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Vol. 17 No. 3 · 9 February 1995

What the Yarrow Stalks Foretell

Brian Rotman

The Classic of Changes: A New Translation of the I Ching as Interpreted by Wang Bi 
translated by Richard Lynn.
Columbia, 602 pp., £15.50, November 1994, 0 231 08294 0
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In those heady days more than twenty years ago, a slew of foreign invaders – Tibetan prayers, the Katmandu trail, ancient Chinese manuals, Yogic trances, the sayings of Chairman Mao, Zen koans shamanism, Egyptian rituals, Warrior cults, and the dreamscape of Mexican mushrooms – burst through the Eurocentric enclosure of our upbringing, announcing the age of Aquarius. Then times changed, and we and/or history drew a line in the sand under these alien forms of discourse. Most of us were left with traces of them, though. Where Chinese things were concerned, there was Sun Tzu’s Art of War, for example. I wasn’t a Maoist, but I got a frisson from the idea that in the period of the Waning States, jobbing intellectuals like Sun Tzu were boiled, pickled, sawn in half or otherwise executed, if their manuals gave bad advice to the prince Sun Tzu’s book survived courtesy of the Chinese principle of paying the doctor only if he cures you. I wasn’t a hippy either, but I encountered the I Ching. My meeting with it wasn’t a prolonged one, and this was a pity, for it, too, is seriously in the advice business and has somehow survived from an even more remote time than Sun Tzu. Now, the repressed returns and I have to take the great classic seriously.

The I Ching started life as a divination manual. Burn-marks in bones and tortoise-shells were read to determine an oracle, a broken line - - indicating (say) Yes and an unbroken line - No. Two further qualifying lines (Yes, but ..., No, but ..., and so on) appear to have been added to produce eight possible oracles, the trigrams:


which are said to go back nearly five thousand years to the legendary founder of Chinese civilisation, Fu Xi. Traditionally, each trigram had associated with it attributes, as well as instantiations or reflections in a standard list of domains – familial, animal, anatomical, element, colour, season, directional. Thus, Mountain (Gen) had the attributes Inertia, Perfection, Inevitability, Modesty, Carefulness; and the reflections Youngest Son, Dog, Hand, Stone, Green, Early Spring, North-East.

Any two trigrams can be brought together to form a hexagram in two different ways. Combining Earth (Kun) and Lake (Dui), for example, produces the hexagrams:


In all, 64 hexagrams can be formed from the original eight trigrams. Somewhere around three thousand years ago each hexagram was supplied with an enigmatically brief commentary or judgment, intended to form the starting point of its interpretation. In addition there were commentaries on the images represented by the trigrams and remarks on the significance of each of the six lines making up the hexagram. What is known as the I Ching consists of this core material plus a body of more general commentary on the hexagrams, mostly from the three centuries or so after Confucius (and contentiously attributed to him and/or his followers), known as the Ten Wings.

Computer binarism makes the hexagrams immediately familiar. If we assign 0 to a broken line and 1 to an unbroken line, then the eight trigrams in their traditional Fu Xi order listed above correspond exactly to the sequence of numbers 0 to 7 written in base 2; a fact which doubtless interested Leibniz, who learned of the I Ching from Jesuit missionaries to China (and admired it), and who developed the binary arithmetic based on 0 and 1 underlying the computer.

You consult the I Ching in three steps. First, you ask a question: Should I do X? What are the possibilities for Y? Next you throw a hexagram. Then you interpret. The ritualised method of throwing a hexagram, described in the Ten Wings, involves casting lots with 50 yarrow stalks, a 16-step procedure to determine each line. More vulgarly, you can throw three coins to determine whether a line is broken or unbroken. You throw three (rather than one, which would be enough) to generate extra information. Thus, if heads gives unbroken and tails broken, if only one tail occurs (i.e. two heads come up) you get an unbroken line, two tails gives a broken line, and three tails gives a broken line that is marked as ‘old’ or ‘moving’, which means it is poised to transmute into its opposite. The first three tosses give the bottom trigram, the next three the top trigram.

Having got your hexagram you interpret it, in relation to your question, by looking up its judgment and commentaries. But which of the many renderings of the Book of Changes do you look these things up in? It has been translated many times; from very ancient into ancient into less ancient Chinese, from Chinese languages into others. In each case its commentaries, though not the diagrams, will be inflected by the religious, philosophical and political desiderata of the times. Can one speak of ‘the’ I Ching?

