易: A Cable into the Abyss of a Darker Time

Bodhidharma 達摩 consulting the I Ching

Bodhidharma 達摩 consulting the I Ching

The I Ching 易經, or Book of Change, is not just a Chinese book, it is the Chinese book. John Minford‘s translation of this book of books was published by Viking Penguin in October 2014. His introduction to that book, itself a masterful overview of this Chinese classic and its international fate, was an edited-down version of a longer essay. John has kindly given us permission to publish the full text here.

Starting in the early months of 2015, John Minford has presented a series of eighteen lecture-seminars on Chinese literature and translation at the Australian Centre on China in the World. Based on his magnificent anthologies of Chinese literature from the era of Oracle Bone divinations (volume one of this anthology co-edited with Joseph Lau was published by Columbia University Press; volume two is in preparation), these lectures offer a unique perspective on the Chinese tradition and its vital life in the present. The China Story Journal will publish the audio recordings of his 2015 lectures, with study notes, over the coming months. During the first series of talks, John was interviewed for a Chinese documentary being made by Tianjin TV. Titled ‘Brother Stone’ 石兄石弟 and part of a series on international scholars who work on China called 泊客中国, it was broadcast by CCTV on 25 October 2015 and can be viewed here.

The title of this important contribution to The China Story Journal is taken from the acclaimed Anglo-Chinese novelist Timothy Mo’s encomium for John Minford’s translation of the I Ching, which reads in full:

A creative masterpiece in itself, this translation by John Minford — one of the foremost cultural intermediaries of our day — throws fresh light on the great Chinese classic of the occult. It is a kind of unholy resurrection, a cable that disappears into the abyss of a darker time. In it the Bronze age predicts to the Information Age the shadow of what is to come.

The Editors


From Divination to Oracle

The roots of the Chinese classic, the I Ching, or Book of Change, lie in ancient practices of Divination. More than three thousand years ago, in the Bronze Age society of the Shang dynasty, and indeed even earlier, during the preceding Xia dynasty, the Spirits of Nature and of the Ancestors were regularly consulted and placated by Kings, their Shamans and Scribes, through Divination and Sacrifice. These Rituals were accompanied by music and dance, the consumption of fresh and dried meats and cereals, the drinking and libation of alcohol and perhaps the ingestion of cannabis. The questions posed often concerned the Great Affairs of State. Should the King go to war? Was it going to rain (and would the crops be affected)? Should human prisoners or animals be sacrificed, to bring an end to the drought? Should the King go hunting for elephants? Was the harvest going to be a good one? Sometimes the questions were more personal. Was the King’s toothache the result of an offence caused to an Ancestor? What was the significance of the King’s dream? In order to elicit answers to such questions, the shoulder-bone (scapula) of an ox, or the under-shell (plastron) of a turtle, was ritually prepared, and carefully placed indentations were made on it. The bone or shell was then heated to a high temperature, producing tiny cracks on the surface opposite the indentations. These cracks were ‘read’, or interpreted as an Oracle, by the King or his Shaman, who sought to see signs of impending Fortune or Misfortune, and laid plans in accordance with the oracular insight thus obtained. David Keightley, one of the great Oracle Bone scholars, has vividly reconstructed the scene:

At the center of the temple stands the King, at the center of the four quarters, the center of the Shang world… . Five turtle shells lie on the rammed-earth altar. The plastrons have been polished like jade, but are scarred on their inner side with rows of oval hollows, some already blackened by fire. Into one of the unburned hollows, on the right side of the shell, the Diviner Que is thrusting a brand of flaming thorn… . Assistants drag two victims into the temple. There is the barking and bleating of animals in panic, then silence. Blood stains the earth floor. The King dismembers the victims as Que proposes a new charge: ‘We sacrifice a dog to Father Geng and butcher a sheep.’ The brand flames… puk… puk… puk… the plastrons crack in slow and stately sequence. Has the Sacrifice mollified the dead uncle? Will the pain in the King’s sick tooth depart?

The bones and shells (which were often used several times) had the details of the Divination inscribed on them, with a stylus, or possibly brush and ink. These inscriptions were in due course incised more permanently, and the bones were then stored in underground depositories. There they lay forgotten for thousands of years. Occasionally a farmer ploughing might bring one or two of these strange Dragon Bones to the surface. They were ground into powder and used as an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine, especially for the healing of cuts and surgical wounds. It was only very recently — in the last years of the nineteenth century — that a number of scholars recognised their true nature, and began avidly collecting them. The richest trove of inscribed Oracle Bones was discovered (not surprisingly) in and around the ancient Shang dynasty capital at Anyang, in Henan Province, during extensive excavations in the 1920s. Since then numerous volumes reproducing the ancient inscriptions have been published, and Chinese and non-Chinese scholars have begun the complex and arduous process of deciphering and interpreting their content. During the past century, in the course of many excavations, hundreds of thousands of these Oracle Bones have been unearthed, providing extraordinary documentation of this early form of communication with the Other World, and at the same time shedding fresh and often startling light on the entire history and society of the Shang dynasty. Some of the emerging details reveal a society greatly at variance with the Way of the Former Kings as it was idealised by later sage-philosophers such as Confucius. The Shang Priest-Kings seem to have been hugely preoccupied with Warfare and Sacrifice, and in particular with large-scale Human Sacrifice. It was a gruesome business. As the contemporary archaeologist Robert Bagley has coolly observed, ‘beheading was the normal method of Sacrifice, but some victims were dismembered or cut in half and a few children seem to have been trussed up and buried alive.’

The militarily powerful Zhou state from the western hinterlands finally conquered its eastern Shang neighbours towards the end of the second millennium BC, and founded its own dynasty. In the period that followed, the earlier practices of Divination by the burning of bone and shell (pyro-scapulimancy and pyro-plastromancy, as they are now technically called), gradually lost ground to the more ‘civilised’ or ‘secular’ practice of achillomancy, Yarrow Divination, by casting the dried stalks of the yarrow or milfoil plant, Achillea millefolium. In the early Zhou dynasty, in place of the older shamanistic interpretation of cracks on bone and shell, ‘mantic’ insight into the workings of the universe and the meaning of a given situation began to be provided by the casting of these Stalks. As a nobleman remarks in an entry for the year 644 BCE of the early chronicle known as the Zuo Commentary: ‘The Tortoise gives Images; the Yarrow gives Numbers.’ At some point, and here the story becomes obscure, a body of traditional written material was organized under sixty-four diagrams, or Hexagrams, gua 掛, each composed of a series of six Divided or Undivided Lines. Traditionally the invention of these Hexagrams, or rather of the three-line Trigrams that were thought to constitute them, was ascribed to the legendary ‘sage-caveman’ Fuxi, who was divinely inspired to create them from his observations of the Patterns of the Universe, of Nature, of Heaven and Earth.

Fuxi 伏羲, the cave-man sage, with the hexagrams

Fuxi 伏羲, the cave-man sage, with the eight trigrams

Some have speculated that it may have been the Yarrow Stalks themselves that gave rise to these patterns of Divided and Undivided Lines. An oracular repertoire (a ‘text’) for the Yarrow Stalk Diviner — a collection of old divinatory sayings and formulae, interspersed with a fair admixture of other forms of folk wisdom — may have attached itself to the Sixty-Four Hexagrams. Somehow this collection (Bishop Rutt boldly called it a ‘prompt book of precedents’) became a ‘book’ (in those days books were bundles of bamboo slips bound together with silk threads). This is as much as we can piece together of the hazy early story of the Oracle. There were several ‘books’ of a similar nature. One was known as the Zhouyi, the Change of Zhou. Of the other mantic texts, one was known as Lianshan, or Linked Mountains, and another as Guizang, or Return to the Hidden. These last two have survived only in fragments. The text we have today only became the I Ching (Classic of Change) when it was canonized in 136 BCE, during the Former Han dynasty.

There have been many different explanations for the word Change itself, today pronounced yi, in ancient days closer to lek. In the Oracle Bone Inscriptions it is often used for a change in the weather. ‘It will not rain, it will become (change to) overcast.’ ‘Will it be (change to) an overcast day?’ Sometimes the change in the weather was the other way round, and the sun came out. The way the Hexagrams of the I Ching ‘change to’ other Hexagrams does seem to be in some way related to this. But there is no ‘sun’ element in the early graph, which looks more like drops of water (rain or mist) beside the moon.

