Oracle Bones Crowd-sourced

Chinese scholars are asking for help with deciphering thousands of oracle bones, and are offering rewards:
“The National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan province, has issued a worldwide appeal for help to decipher thousands of esoteric characters cut into bones and shells dating back more than 3,000 years to the Shang dynasty.
The inscriptions, resembling modern characters, are the earliest written records of Chin­ese civilisation and shed light on life and society at a time.
They were carved by fortune-tellers on turtle shells and ox shoulder blades known as oracle bones, and record questions on everything from weather to taxes.
So far, scholars have managed to crack the code to less than half of the roughly 5,000 characters found on excavated oracle bones. Around 3,000 of them remain a mystery.” Read the whole article here.


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.


Review: I Ching: The Book of Change, by David Hinton

hinton i chingI Ching: The Book of Change
by David Hinton
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015, US$20
Hardcover, 137 pp
ISBN-13: 978-0374220907

David Hinton evokes the mystical and mythical in this translation of the I Ching, taking it as a “proto-Daoist” work. Unlike his many prior translations such as the Analects, Mencius, Tao Te Ching, and numerous Chinese poets which clearly are translations, Hinton’s I Ching is quite different, and perhaps best experienced as an interpretive work rooted equally in poetry and scholarship.

Each hexagram includes the hexagram Judgment, the Commentary on the Judgment (titled “Presentation”), the component trigrams, the Image text, and line texts. In the back of the book are a limited number of notes, “how to consult” instructions, and a finding chart arranged in the Fuxi sequence.

In many places, Hinton’s translation is not that different from that of others. But at times, he employs his own idiosyncratic language that begs decoding, such as “the dedication of a bird sitting on eggs,” which in the Wilhelm/Baynes I Ching translation is “sincere.” Occasionally, the language is wildly different: compare these translations of Hexagram 5, Line 1:

Hinton: “Anticipation among farmland fertility altars: If you rely on moondrift constancy to bring forth great bounty, how could you ever go astray?”
Wilhelm/Baynes: “Waiting in the meadow. It furthers one to abide in what endures. No blame.”
Rutt: “Waiting at the suburban altar. Favorable for a heng ceremony. No misfortune.”

Or, Hexagram 18: “All origins penetrating everywhere, decay’s maggot-bowl brings forth the wild bounty of crossing a great river….” Or Hexagram 22, which in Wilhelm/Baynes is “Simple grace. No blame,” Hinton renders “In pellucid elegance moving with the beauty of cowrie shells, you never go astray.”

As only about forty hexagram names are more-or-less recognizable, readers would have benefited from a list of names plus Chinese characters and romanization. Those names that are different are sometimes drastically so, such as “Delicate Nurturing” (Hexagram 9, Wilhelm/Baynes’ “Taming Power of the Small”), “Heron’s-Eye Gaze” (Hexagram 20, “Contemplation”), “Inception Thicket” (Hexagram 4, “Youthful Folly”). Readers might also wish for a glossary of Hinton’s unique terms, and for numbering of notes (there is no indication on the pages themselves when there is a note in the back). The experienced I Ching user might want more background on translation rationale, and source material.

Hinton’s I Ching is a slim volume and nicely produced. It is suited for divination use and for inspirational readings. However, it does require readers to immerse themselves into his unique ideas and wording which are sometimes more opaque than the standard interpretations.

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

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.