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 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.

Book Review: The Original I Ching by Margaret Pearson

pearson i chingThe Original I Ching: An Authentic Translation of the Book of Changes
by Margaret Pearson
Tuttle Publishing, 2011, US$18.95
Hardcover, 258 pp
ISBN 978-0-8048-4181-8

Margaret Pearson’s The Original I Ching “recovers the Yijing’s oldest layer and gives a fresh look at questions of gender in Yi traditions. Pearson, a professor of Chinese and Japanese history, challenges existing views of ancient women’s roles, and the gendering of the concepts of yin and yang, which were originally geographically based and neutral. “Yijing tradition,” she argues, took on later overlays of Confucianism that came to dominate China for thousands of years. Its interpretation was particularly influenced by the important third century commentary by philosopher Wang Bi that emphasized the positive traits of yang (male), and the negative traits of yin (female). She also points out that not only were some women in early China in positions of power, but that they also consulted the Yi.

The Original I Ching includes Pearson’s introduction that covers the context of the Yijing, an explanation of translation strategy, and an extensive section on how to use the Yijing. Pearson gives a good overview of the choices made in her translation of this venerable text (e.g., pronouns in English are gendered, verbs are time-bound). She uses “you should” instead of “the superior man,” pointing out the lessons to be learned from the book. The translation is terse, like the original text, and she describes her process as one that reflects the occasional vagueness of the original. Various methods of casting and reading are given, along with how to take advice.

The translation itself includes the hexagram graphic, Chinese name in character and pinyin (with tones), English name, Judgment and line texts, Pearson’s interpretation of the hexagram, and the Image text. In a helpful gesture towards those who wish to do comparative readings, each entry is followed by page numbers for the Shaughnessy, Lynn, and Wilhelm/Baynes translations. The Chinese text is appended, a welcome feature. Pearson has used the traditional received text, but has added some changes based on recent archeological finds. Appended are a reading list, bibliography, and a clearly formatted finding chart on back endpaper. Pearson’s work can be complemented by the “Women in the Yijing” chapter in Teaching the I Ching (Book of Changes) by Redmond and Hon (previously reviewed here). The Original I Ching should not be lumped together with two earlier popular-market Yijing interpretations that had a “feminist” slant (Diane Stein’s Women’s I Ching and Barbara G. Walker’s I Ching of the Goddess), Pearson’s version in contrast is an actual translation, rooted in solid scholarship.

The book has a gentle but firm tone in terms of guidance, possibly influenced by Pearson’s many years of teaching undergraduates. She has a nice way of drawing lessons from the Yi for the average person’s life, all the while giving much historical background and capturing ideas in brief summary. Footnotes provide for further reading, though surprisingly lacking are citations in her comments where she occasionally refers to  Confucius’ teachings. The Original I Ching is printed in a compact format with good binding and paper that will bear long use. Pearson’s comments have a welcome directness to them. This would be an excellent edition to use as an introduction to the Yijing in a Chinese literature or history class.

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.