I 易, oracle bone

Yi/I 易, oracle bone rubbing

All of this speculation about origins and etymology is inevitably a rough reconstruction. As the American sinologist Donald Harper has observed, there is simply too much that we do not know to permit a precise account of the development of the Hexagrams and the I Ching. The exact details of the evolution from Oracle to what I will refer to loosely as a Book of Wisdom, may never be known. What is clear is that many of the early mantic formulae used by the Diviners of the Oracle Bone era, formulae that are now becoming more and more familiar from the Inscriptions, survived into the later text. Richard Kunst has summarized this well: ‘The divinatory lexicon of the I Ching took up in the late second millennium and early first millennium from where the Oracle Bone Inscriptions left off, then continued to develop through the years of the Zhou dynasty, providing a continuous semantic bridge to the classical texts of the Warring States period and the masterworks of Han lexicology.’

Achillomancy, Yarrow Divination, in effect became bibliomancy, Divination by the Book, by the oracular text of the Change of the Zhou. This text, which is represented in Part II of my translation, seems to have gradually stabilised towards the middle of the dynasty (sometime between the ninth and sixth centuries BCE). It was widely used by statesmen of the period, as we can read from several episodes in the Zuo Commentary. It went on, in the Former Han dynasty, to become an official ‘classic’, and to be adorned with a series of commentaries. Through the subsequent two thousand years of Chinese history, it has persisted as the oldest and most revered, the strangest and most incomprehensible, item in the Chinese canon, a text central to Confucian orthodoxy, and yet revered by Taoists and Buddhists. It was the ‘first of the Confucian classics’, and therefore a pillar of state ideology, and yet at the same time it provided a subtle and powerful vehicle for a wide range of unorthodox ideas, a source of potentially subversive speculative thinking.

The book we have today then, new editions of which still appear with regularity, is the direct descendant of ancient shamanistic practices of Divination and Magic. Its core text shares many of the preoccupations and elements of earlier Divination: Sacrifice, Ritual, Warfare, the taking of captives, the activities of a pastoral society (herding, hunting, raising and gelding of livestock), sickness, fragments of ancestral legend and myth, astronomical phenomena, strange tinglings and premonitions. It inherits, and in a sense preserves, the earliest known use of the Chinese script, by which those acts of Divination were recorded. Its roots are extremely deep. If the Oracle Bone Inscriptions (and the later Inscriptions on Bronze Ritual Vessels) are the Chinese language in the making, the I Ching Oracle is one of the earliest attempts to put that language to some sort of coherent purpose.

In addition to the Divinatory formulae such as ‘It is Auspicious’, ‘A Sacrifice was Received’, or ‘A Divination was performed’, the early Oracular I Ching text incorporated a jumble of other popular oral materials: proverbs, epigrams, songs and rhymes, the whole patchwork structured around the Sixty-Four Hexagrams. Joseph Needham, the great historian of Chinese science and thought, hazarded a guess as to the process: ‘First there were the collections of ancient peasant-omens (about birds, insects, weather, subjective feelings, and the like); these were without doubt already in existence in the sixth century BC, when Confucius was living. Somehow or other these collections coalesced with the books of the professional Diviners, books which preserved traditional lore relating to scapulimancy, Divination by the milfoil sticks [Yarrow Stalks], and other forms of prognostication…  . They remodelled the text and added elaborate commentaries on it… .’ Each of these Hexagrams acquired a Name. The Names were not initially fixed, but varied from one version to another, as did the wording of the text itself (we can see this in the old transcriptions that are excavated from time to time). But the Hexagrams themselves, the wordless diagrams, provided a unique backbone of stability to which the fluctuating text could adhere, albeit in different sequential order. Some scholars argue that the Hexagrams may have somehow evolved from early patterns scratched on the Oracle Bones. We do not know. What we do know is that at this early stage in its history, the words of the Oracle were linked to no system of ideas, to no Confucian or Taoist philosophy, or Yin-Yang cosmology. The early oracular Change of the Zhou was not yet a Book of Wisdom. That was to come later. The early Oracle provided its ‘readers’ (the Kings and aristocrats who consulted it) with a glimpse of the workings of the Universe and of man’s part in it, a glimpse descended from the ancient shamanistic dialogue with the unknown. This eventually evolved into the holistic vision of the Universe contained in most of the I Ching commentaries, a vision associated with the word Tao. Richard Lynn has summarized this well: ‘It is likely that by the time the I Ching was put together as a coherent text in the ninth century BC, Hexagram Divination had already changed from a method of consulting and influencing Gods, Spirits and Ancestors — the “powerful dead” — to a method of penetrating moments of the cosmic order to learn how the Way or Tao is configured and what direction it takes at such moments and to determine what one’s place is and should be in the scheme of things.’ In that sense the Oracle and Book of Wisdom fulfilled the same function: to put the reader in touch with the greater scheme of things, to open the door to a ‘larger view’ of the world, of the situation and its dynamic (for the ‘larger view’, see Hexagram XX).

Qian, hexagram

Qian 乾, hexagram

Qian, trigram

Qian 乾, trigram





From Oracle to Book of Wisdom

For many centuries during the periods of Zhou dynastic decline known as the Spring and Autumn and Warring States, the I Ching circulated in this early form among the proliferating states that were contending for leadership, or hegemony, of the disintegrating Zhou realm. Like the Oracle Bones, it was consulted for advice on pressing matters of state, and sometimes on lesser issues. When the Warring States period finally came to an end and the short-lived and draconian Qin state united the empire, the I Ching was one of the few texts to escape the ‘burning of the books’ (in 213 BCE). It survived intact, so tradition has it, precisely because it was considered not to be a work of philosophy (and not therefore potentially a source of heresy) but ‘merely’ a useful handbook of Divination. A growing apparatus of commentaries had already started to grow up around the ur-text of the Oracle, which consisted of the Hexagrams, the Hexagram Judgments and the Statements attached to each Line. I Ching commentary was becoming a genre in its own right. The earliest anonymous commentaries, known collectively as the Ten Wings, date from Warring States and early Han times (the third and second centuries BCE). So numinous was the aura of the I Ching that these commentaries were, and continued for many centuries to be, attributed to more or less legendary figures. One of them, the Great Treatise (Dazhuan), describes the origins of the Trigrams and Hexagrams, and thus of the I Ching itself, in superlative terms. It set the tone for many subsequent commentators.

Of old, when Fu Xi ruled the world,
He gazed upwards
And observed
Images in the Heavens,
He gazed about him
And observed
Patterns upon the Earth.
He observed
Markings on birds and beasts,
How they were adapted
To different regions.
Close at hand
He drew inspiration
From within his own person;
Further afield,
He drew inspiration
From the outside world.
Thus he created
The Eight Trigrams,
He made Connection
With the Inner Power
Of Spirit Light,
He distinguished
The Myriad Things
According to their Essential Nature.

By Han times, the book had established itself as a text affording access to the mysteries of the Universe, as a Book of Power. It lent itself perfectly to this function. The American I Ching-scholar Kidder Smith has eloquently described it as ‘the consummate written text, in that nearly every trace of human actors is absent from it. Its language is in this sense disembodied, and, by the same measure, empowered to roam freely throughout the natural world. It is in this sense shen, a “spirit” or “spiritual”, a text less of culture than of Heaven-and-Earth, of Nature.’ It continued to occupy this central place for over two thousand years. The Song-dynasty philosophers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries in particular rediscovered the I Ching as a source for their new amalgam — combining Confucianism with elements from Buddhism and Taoism — that has been broadly referred to as Neo-Confucianism. Their commentaries laid a strong emphasis on metaphysics and Self-Cultivation, using a shared language composed of key terms such as Yin and Yang, the Tao, the Supreme Ultimate, terms which preoccupied almost every Chinese thinker from then on. The symbolism of the I Ching was drawn upon by virtually every Chinese school of philosophy. The influential philosopher of the Song dynasty, Zhou Dunyi, considered it to be the Spiritual Book par excellence, ‘the mysterious home of the gods of Heaven and Earth’. Zhou’s student Cheng Yi made similar claims. In 1271, the Mongol ruler of China, Khubilai Khan, at the suggestion of one of his Chinese advisers, decided to name his dynasty Yuan after the first word in the Judgment of Hexagram I – yuan, Supreme. Its ‘quality of mysterious holiness’, to quote the American sinologist Michael Nyman, ‘has engaged nearly every major thinker in imperial China.’ To share or study the I Ching is to touch upon the very heart of things Chinese.

