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
Hardcover, 576 pages
Cheng Yi (1033–1107) lived during the Song dynasty, and was one of the era’s great thinkers. His Yijing work greatly influenced subsequent generations. L. Michael Harrington, a professor of philosophy, includes an introduction (written with colleague Robin Wang), notes on Cheng’s quotations of other material, extensive glossary, and a thorough index. Harrington and Wang give a succinct overview of Cheng’s thoughts and his influence on subsequent generations, including our own. They note an important feature of Cheng’s commentary, that it offers full discussion of the hexagram components, rather than snippets of explanation and terse definitions appearing in in other commentaries. In addition, Cheng creates a “coherent conceptual structure: the principle that governs the interaction between different capacities and functions in any state of affairs.”
Understanding the Yijing is difficult, thus the need for commentaries such as Cheng Yi’s–which was by then already a 2000-year-old book. Translating the Yijing is also 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.
The Yi River Commentary is an excellent companion to I Ching editions of Richard Wilhelm (translated by Cary Baynes), and by 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, inparticular, see the roots of Richard Wilhelm’s work eight centuries later, both using a “teaching voice” that seeks to engage the student in depth.
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 he offers little clarity as to his methods or source material. In his translation of Cheng’s book, he 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 his or her own reading of the original Chinese to find what Cleary included or omitted, nor did he indicate what of Cheng’s text is actually quotes of other material.
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.
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 who may be interested in the sources of modern interpretations.