A version of this question, in the form of disputes between scholars over the relative authenticity of different portions, arose in China in the 17th century. The context was the ending of the Ming dynasty by the invasion of the non-Chinese Manchu. As part of the struggle to naturalise Manchu rule over the new Ch’ing empire, the Emperor K’ang Xi decreed new editions of the Chinese classics, setting in train a corresponding battle (pro/anti-Manchu) between competing scholars. The result, the 1715 imperial edition of the I Ching, heavily and contentiously based on the 11th and 12th neo-Confucian translations, is the one that has influenced the West. The Imperial edition emphasised the Confucian tenets of obedience to authority, the doctrine of the superior man, and ritual propriety; thus serving as a perfect vehicle of inculcation and legitimation for the new regime.

It was essentially this edition which was translated by Richard Wilhelm into German in the early part of this century. Wilhelm downplayed or overlaid the Confucian moralising; he emphasised a spirituality derived from its being in touch with ‘timeless wisdom’. This is preserved by Wilhelm’s English translator, Cary Baynes, and enhanced (in a different direction) by the introductory essay written for the English edition by Jung. The result was the I Ching we encountered in the Sixties: a mixture of moralism, wide-eyed candles-and-incense reverence and prediction. Jung, a lifelong admirer of the I Ching and friend of Wilhelm, suggests in his essay that the phenomenon of ‘synchronicity’, which he himself introduced, is what lies behind the oracular capacity of the great classic of changes. He then consults the I Ching by asking about its own fate (and that of his essay) as it is about to be newly launched in America. His throw produced the hexagram Ting, the Cauldron (judgment: ‘Supreme good fortune. Success’) which transmutes into the hexagram Jin, Progress (judgment: ‘The powerful prince is honoured with horses in large numbers. In a single day he is granted audience three times’), which he proceeds to interpret.

What are we to make of all this? Undoubtedly, the immense age, accumulated layers of scholarship, turbulent and inflected history, and extraordinary staying power of the I Ching as a literary object, not to mention its present-day use as an oracle by millions of Chinese throughout the world, make it a unique artefact that will always be of interest. But if you’re not a student of Chinese culture, don’t subscribe to New Age mysticism or have doubts about the very idea of divination, what has the I Ching to offer? Why would you consult it? One (somewhat patronising) answer might be as a form of therapy, an extension of the ancient practice of resolving doubts by reading tortoise shells which, as Joseph Needham has remarked, ‘probably paid its way as a solvent for neuroses of indecision’. From the viewpoint of Western scientific rationalism, the I Ching appear as little more than superstitious nonsense. What has the repeated chance fall of three coins at a certain moment to do with one’s fate or the success of one’s ventures? And why should the world of man or nature be captured by exactly 64 readymade situations?

Familiar with current historical and textual research, having no truck with ‘ageless wisdom’ and leery of spirituality, Richard Lynn’s translation of the I Ching as re-translated, explicated and interpreted by the young scholar Wang Bi (226-49 CE) and his followers, feels a world apart from that of Wilhelm.

Wang Bi’s times were, according to Lynn, ones of ‘great social and political uncertainty and military strife, marked by rebellion, usurpation, civil war, invasion, desperate economic conditions – all the elements that contribute to the precariousness of life’. Elements that also contribute to drastic measures. Wang Bi’s treatment of the I Ching was radical and far-reaching. He found it encrusted with numerological manipulation of the hexagrams into ever more arcane patterns of divination and weighed down by seven centuries of zealous and often uninspiring Confucianism. His response was to sweep away the numerology and replace it with a theory of internal resonance and harmony acting through the individual line, re-translate the judgments and commentaries so that they reflected a Daoist as well as Confucian outlook, and write what was probably the first philosophical commentary, his ‘General Remarks on the Changes of the Zhou’. Lynn’s edition translates all this, as well as the re-working of the Ten Wings by Wang Bi’s third-century follower Han Kangbo.

For non-experts and newcomers the differences brought about by Wang Bi’s Daoism will perhaps be swamped by features common to all versions of the classic: the pervasive values – human society is intrinsically hierarchical, obedience is a prime virtue, the state is the family writ large, the family is a patriarchy, the male is strength and the female weakness – which put it high on any political incorrectness index. But one should, Lynn rightly insists, see such things in relation to their history and focus on the more interesting effects the I Ching has to offer.

In this, Wang Bi’s renderings of the judgments and commentaries, and especially his General Remarks, are a luminous guide. Particularly good is his take on words, the written text of the commentaries and the consequences of not being clear about their limitations. ‘Someone who stays fixed on the words will not be one to get the images, and someone who stays fixed on the images will not be one to get the ideas. The images are generated by the ideas ... the words are generated by the images.’ This downgrading of the written text (scandalous to Western Alphabeticism) in favour of imaged ideas is instructive. Just as Chinese ideogrammatic writing can be read by people who speak different languages, so it seems Wang Bi transfers this principle to the hexagrams, insisting that the idea or concept of the hexagram itself is the key, not the text or the trigram images.