The Tang-dynasty poet Meng Jiao once went to visit a Recluse by the name of Yin, who expounded the I Ching for him. On his return to his own hermitage, Meng wrote a poem to describe the overwhelming nature of his experience:

My Teacher spoke
Of Heaven and Earth,
He spoke with the voice
Of the Spirit Turtle.
Mystery upon mystery,
Things beyond men’s understanding —
One by one,
He made them all clear.
The autumn moon
Exuded the whiteness of night,
A cool breeze
Sang the music of the clear stream.
Listening beside him,
I followed deep into Truth,
And suddenly
We were in a distant realm,
Our Spirits
In a Stillness
That had no need of words.
That moment of enlightenment
Unravelled a myriad knots.
That evening’s thoughts
Washed away the day’s every care.
Now this wanderer’s skiff
Can find no pause
On the moving tide.
The parting horse
Neighs as the carriage rolls away.
Hermit Yin,
In his mountain fastness,
Has shared Truth
With his newfound friend.

The Classic and its Many Commentaries

The Ten Wings were the first attempt to weave a more sophisticated web of ideas around the basic Oracle. They were the first of many commentaries to adapt the mantic tradition of the Hexagrams to a philosophical or cosmological scheme.
The layers of the text (and their traditional attributions) are best shown in tabular form.

Layers of Text
The Core Text
The Eight Trigrams (Ba Gua) and the Sixty-Four Hexagrams (Liushisi Gua), attr. to Fu Xi
The Hexagram Judgments, (Tuan), attr. to King Wen, founder of the Zhou dynasty
The Line Statements (Yaoci), attr. to Duke of Zhou, King Wen’s son, Regent for the second Zhou King

The Ten Wings (or Early Commentaries)
Wings 1-2
On the Judgment (Tuanzhuan): this is divided into two parts, Commentary A (Hexagrams 1-30) & B (Hexagrams 31-64). I give all of this Commentary, but do not reproduce this division.
Wings 3-4
On the Images (Xiangzhuan): again divided into two parts, Commentary A (On the Image of the Hexagram) & B (On the Image of the Lines). I place Commentary A immediately beneath the Commentary on the Judgment of each Hexagram, and Commentary B beneath each relevant Line.
Wings 5-6
The Great Treatise (Xici, Dazhuan) is also divided into two Parts. This cosmological and metaphysical Treatise in rhapsodic form is assembled from various sources. A copy of most of it has been found at the Mawangdui excavations, datable to c. 195 BC. Extracts from this important Commentary are scattered throughout my translation.
Wing 7
On the Words (Wenyan). A Commentary attached to the first two Hexagrams.
Wing 8
The Trigrams Expounded (Shuo Gua). The origins and symbolism of the Trigrams. I have given samples of this puzzling Commentary under the eight doubled-Trigram Hexagrams.
Wing 9
On the Sequence of the Hexagrams (Xu Gua). Mnemonic Verses. I do not include any of this.
Wing 10

Miscellaneous Notes on the Hexagrams (Za Gua).
Rhymed glosses on Hexagram Names. I do not include any of this.

The book, by now inseparable from its Ten Wings, became indisputably the first and central classic. A second rhapsodic passage from the Great Treatise extols the Power of the I Ching, and the knowledge, peace and capacity for love bestowed by reading it.

The I Ching has the measure
Of Heaven and Earth;
It comprehends the Tao

Of Heaven and Earth.

Gazing upward,
It contemplates
The Patterns of Heaven,
Looking down,
It scrutinizes
The configurations of Earth.
It knows the underlying causes
Of the occult and the evident.
It traces them back
To their origins,
It follows them
To their ends.
It knows the meaning
Of birth and death,
How Essence fuses with Energy
To form Being,
How the Wandering Soul
To be transformed.
It knows the conditions
Of Spirits and Souls.
It resembles
Heaven and Earth,
It never transgresses
Their Tao.
Its knowledge embraces
The Myriad Things,
Its Tao succours
It never goes astray.
It roams widely
But is never exhausted.
It rejoices in Heaven,
It knows
Heaven’s Decree.
It is forever
Free from care.
It is at peace with the land.
It is kind,
And can therefore
It models itself
On the Transformations
Of Heaven and Earth,
That is why
It can never go astray.
It follows every twist and turn
Of the Myriad Things.
It omits nothing.
Its knowledge
Connects with the Tao
Of morning and evening.
Its Spirit
Knows no boundaries.
The I Ching has no form.

It was widely believed, for many centuries, that Confucius himself had a hand in some of the I Ching commentaries. This belief was already being questioned in the Song dynasty, and is no longer taken seriously. Indeed, the words just quoted have more in common with currents of early Taoist thought than they do with any of the early Confucian Sages such as Confucius or Mencius. The I Ching ‘has no form’ by virtue of the unique ordering device of the Sixty-Four Hexagrams. Thanks to them, it neither begins nor ends anywhere. It emulates the Universe itself. It ‘has the measure’ of Heaven and Earth. It has no date. It knows no time or location other than that of the moment and place of each consultation. It has no story. It has no author. It lives through the shared Power, the Energy, that flows from consulting it, from engaging with it. Its decoding of the Universe, from the highest height of Heaven to the darkest, deepest Abyss of Earth, is profoundly liberating. It can enable the reader to transcend care, to roam freely and not go astray. It is Truth. It is Spirit. These may seem to us superlative and exaggerated claims, but they were frequently repeated and deserve to be taken seriously.

Liu Songnian Reading Changes

Liu Songnian Reading Changes

The practice of writing commentaries in the margins of this powerful text became with the centuries not so much a scholarly pastime as an act of meditation, a therapeutic exercise in its own right, keyed to the Sixty-Four Tarot-like archetypal Hexagrams — Heaven, Earth, The Well, The Cauldron, etc. For the purposes of this new translation of mine, a few words will have to suffice on the subject of I Ching commentary and exegesis. There are literally thousands of such commentaries, and exhaustive studies of some of these are available in English. I give here as a typical example of this genre the Preface to the influential commentary by the Song-dynasty philosopher Cheng Yi, which itself incorporates many references to the much earlier Great Treatise. Cheng is once again reflecting on the strange properties of this book, on the active manner in which it is ‘read’, and the process whereby it finds its way into the lives of its readers, providing them with literally ‘everything’.

The Book of Change (yi) is Transformation (bianyi). It is the Transformation necessary if we are to be in tune with the Movement of Time, if we are to follow the Flow of the Tao. The Book is grand in its scope, it is all-encompassing. It is attuned to the very principles of Human Nature and Life-Destiny, it penetrates the underlying causes of both the occult and the evident. It exhausts the very reality of things, it reveals the Tao of endeavour and completion. The Ancient Sages felt an infinite concern for future generations of mankind. Those ancient times are far behind us in the past. But this classic text has survived into the present. Early scholars lost track of its meaning, and merely transmitted its words. Later scholars merely recited its words and forgot their true essence. Ever since the Qin dynasty, there has been no genuine transmission. I was born many centuries later than all this, and am concerned that this text may fade into obscurity and oblivion altogether. I wish to enable men of these latter times to trace it back to its true source. That is why I have written this commentary.

Within the Book of Change there are four paths to the Tao of the Sages. We may come to value the Classic for its words; through it we may arrive at a realisation of Change in our own lives and actions; we may come to appreciate its Images through the creation of vessels of our own; we may come to contemplate the Oracle through the practice of Divination.

The principles governing Fortune and Calamity, waxing and waning, the Tao of Progress and Retreat, of survival and extinction, these are all to be found in the text of the Book. By delving carefully into that text, by investigating the Hexagrams, we can understand the process of Transformation. Its Images and Oracular Utterances are part of this. The Great Treatise says: ‘When the True Gentleman is at Rest, he contemplates the Images, he ponders the text; when he is roused to Action, he contemplates Transformation itself, he ponders the Oracular Utterances.’ One can of course grasp the text and still not understand its underlying meaning. But without grasping the text, one cannot even hope to reach that meaning.

Its Principles are deep and subtle. Its Images are crystal clear. In essence and function they share a single source. The evident and the subtle are not separable. To those who contemplate this shared depth and connection, and who practise its inherent discipline, the text will provide everything. Devotees of true learning must explore the words, they must grapple with them from close at hand. Those who approach from a distance will fail to understand the text.

