought, possibly a page accidentally omitted in the production process. Readers may wish to photocopy it onto heavier paper.

The Living I Ching book is a grand meditation on the Yijing and life with solid grounding that will appeal to many.

Review: Teaching the I Ching (Book of Changes)

Teaching the I Ching (Book of Changes)
by Geoffrey Redmond and Tze-Ki Hon
Oxford University Press, 2014, $78
Hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0199766819

Well-known I Ching scholar Tze-Ki Hon (author of many important research articles and a book on the I Ching’s intellectual history) has teamed up with physician Geoffrey Redmond to create this well-written and nicely formatted book. Teaching the I Ching provides a readable, thorough introduction to the Chinese Book of Changes. Ostensibly written for college professors who wish to include the I Ching in their classes, Teaching the I Ching covers a wide and thought-provoking range of topics, making the book of interest to a wide range of readers.

For anyone interested in Chinese civilization, humanities, literature, history, popular culture, or philosophy, but who does not understand the I Ching, Redmond and Hon’s book will be a welcome first step, as it surveys much of the contemporary questions being asked about the enigmatic, ancient I Ching. It even provides a short section on how to use the I Ching that can serve well in giving students a more multi-dimensional look. The book does not translate the I Ching, but rather serves as a resource. Chapters include:

Introduction: The Rewards and Perils of Studying an Ancient Classic
1. Divination
2. Bronze Age Origins
3. Women in the Yijing
4. Recently Excavated Manuscripts
5. Ancient Meanings Reconstructed
6. The Ten Wings
7. Cosmology
8. Moral Cultivation
9. The Yijing as China Enters the Modern Age
10. The Yijing’s Journey to the West
11. Reader’s Guide
12. Predicting the Future for the Yijing

A teacher preparing a unit on the Yijing can rely confidently on the material in this book. Its comprehensiveness and clarity will give a good breadth of issues and topics, with a substantial amount of depth. It can be paired with translations such as the Richard Wilhelm I Ching: Book of Changes for a complete set of material. While aimed at teachers, it is a pity that the book has such a high price; otherwise, Teaching the I Ching would have been a welcome addition to students’ reading lists. Perhaps the publisher can remedy this with a substantially cheaper softcover edition.
Highly recommended.

Review: Unearthing the Changes

Unearthing the Changes: Recently Discovered Manuscripts of the Yi Jing (I Ching) and Related Texts
by Edward L. Shaughnessy
Columbia University Press 2014
Hardcover, 400 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0231161848

A thorough study of the Zhouyi—the core of the I Ching (Yijing), the Chinese Book of Changes. Edward Shaughnessy, a professor at the University of Chicago, is one of the world’s leading specialists in early Chinese texts. He surveys the field and then hones in on several texts that have surfaced in recent decades: fragments of the legendary Guishan and bamboo-slat versions of the Zhouyi. These finds were significant as they provided the earliest extant Yi documents, the oldest of these being the so-called “Shanghai Museum” manuscript, from the fourth century BCE.

Shaughnessy provides for each text a facing-page comparitive translation of the “received text” and notes varients from sources such as the Mawangdui I Ching (which he translated and published in 1997). He gives discussion of the received order, use of early numerals, growth of the Yi tradition, and issues of archeology and conservation.

Unearthing the Changes will appeal to the archeologist in everybody. While this is a highly detailed and technical book that will serve specialists well, it is clearly enough written for non-specialists to enjoy. It is beautifully designed (though with a somewhat small font), and includes photographic examples of the excavated bamboo-slat texts. Shaughnessy’s attention to detail is admirable, and makes this an essential book for those interested in the history of the I Ching.