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.
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
Mapping China and Managing the World: Culture, Cartography and Cosmology in Late Imperial Times
Routledge, 2012
Paper, 288 pp.

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.