What I transmit is the text. The grasping of its meaning rests with the individual.

Second year of the Yuanfu reign-period of the Song dynasty, the first month, the day gengshen.
Cheng Yi of Henan.

As the poet Ruan Ji had put it several hundred years earlier:

Understand the I Ching, and the Tao will remain with you. Its application knows no end. The I Ching makes True Connection possible.

Ruan’s own philosophy, writes his biographer Donald Holzman, was an ‘ambiguous searching out of the truth somewhere between Taoist mysticism and the I Ching.’ His ‘whole political and social life was spent… following the “extreme prudence” typical of the adept of the I Ching. The fact that he was able to preserve himself and his family in very dangerous circumstances, without sacrificing his Integrity, while maintaining a sense of integration through restraint, shows that, in his case at least, the system worked.’ Ruan’s contemplation of the ‘still formless forms of the future’, as practised by the adepts of the I Ching, helped him to attain a stoical calm, to wait patiently for the right moment.

The Ming-dynasty poet Qi Biaojia built a special studio in his Allegory Garden, in which to contemplate the mysteries of the I Ching. He called it his I Ching Abode.

Only from my I Ching Abode can the perfect marriage between rock and water be observed to full advantage… . As one raises one’s eyes upwards or gazes downwards, sky and pond present a seamless flow of purity and one feels a profound affinity with the birds and fishes. When lamps are lit along the bank, their inverted reflections dance enchantingly upon the surface of the water. When strings and flutes strike up, their music seems driven across the surface of the pond like waves of snow. It is at times such as this that I feel the scene before me to have been Heaven-sent. And when the Master becomes wearied of the sights of his garden, he can spend his days with a copy of the I Ching in hand, painstakingly working through the text, achieving in the process a sense of release from the vexations of life. Although my family has specialised in the exegesis of this classic for generations, I am as yet incapable of fully understanding its principles of Change. I have managed to arrive at an inkling of the Tao of waxing and waning, however, of the ebb and flow of the cosmos. This mountain may have existed as long as Heaven and Earth themselves. But at some moment before the present, it was no more than a tiny mound of earth. How can one guarantee that, some day in the future, these arrayed pavilions and storeyed studios will still stand tall upon these sheer cliffs, or within this secluded valley?

In the running commentary to my translation, I have been unashamedly eclectic, taking from the huge body of existing commentary whatever seemed to me helpful in elucidating the meaning of the words for a reader of the present day, whatever might enable the reader to enter into the mysterious but illuminating world of the I Ching, and find some ‘sense of release from the vexations of life’. The American sinologist Kidder Smith describes the role of I Ching commentary well. ‘Within its hermeneutic spaces, individual scholars of the I Ching have also developed their own thought forms… The I Ching has afforded private access to the most valued secrets of the Universe in visions that, however eccentric, still rested on shared classical foundations.’

Richard Lynn’s fine translation of the I Ching, by contrast, scrupulously follows the influential interpretation of Wang Bi. I have not followed any one ‘school’. As the Imperial Catalogue of the eighteenth century put it, ‘every day the I Ching gives rise to new theories (sprouts of discourse). The two schools (of the Han dynasty) and the six lineages [other traditions of commentary] constantly contradict each other. The doors of the I Ching are vast. There is nothing it does not encompass. Astronomy, geography, music, strategy, phonology and mathematics — all of these adduce the I Ching for their arguments… .’ The same work likens reading the I Ching to playing a game of chess. ‘No two games are alike. There are only infinite possibilities.’

A consistent thread throughout my selection has been the inspiring commentary of the eighteenth-century Taoist Liu Yiming, the Master Awakened to the Primordial (Wuyuanzi). In the text I have called him Magister Liu. For him, as for other Taoists belonging to his lineage, the Complete Reality (Quanzhen) School, the symbols of the I Ching represent phases in the Inner Alchemical Work of Self-Cultivation. It was ‘not a book of Divination, but rather the study of fundamental principles, of the fulfilment of Nature, of the arrival at the meaning of life.’ It was ‘a basis for living in harmony with existential time’. It was a tool for the attainment of a heightened level of consciousness.

Magister Liu’s philosophy, his vision of the human condition, is best seen in his Commentary on three passages in Hexagram XLIX, Change.

To achieve Change is to get rid of something and not use it any more. The Illumination of Fire is within Joy of Lake, they complement one another. This is Illumined Change, achieved through Self-Cultivation. It frees one of Yin Energy, of personal Desire. This is to be rid of Self. Man is born pure, with the True Energies of Yin and Yang intact and unpolluted. True Essence shines within, the Spirit is full of Light. Emotions such as joy, anger, discontent and happiness have not yet tainted the Heart-and-Mind. Influences such as wealth and poverty have not yet perturbed the Flow of Life. Tiger and rhinoceros can cause no Harm. Swords cannot hurt. Neither Water nor Fire can impinge on Life. Life and Death are of no concern. A child such as this eats when he is hungry, and puts on clothes when he is cold. He has no thoughts or cares. His Inner Strength is Illumined. Then, when he reaches the age of sixteen, the Yang cycle comes to a Conclusion, and Yin is born. Conditioned Life begins. A hundred cares confuse the Heart-and-Mind, endless affairs take their toll on his bodily frame. He comes to think of False as True. As the days and years go by, habit accumulates on habit, estranging him from his True Nature. The Strength of his Inner Light is dimmed. To undergo Change is to get rid of these habits. It is to cast aside all this Ignorance, and find a way back to Illumination, back to the Primordial Energy of the Tao. In order to do this, one needs first to understand Self. Then the Change will be Sincere. Then there will be Good Faith. With Sincerity and Good Faith, and once the True is distinguished from the False, every human being is capable of Change. This is indeed their Supreme Fortune! This is the Tao.

Here Yang is Centred and True. The Master is within. He cherishes Yang and eliminates Yin. He opens the Gates of Life. He closes the Doorway of Death. He shuts off the Ghost Road. Alien Energy dissolves. Like a magnificent Tiger, there he stands, immoveable! This is Good Faith. Change has simply taken place. This is the Change of the Great Man, this is his Strength, his assertion of existence.

This is the Ultimate Change. The Yielding is in True Place, it is True. The Work has been accomplished diligently and thoroughly. There is Utmost Emptiness, Total Serenity. This is the awesome Change of the Leopard! Inner Sincerity connects with the Outer World. Essential Being is Transformed, every speck of Mortal Dust is expunged! All is Pure and Bare and Transcendant. Soul and Body are wondrous both. This is the Change of the True Gentleman, achieved through gentle Non-Action. He is at one, at Truth, with the Tao. It takes place because he is utterly Sincere. Small Men, those who do not possess a Heart-and-Mind of Sincerity, are incapable of this. They are capable only of a Face Change, not of a Change of Heart-and-Mind.

As Joseph Needham remarks of Taoism in general, ‘Perhaps it is a programme for our time as well as theirs.’

Reading the Changes

Reading the Changes

The words Tao and Taoism have already occurred many times in this Introduction, and will occur countless times in the translation itself. Some readers may be wondering what they actually mean. The first words of the oldest and most venerable of all Taoist classics, The Tao and the Power, are words of warning: ‘The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao.’ We speak of the Tao at our peril. The moment we do, it slips through our fingers. Angus Graham called it a ‘makeshift name for the unnameable in union with which we are spontaneously on course’. Andrew Seth Meyer wrote at greater length: ‘To say that it is the origin, totality, and animating impulse of all that is, ever was, and ever shall be is inadequate, for this would exclude what is not, never was, and never shall be… . It is ultimately ineffable and thus cannot be “understood” cognitively. Even though the Tao cannot be known intellectually, because it is fundamental to all Being, it can be experienced and embodied.’ These are just two examples of how hard it is to put the Tao into words. It is unnameable, it is ineffable. And yet it lies at the heart of everything, including the I Ching. So perhaps in the end it is best to say to the enquiring reader: ‘All words are inadequate for the Tao. But it is nonetheless real. There are clues left behind by others who have experienced this liberating way of looking at the world, this unifying vision. This book you are now reading contains some of those clues.’

One of my own favourite modern exponents of Taoism is the late Chang Chung-yuan, who described it in these words. ‘The reality of Tao is formless and can only be experienced directly and spontaneously through primordial intuition.’ Chang went on to quote the ancient Taoist teacher, Master Zhuang, who told stories and played with words so brilliantly, in order to point the way to his own experience of the Tao. In his second chapter, ‘On Making Things Equal’, Master Zhuang writes: ‘This is that, that is also this. When this and that are not seen as relative opposites, this is called the Axis of the Tao. When the Axis is in the centre of the circle, then there is an infinite Resonance.’ The fourth-century poet Tao Yuanming came closer than most to putting it into words, while at the same time confessing his own inability to find those words, in one of his ‘Four Poems Written While Drunk’:

I built my house near where others dwell,
And yet there is no clamour of carriages and horses.
You ask me, ‘How can this be so?’
‘When the heart is far the place of itself is distant.’
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
And gaze afar towards the southern mountains.
The mountain air is fine at evening of the day
And flying birds return together homewards.
Within these things there is a hint of Truth,
But when I start to tell it, I cannot find the words.

A Taoist cultivating

A Taoist Self-Cultivation. An Adept meditating on the Trigrams Kan 坎 and Li 離.

In the Taoist alchemical scheme of things the Kan Trigram (one Yang line surrounded by two Yin, Yang within Yin) represents the Yin or Female element (Water, Kidneys, White Tiger, Earthly Anima), while the Li Trigram (one Yin line surrounded by two Yang, Yin within Yang) represents the Yang or Male element (Fire, Heart, Green Dragon, Celestial Animus). In his practice, the Adept extracts True Yang from within Yin (in the Kan Trigram), and True Yin from within Yang (in the Li Trigram).

The I Ching in the West

Since the I Ching was first translated into a European language in the eighteenth century, Western readings of the book have varied greatly, from the reverential to the sceptical and dismissive. Shortly before his death in 1737, the French Jesuit Claude Visdelou, blind and unable to read or write, dictated the following words from the Portuguese colony of Goa: ‘It [the I Ching] is not strictly speaking a book at all, or anything like it. It is a most obscure enigma, a hundred times more difficult to explain than that of the Sphinx.’ The eccentric late-nineteenth-century French scholar Albert Terrien de Lacouperie was more extreme:

Going through the interpretations of the I Ching, as proposed by the Chinese themselves, and of which the late English paraphrase [by Legge] is a fair specimen, one cannot fail to be struck by the stupendous effort it represents. It shows plainly all that has been done by the tortured minds of the Chinese, all the fancies of their maddened brains in their attempts to understand what could not be understood. We do not know really which is the greater wonder, the marvellous patience of a hundred generations of Chinamen in piling up distorted and fantastic interpretations, and building this extraordinary Babel of nonsense and ingenuity, or the courage of European scholars who believe in it and present the achievement of such an interpretation as a bona fide written book.

Hardly encouraging words for today’s reader or the would-be translator! The British sinologist Herbert Giles was equally dismissive:

No one really knows what is meant by the apparent gibberish of the Book of Changes. This is freely admitted by all learned Chinese, who nevertheless hold tenaciously to the belief that important lessons could be derived from its pages if only we had the wit to understand them.

Bernhard Karlgren, the Swedish scholar, referred to it as a ‘barely intelligible rigmarole’. ‘It would have been wiser,’ wrote a frustrated Joseph Needham in 1956, ‘to tie a millstone about the neck of the I Ching and cast it into the sea.’

From the Jesuits to James Legge

Three French Jesuit Fathers of the early eighteenth century, Jean-Baptiste Régis, Joseph-Anne-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla and Pierre Vincent de Tartre, collaborated in their Y-King: Antiquissimus Sinarum Liber to give the world a complete Latin translation, with a highly literate, discursive running commentary. It circulated in manuscript transcriptions for a hundred years, until finally it was published in Germany in two volumes (1834 and 1839). Largely ignored today, now that Latin is no longer a lingua franca, it was and remains an extraordinary achievement. The editor of the printed edition, Julius Mohl, explains at length in his Preface, dated Paris, October 1829, that the work was a deliberate and thorough attempt to counter the extravagant claims of another group of Jesuit missionaries, who had somewhat over-enthusiastically seen in this strange text (or what little of it they could decipher) the very word of God. These errant Fathers were known as Figurists (from the Latin figura, or pattern, the word they used for gua, Hexagram). They are dismissed in Mohl’s Preface as ‘de ignota re hallucinantes,’ ‘hallucinating about something they knew nothing of’. Most famous among the Figurists was Father Joachim Bouvet, deeply read in the Jewish Kabbalistic Scriptures and in Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy. Bouvet devoted most of his life to a deep, indeed obsessive study of the I Ching, greatly encouraged in this by the personal interest of the second Manchu Emperor, Kangxi, who once remarked that Bouvet was possessed by the ‘daimon of the I Ching’. Bouvet claimed that the ‘noble man’, the junzi (the True Gentleman), and the ‘great’ or ‘big’ man, the daren, which occur so often in the text, were none other than the Messiah. He saw traces of Moses and other Biblical figures. The Figurists identified Fu Xi with Enoch, great-grandfather of Noah and author of the apocryphal Book of Enoch. Bouvet’s fellow Figurist Jean-François Foucquet believed that Hexagram XIII (Tong Ren, Fellowship) told of the Fall of Man, and that Hexagram LIX (Huan, Dispersal) prophesied the coming of the Kingdom of God. For Bouvet, the taiji itself, the Supreme Ultimate of Taoist philosophy and cosmology, resembled the deus otiosus, the ‘idle god’ stepping back from creation, like the deus absconditus, the ‘hidden god’ of Thomas Aquinas, or the Ain suph, the ‘nameless state of being’ of the Kabbala. By contrast, the eighteenth-century Jesuit translator-priests were more sober and scholarly, and produced a more or less accurate version based closely on the received text (in the 1715 Imperial edition) and the orthodox commentaries (and available Manchu paraphrases). Their version communicated the gravitas and depth of the Chinese original, and in some ways represented the book as accurately as any translator has ever done. As Mohl says in his Preface, their Latin version brings out both the work’s auctoritas and its obscuritas.

When James Legge, the redoubtable missionary from Aberdeen, came to work on the book in the late nineteenth century, he freely acknowledged his debt to the Jesuit translators, ‘sinologists of great attainments’. Their ‘view of the Text … , though too narrow, was an approximation to the truth.’ He wrote. ‘The late M. Mohl said to me once, “I like it; for I come to it out of a sea of mist, and find solid ground.” ’ Legge admitted that their translation was the foundation of his own: ‘Their work as a whole, and especially the prolegomena, dissertations, and notes, supply a mass of correct and valuable information. They had nearly succeeded in unravelling the confusion, and solving the enigma [of the I Ching].’ Legge had himself ‘written out a translation’ as early as 1854-1855. ‘When the manuscript was completed I knew very little about the scope and method of the book. I laid the volumes … aside, and hoped, believed indeed, that the light would by and by dawn, and that I should one day get hold of a clue that would guide me to a knowledge of the mysterious classic.’ His trusted assistant, the versatile Chinese man of letters Wang Tao, had already helped him greatly by compiling a digest of the commentaries. In 1870, the manuscript of this draft of Legge’s was, as the result of a shipwreck, ‘soaked for more than a month in the water of the Red Sea. By dint of careful manipulation it was recovered so as to be still legible.’ But it was only four years later that Legge ‘began to be able to give the book the prolonged attention necessary to make it reveal its secrets.’ In characteristic fashion, he wrote: ‘It is for foreign students of Chinese to gird up their loins for the mastery of the book instead of talking about it as mysterious and all but inexplicable.’ Sometimes he confesses his own inability to understand the text (as indeed had the great Song-dynasty commentator Zhu Xi before him): ‘I confess that I only discern the meaning darkly.’ But Legge always strives diligently to try and make sense of what he sees before him, even if he seldom believes in it.

Legge separated the core text from the Ten Wings, believing that by so doing he had come closer to its meaning. In 1877 his collaborator Wang Tao declined the invitation to assist further with a second attempt at the work. Legge’s version finally appeared in 1882. In it he pursued the ‘clue’ to the book’s meaning which he believed he had in the meantime found. In his understanding of the text, he essentially followed the interpretations of the Song-dynasty Neo-Confucians, conceding that there were still times when it seemed to mean very little. ‘If, after all,’ he pleaded, ‘there is often “much ado about nothing”, it is not the translator who should be deemed accountable for that, but his original.’

Richard Wilhelm and Carl Jung

The most influential version of the twentieth century was Richard Wilhelm’s I Ging: Das Buch der Wandlungen, first published in 1924. It quite transformed the reception of this ancient Chinese classic in the modern Western world. Not only was Wilhelm fortunate in having had as his guide a remarkable end-of-empire Chinese scholar, Lao Naixuan, he also had a strong spiritual calling of his own. He was a Lutheran missionary living in the German Treaty Port of Qingdao, but his thinking was also shaped by contemporary currents of thought in his native Germany, such as Count Keyserling’s Darmstadt School of Wisdom, and the writings of Carl Gustav Jung and Hermann Hesse. Wilhelm died in 1930. In 1949, Jung wrote a lengthy Foreword for the new English version by Cary F Baynes, which had been begun before the Second World War while Wilhelm was still alive, but was only published in 1950. During the 1960s and 1970s this English version became one of the key books of the global alternative culture, its popularity boosted by the widespread enthusiasm for Jungian ideas. It has continued to be influential, inspiring among many others the novelists Philip K Dick (The Man in the High Castle), and Philip Pullman (his Dark Materials), the choreographer Merce Cunningham, the rock band Pink Floyd, and the composer John Cage. It was in this Wilhelm/Baynes guise that I myself first encountered the I Ching in the mid-1960s.

Colin Wilson has summarised in simple language the Jungian reading of the 1960s:

We know, theoretically, that we possess a ‘subconscious’ mind, yet as I sit here, in this room on a sunny morning, I am not in any way aware of it; I can’t see it or feel it. It is like an arm upon which I have been lying in my sleep, and which has become completely dead and feelingless. The real purpose of works such as the I Ching, the Kabbalah, the Key of Solomon is to restore circulation to these regions of the mind… . Like great music, the I Ching, produces a state of sudden intense delight, of inner detachment, of ‘breathing space’.

Martin Gardner, the mathematician more famous for his Annotated Alice, wrote in 1974:

This ancient book’s advice can be far more shattering psychologically than the advice of any mere astrologer, palmist, crystal-gazer or tea-leaf reader… .

The transcendant delight in the ‘oracular game’ of the I Ching runs through Hermann Hesse’s last novel The Glass Beadgame (1943). It is surprisingly close to that feeling of liberation and enlightenment, that ‘unravelling of a myriad knots’, transmitted by the Recluse Yin in his I Ching teachings to the poet Meng Jiao: the sense of Resonance, the sharing of Light and Power, the freedom from care, the peace, the love. It is not surprising that the book had such a strong appeal for the generation of the 1960s and 1970s.

How are we to approach this strange text today, fifty years later? With the passage of time, my own perspective on the book has certainly evolved, and, despite my profound admiration for Wilhelm, I do sometimes differ from his interpretation. There is, I now feel, a measured middle ground somewhere between Meng Jiao, Wihelm, Hesse and the Jungians, on the one hand, and the dismissive scepticism of the work’s many detractors on the other. Even Joseph Needham grudgingly admits that the resolution of doubts through Divination may have some validity. ‘As a solvent for neuroses of indecision the method [of the I Ching] probably paid its way.’ In so doing, he is merely restating a famous passage from the Zuo Commentary, where an officer of the southern realm of Chu states: ‘We consult the Oracle in order to resolve doubts; where we have no doubts, why should we consult it?’ Somewhere in this pragmatic middle ground is where I would wish this new version of mine to be located. Richard Lynn expressed the same aspiration very clearly in the Introduction to his 1994 translation:

Allow the work to address the primary issues with which it is concerned: the interrelatedness of personal character and destiny; how position defines scope of action; how position and circumstances define appropriate modes of behaviour; how the individual is always tied to others in a web of interconnected causes and effects; how one set of circumstances inevitably changes into another; and how change itself is the great constant — and flexible response to it the only key to happiness and success. There is a core of insights here concerning the structure of human relationships and individual behaviour that can, I believe, speak to this and any other age — if we but allow it to do so.

Bishop Rutt wrote in a similar vein:

I Ching Divination is not fundamentally different from any other Divination by Book. The function of an Oracle is to facilitate mental activity, notably the rapid operation of reason that we call intuition. Hence all Oracles are either riddles or disguised platitudes, all good Oracles are ambiguous. Their ambiguity is not simply a hedge against failure; it is a stimulus to the mind, inducing the Diviner (or his client) to make choices.

Most recently, the American scholar Michael Nylan has described it as a book ‘designed to instil in readers a simultaneous awareness both of the deep significance of ordinary human life and of the ultimately mysterious character of the cosmic process.’

All of these writers are saying more or less the same thing, that this is a book which when used properly has the ability to open doors, to reconnect the individual with the larger Universe and its rhythms. One of the most convincing expressions of this reconnection is from Angus Graham, British poet, scholar, translator and philosopher, writing in his Disputers of the Tao with a cool and dispassionate clarity:

There is no reason to doubt that Divination systems do help many people to reach appropriate decisions in situations with too many unknown factors, and that the I Ching is among the more successful of them. Unless we are to follow Jung in postulating an acausal principle of synchronicity, we must suppose that the I Ching serves to break down preconceptions by forcing the Diviner to correlate his situation with a chance set of six prognostications. If these meanings were unambiguous, the overwhelming probability would be that the prognostications would be either obviously inapplicable or grossly misleading. Since on the contrary the Hexagrams open up an indefinite range of patterns for correlation, in the calm of withdrawal into sacred space and time, the effect is to free the mind to take account of all information whether or not it conflicts with preconceptions, awaken it to unnoticed similarities and connexions, and guide it to a settled decision adequate to the complexity of factors. This is conceived not as discursive thinking, but as a synthesizing act in which the Diviner sees into and responds to everything at once, with a lucidity mysterious to himself. The I Ching is not a book which pretends to offer clear predictions, but hides away in tantalizing obscurities; it assumes in the Diviner that kind of intelligence we have discussed in connexion with [the Taoist Master] Zhuangzi, opening out and responding to stimulation in perfect tranquillity, lucidity and flexibility… . One consults [the I Ching] … as though seeking advice from a daimonic presence.

In a broader cultural sense, this strange work has always functioned as a black hole at the very centre of Chinese orthodoxy, a door opening into a void, an escape chute for creative thought. To quote Graham again:

It is as though [with the I Ching] Chinese civilisation has been careful to preserve a certain latitude in the organisation of its cosmos, in order that throughout its long history originality and creativity should never die out.

To paraphrase all of this: reading the I Ching is an interactive process. It requires the creative participation of the reader. There is ultimately no ‘book’ out there, and no ‘reader’ in here. Ideally, if there is total Sincerity, then in the process of consultation, book and reader come together. They are one. The book is the reader. It is your reading of it. No more, no less. It is what you find in your self, in order to understand it. It is what you make of it. In that sense, you are the book. The experience of reading gives you (and any reader) Power. Its/your Power is limitless.

Let me put this in another way. The I Ching is a game. A demanding game. One does not just read it, one does not just translate it. One plays it, one plays with it, one interacts with it. It plays too. In deadly earnest. No two games are ever alike. The act of reading triggers reflections and conversations that might otherwise never take place. It creates a new dynamic. To call this a game is not to be irreverent. It is not to trivialize it. On the contrary, it is to elevate it. ‘Games after all are not only games, they are games, just as an elephant is not only an elephant, it is an elephant. Games are also Rituals, Patterns and Symbols of life itself, and as such have a meaning beyond “my enjoyment”, “your enjoyment”, teaching a great deal more than the psychology of opponents and all the methods of play. As Symbols they can at once be rejoiced in and treated with respect as the mysterious providers of that intense peace which is both action and contemplation.’

The game of the I Ching constantly urges its readers to attune themselves to the Resonance of the Tao, to Connect, to tune into the Springs, or intimations, of Change all around them, to see themselves as part of a larger whole. To enter into a dialogue with the I Ching is to enter into a dialogue with the Tao, with Nature itself. It serves as a ‘door into the cosmic unity of a Natural Order.’ Its roots in Divination, in the powerful early shamanistic Rituals and Sacrifices through which Connection was established with the Other World, are what make that Connection and Harmony still possible today. In the words of Hexagram XI, Tai, Grandeur: ‘With the communion Of Heaven and Earth, The Myriad Things Connect.’ I Ching Divination facilitates Connection with and within the Universe, with and within All-under-Heaven, within the Self, between Self and Others. This is its Game of Connection.

Bishop Rutt, who lived for many years in Korea, wrote:

When you use the I Ching you are activating your subconscious mind. By being receptive and passive and sincere in your mind, you are actually getting an answer from your deeper mind.

He quotes the words of Ernst Lothar Hoffman (otherwise known as Lama Govinda):

A clearly formulated question generally contains or calls up the answer from our depth-consciousness. The Oracle lies in ourselves. The I Ching only helps to evoke it. It is a psychological aid to self-knowledge.

This is exactly what I myself have observed. In the course of numerous consultations, I have put my translation to the test with a number of individuals, in effect asking the book (in its new garb) to test itself. Each time I did this, I quietly and slowly established with the ‘reader’ that the most important thing of all was to approach the reading with the utmost Sincerity, to put aside all pretence and self-deception, I found that it worked. The response always came ‘from the deeper mind’. It was a daimonic presence. Its Power was limitless.

All of this had been first stated two thousand years ago in the Great Treatise:

The I Ching does not think,
It is sine meditatione.
It does not act,
It is sine actu.
In its solitude,
In quiete,
It is motionless,
Sine motu.
In its Resonance,
It reaches
The core of the World,
It uncovers
The rerum omnium causam.
In all the World,
Only the I Ching
Can accomplish this.
It is a most Spiritual Entity,
Summus Spiritus!
Through the I Ching
The Sage
The greatest depths,
The subtlest Springs of Change.
Its very depth
The Will of the World,
In intima finemque
Rerum mundi
Knowledge of
The Springs of Change
Terrestrial Enterprises
To be accomplished.
This Spiritual Entity
Makes speed without haste,
It arrives without travelling.

Again, from the same Great Treatise, we read how the I Ching can achieve something mere words are incapable of. It can give expression to pure spirit. It can drum and dance the meaning of the universe:

The Master said:
‘Writing does not express
Speech to the full,
Speech does not express
Meaning to the full.’
‘So, does that mean
We can never hope
To grasp the meaning
Of the Sages?’
To which the Master replied:
‘The Sages created Images
To give full expression
To meaning.
They constructed Hexagrams
To give full expression to
They attached words
To these
Images and Hexagrams,
To give full expression
To speech.
With all of these
Became possible,
And a full expression
Of what is beneficial.
They drummed it,
They danced it,
To give expression
To Spirit.’

A New Translation?

Inevitably I have found myself asking, ‘Is this an Auspicious moment for a new translation?’ The I Ching itself, when I questioned it, gave a sobering response: Hexagram I, Qian, Heaven, with Seven in the lowest five Lines, and a solitary Changing Line, Nine in Top Place. ‘The Dragon over-reaches itself. There is Regret.’ Should I then commit my manuscript to the flames? Or throw it into the waters of the Red Sea? But with this Top Yang Line changing to Yin, came Hexagram XLIII, Kuai, Resolution. Here certain words stood out for me. ‘Good Faith cries Danger. It serves as a Light. The True Gentleman does not pride himself on Inner Strength.’ On these words my favourite commentator Magister Liu writes: ‘Good Faith is the means whereby the elimination of Yin will be achieved, the means whereby the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao can establish itself and become Master. Be aware of Danger. Practise Caution and Self-Cultivation. Let Resolution stem from Good Faith, from Sincerity, not from Pride or Conceit.’ I acknowledge the initial warning of hubris, I recognize the Danger of pride in the enterprise. I also take heart from the subsequent encouragement. I make this new Offering — this new version of the most Chinese of all Chinese books — in Good Faith and Sincerity. I have brought to it what I have gleaned from my teachers during a lifetime of Sinology, and what small insight I have acquired during the many years I have spent with the text in various different guises. I hope that my readers will forgive the many mistakes that must surely remain in my version, its shortcomings in both scholarship and wisdom.

‘Coloured Pictures of the Wind’: Translating a book with neither known author, nor conventional reader

One of the dilemmas of translating this work is that there is no author to be beholden to, no conventional reader to speak to. The I Ching was not ‘written’ in the normal sense of the word. It ‘came into being’ through a process of accretion, building first on the mantic residue of generations of Kings and their Diviners, and wrapped subsequently in the wisdom-cocoon of the many generations of those who consulted its oracular pages and wrote their own commentaries on them. Its Chinese ‘readers’ in turn did not read it like normal readers. They consulted it. They rarely if ever began at the ‘beginning’ and continued to the ‘end’. The same will be true of readers of this English translation. The English words go down onto the page in the knowledge that any ‘reading’ of them, however partial, is entirely dependent on the reader’s state of mind. The words are, in that sense, an Offering, not just a book. To repeat the words of the Great Treatise:

It is a most Spiritual Entity,
Summus Spiritus!

To translate it is to wrestle with Spirit. Translation is itself a gruelling process of Change. In the words of Zan Ning, Buddhist monk of the tenth century, ‘Translation is Change.’ The translator first has to ‘translate’ himself (his Heart-and-Mind) into the world of the I Ching, and then he has to ‘translate’ his understanding back into the present. It is a spiritually demanding journey. The I Ching is a world of its own, peopled with Spirits and strange Images. Its concepts and memories have deep and ancient roots. The I Ching translator (like the anthropological fieldworker) must endeavour to enter this world to the full and somehow come back alive!

The translator’s first question looks the simplest: ‘Which I Ching?’ Is this a translation of a prompt-book for ancient Divination practice? Of a fortune-teller’s manual? Of a revered wisdom scripture? Of a series of cryptic sphinx-like utterances? Of an elaborate Treatise on the nature of the universe and of human civilisation? Of the Oracle or of the Book of Wisdom?

The question may seem a simple one, but as I explored the terrain more extensively, I found it more and more impossible to make any such choice. From the first I was drawn to several layers of the work. I wanted to try my hand at the fresh, enigmatic text revealed by the inspired scholarship and guesswork of Arthur Waley, Wen Yiduo and Li Jingchi, and other scholars of the first half of the twentieth century. I was impressed by the ground-breaking work done by a generation of American scholars in the 1970s and 1980s. I found their scepticism refreshing, after two decades of reading the Wilhelm-Jung version. Clearly many of the old myths shrouding the origins of the text were doubtful at best — including its authorship by a series of Ancient Kings and Sages: Fu Xi, King Wen, the Duke of Zhou and Confucius. But as I worked my way through this new material, including the deciphered Oracle Bone Inscriptions, and the ever more startling archaeological findings, I had a growing feeling that for all the new light that was being shed, something important was being lost. I missed the sage-caveman Fu Xi, wrapped in furs, that Neolithic Chinese Darwin, contemplating the origins and mysteries of the Universe, inventing the Eight Trigrams to make some sense of it all. He ‘gazed upwards and observed Images in the Heavens [the “night sky”, he was an astronomer], he gazed about him and observed Patterns upon the Earth [he was a geologist, a geographer]. He observed the markings on birds and beasts [he was a naturalist], he contemplated the ways in which they were adapted to different regions [he was an ecologist]. He drew inspiration from within his own person [he was a psychologist], and further afield from the outside world [he was an empirical scientist].’ I still hankered too after the inspired musings of the later generations of philosopher-commentators, from the Han dynasty onwards. Modern attempts to present the original Bronze Age Oracle divested of all this subsequent ‘clutter’ seemed ultimately dry and rather futile. In short, I felt the absence of the essential spiritual quality of the I Ching.

So my answer to the question ‘Which I Ching?’ gradually became less and less simple, and in the end I found myself answering: ‘Both. Oracle and Book of Wisdom.’ The Book could spell out at greater length the shorthand (and sometimes unintelligible or pointless) utterances of the Oracle, and give inspirational guidance. The Oracle could occasionally contribute its primitive Word Magic to enliven the teachings of the Book, might ‘quicken’ them and bring them down to earth. I have therefore ended up presenting my I Ching in two parts: Book of Wisdom (Part I), and Bronze Age Oracle (Part II). I explain, in the introductory remarks to each Part, how this decision has influenced the way I go about things, the procedures involved. It is up to the individual reader to decide which of the two versions or Parts to consult first. I have found that some prefer to concentrate on Part I, and to read Part II separately, more out of curiosity, and for the light it sheds on early Chinese society and culture. Some readers have even said that they find Part II completely irrelevant to their purpose. So be it.

Three concrete (and well-known) examples may help to illustrate the difference between Oracle and Book more clearly. The Chinese word fu occurs often (42 times) in the core text of the Oracle. It was interpreted by the early commentators, and thereafter by virtually all subsequent readers, Chinese and Western, to mean Sincerity (cheng). Hence the Name of Hexagram LXI (Zhong Fu) was translated by Wilhelm as Innere Wahrheit (Inner Truth in Baynes’ English version, Vérité Intérieure in Perrot’s French). This is the scriptural understanding, and by and large I have followed it in Part I, the Book of Wisdom, adopting the term Good Faith for this fundamental concept. But in 1928 the young scholar-poet Guo Moruo was among the first to claim that the word fu originally referred to captives and booty taken in warfare. This re-reading had been made possible by the Oracle Bone Inscriptions, and by other epigraphic and archaeological discoveries of the early twentieth century. In Part II, I have translated fu as ‘captive’, in accordance with this. Other frequently occurring characters have been radically re-interpreted in the same light. Heng/xiang, which occurs fifty times (see my commentary on the first Hexagram in Part II), seems originally to have meant Sacrifice, the dominant activity in early Chinese society. In Part II, I have translated it accordingly as Sacrifice Received (with minor variations). But in later I Ching interpretation, the word gradually came to include in its range of meanings not so much the actual Sacrifice, but the happy results of a Sacrifice well received by the Ancestors or Spirits, thus Fortune. This is how I have translated it in Part I. Zhen (111 occurrences) seems (again on the basis of Oracle Bone studies) to have originally meant the act of Divination itself, rather than the quality of Steadfastness understood by later commentators (Wilhelm’s Beharrlichkeit, Baynes’ Perseverance). These examples illustrate the evolution of the core text from Oracle to Book of Wisdom, the way in which ‘sentences that had been written as pithy Oracles became moralizing statements’.

The Name of Hexagram IV, Meng, is a fourth and striking example of the gulf separating Oracle and Book. Traditionally it came to be understood as Ignorance or Youthful Folly (Wilhelm’s Die Jugendtorheit), and this idea then permeated the understanding of the entire Hexagram. Arthur Waley, however, writing in 1933 under the influence of the new school of I Ching critics, speculated that meng was in fact a parasitic mistletoe-like plant, the dodder. He went off in a completely new direction, understanding the whole Hexagram to be about the qualities and significance of the dodder. His argument was based on a combination of philological and anthropological scholarship, with a substantial dose of his own creative imagination. I have taken up some of Waley’s ideas in Part II, while in Part I following more traditional readings.

This is not at all a translation for Sinologists, although many sinological writings have helped in its gestation. I have worked closely with the Chinese text, while relying heavily on the work of Chinese and Western scholars. But my translation strives above all to present this extraordinary Chinese phenomenon in a form that can be ‘read’, i.e. consulted, in the English-speaking world. So far as possible I have kept away from any preconceived Western notions as to its meaning. The discovery of that meaning I leave to each individual reader.

The Chinese contains passages of great poetic and numinous beauty. It has exercised an abiding influence on Chinese literati for over two millennia. It is a cultural commonplace book, an encyclopedia of proverb, imagery and symbolism to which reference has been made throughout Chinese literature, throughout the manifold expressions of Chinese spirituality. But while it has undoubted literary merit, it is much more than a work of literature. It is not just a Chinese book. It is the Chinese Book, daunting though that may seem.

My translation is offered in the awareness that no translation of this awe-inspiring and deeply puzzling book can ever hope to capture more than the faintest echo of the original, ‘coloured pictures of the wind’, as the twelfth-century scholar Qiu Cheng wrote in his poem.

On considering certain Lines of the I Ching,
and showing them to Zheng Dongqing

These Images
Do but sketch
The principles of Change.
Deepest Tao
Defies the mind.
Scholars expound
Its mysteries in vain,
Their words but
Coloured pictures
Of the wind.

There can never be a definitive version of this book in any language. Its meaning is simply too elusive. We try to ‘expound its mysteries in vain.’ Part of the book’s Power and Magic is precisely that it has over the years meant so many different things to so many different readers, commentators and translators. It meant one thing for the Jesuits in the eighteenth century, quite another for Richard Wilhelm working with Lao Naixuan, in the immediate aftermath of the Chinese revolution of 1911. This chameleon quality was something my teacher and friend David Hawkes stressed in our last conversation on this subject, in the summer of 2009, shortly before his death. ‘Whatever you do, be sure to let your readers know that every sentence can be read in an almost infinite number of ways! That is the secret of the book. No one will ever know what it really means!’ Even the most scholarly, the most imaginative, the most spiritually penetrating reading of this strange book, Chinese or non-Chinese, is in the end speculative. It is an Act of Imagination, conducted in Good Faith. In translating it, in reading and consulting it at all, we are face to face with nothing less than the task of summoning back a vanished world of thought, a realm in which the book’s basic spiritual assumptions held sway and needed no explication. But the reading requires more than that. It requires a simultaneous journey into the innermost recesses of our own consciousness. We are not only gazing into the remote past. We are also face to face with ourselves and our own age.

Preceding Heaven

Preceding Heaven

In the Great Treatise, the fundamental Principles of the I Ching are expounded in terms of the generative process of Change, of Nature in Transformation. This process is represented visually in two traditional diagrams. In the first, known as the Diagram of Preceding Heaven (Xiantiantu), or as Fuxi’s Sequence of the Eight Trigrams (Fuxi Bagua cixu), the Eight Trigrams (seen in the top row) are ‘generated’ by various prior permutations of Yin and Yang, commencing from the circular symbol for the Supreme Ultimate itself (Taiji), at the very bottom, representing the original state of Non-Being, of undifferentiated, inchoate chaos (hundun) that preceded Being (the Phenomenal World of the Myriad Things). This famous ‘gyre’ within a circle (sometimes known as the Yin Yang Fish) shows in visual terms the synergy of Yin and Yang. The whole diagram (along with several others) dates most probably from the Song dynasty and the great renaissance of I Ching studies that informed the new philosophical synthesis of the Neo-Confucians. One of the earliest of these, Zhou Dunyi, in his ‘Explanation of the Taiji Diagram’, wrote an important codicil to the old I Ching commentaries.

The Supreme Ultimate,
In Movement,
Generates Yang.
This Movement
Reaches its Ultimate Limit,
To become Rest.
Rest generates Yin.
Rest in turn
Reaches its Ultimate Limit,
And once again
There is Movement.
Thus Movement and Rest
They are each other’s
Source or Root.
The division into Yin and Yang
The Two Bigrams…

Fuxi's Cosmic Keyboard

Fuxi’s Cosmic Keyboard

The second diagram, an extension of the first, is known as Fuxi’s Sequence of the Sixty-Four Hexagrams (Fuxi liushisigua cixu). I like to think of it as an I Ching keyboard, the sort of instrument on which the Castalian Master of Music might have improvised in Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. The black ‘notes’ represent Yin, the white notes Yang. The various combinations signal the different tonalities or modalities of the Hexagrams. The entire spectrum of Sixty-Four Hexagrams is generated by all the possible sixfold combinations of Yin and Yang. On the extreme right, read vertically from the top, is the First Hexagram, Qian, Heaven, made up of six Yang Lines (all white). On the extreme left, again read vertically, is the Second Hexagram, Kun, Earth, made up of six Yin Lines (all black). And so forth.

Both of these diagrams, and others, present the reader (the person consulting the Book) with vivid visualizations, aids to meditation — on Yin and Yang, on the Trigrams, the Hexagrams, and the entire process of Change. Through contemplation of such images, one can be helped to attain a mindful perspective on the world, a calm and objective attitude, conducive to a wise response and an appropriate decision. As the great Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi himself put it, such diagrams are Images of the Natural Pattern (ziran zhi li) of the I Ching. They show the Pattern of Change. To meditate on them can therefore be helpful in reaching an understanding of that Pattern and of Change itself.

I Ching Cycles

The following two representations of the complete cycle of the Sixty-Four Hexagrams are arranged according to the two most common systems: the first is the ‘Fuxi’ system, the second the ‘King Wen’ system (this second is the sequence in which the Hexagrams appear in the received I Ching). In both cases, one starts from the top left corner and reads horizontally from the left. These visualizations may be helpful in contemplating the ways in which the Hexagrams relate to each other:


King Wen Cycle

Fuxi Cycle

King Wen Cycle

King Wen Cycle