What emerges with great force and clarity from Wang Bi is the use of the I Ching as a cultural resource. To ask it a question and interpret its response is to be re-alerted to oneself as a social, moral and contemplative being; more alive to the enfolding of character and destiny, the web of cause and effect between oneself and others, the virtues of flexibility and patience, the fitness and danger of things, and the ripeness of action. Does one need to throw hexagrams and look up their commentaries to learn such wisdom? Perhaps not. But the I Ching is a peculiarly powerful teacher with an uncanny ability to get you to reflect on yourself.

As to its oracular content, for Daoists who understand all under heaven and on earth as part of a single unfolding and refolding of the Way, a coming out and returning to the great Non-Being, it is no violation of reason to believe that everything in the universe at a given moment is connected. This being so, the idea of a congruence between the fall of coins and the fate of one’s ventures seems not so outlandish; though why its shape should be discernible from a hexagram, the movement of its lines and an ancient text, remains mysterious.

One can also see the I Ching pragmatically, as an ingenious artefact for creating meanings. In this light it offers itself as a chance-driven imagination machine, an interpretative and semiotic device rather than a divinatory apparatus. And why not? Meaningful creation through the imposition of arbitrary and perhaps intrinsically meaningless constraints is hardly new – most poetic forms have this quality. Neither is it played out. Witness the OuLiPo group of writers in France, whose programme – from Georges Perec’s and Jacques Roubaud’s novels that are not novels to Raymond Queneau’s apparatus for producing 1014 sonnets – is precisely to create different kinds of machines for telling stories.

As an apparatus for imagining, the I Ching facilitates a confrontation between a presentday self and an ancient, randomly chosen Other, bringing a personal question, full of hope, fear and ignorance, face to face with the enigmatic, poetically dense, open-ended interpretation of an abstract hexagram. The notion that something new, interesting and perhaps useful might result from such a clash is not foolish, though it might once have surprised us: it was not very long ago that juxtaposing two film images to produce a meaning or effect not present in either so electrified Sergei Eisenstein. The fact that Eisenstein claims to have discovered the principle of montage after studying the workings of Chinese ideograms would have gladdened Wang Bi’s heart. As for me, a long-time enthusiast of the ideogrammatic mode of signifying (what mathematician isn’t), it’s a reason for taking the hexagrams, if not completely seriously, then with more respect than I did back in their Sixties heyday. And this despite the fact that (or because) their method defies Western reason, and that the answers they make possible are not always over-useful.

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Vol. 17 No. 5 · 9 March 1995

Brian Rotman’s account of the transmission of the I Ching misses out some quite important information (LRB, 9 February). The problem lies in his repeated use of the word ‘translation’, a process which, according to him, was carried out many times during the history of the I Ching in China itself. In fact, the text of the I Ching has remained unaltered and in exactly the same language for about two millennia, and some parts of it for perhaps as many as three – any much older dating even for the hexagrams is no longer generally accepted. What has changed has been the nature of the commentaries written upon the main text, but here again there has been no shift in the language used: until this century all commentary was written in ‘Classical’ Chinese, an artificial literary medium maintained with even less change than Latin while spoken Chinese diverged from it as radically as any modern Romance language. On the other hand, the text has been constantly re-interpreted through commentaries in this medium to suit the changing zeitgeist. It may be legitimate to call this process ‘translation’, but only when one has made clear that the term is not to be taken literally.

As for the interpretation decreed by the Kangxi Emperor in 1715, which Rotman correctly identifies as a distinctly moralising effort which has had undue influence on Western readings of the text, this was in fact the outcome of a conservative strain within Chinese thought itself, albeit one particularly gratifying to the Manchu autocrat, rather than the result of conflicts between Manchu and Chinese scholars. The new ruler was trying to keep the mailed fist hidden as far as possible so as to win over a broader following of Chinese intellectuals, and so, for example, he was at the same time prepared to bestow tokens of Imperial favour on a radical critic of earlier I Ching scholarship named Hu Wei.

I appreciate that Brian Rotman disclaims any particular interest in Chinese culture or history; I also appreciate that it is very difficult to come by accurate information in these areas: perhaps less than half a dozen of our so-called ‘university’ libraries could furnish the basic bibliography of books listed at the end of Richard Lynn’s translation, and I fear that many might come up with none at all. But surely to gloss over such problems is to treat Chinese civilisation as a willow-pattern world in which nothing of consequence ever took place and to which normal standards of accurate description do not apply. An honest admission that one is ‘making do’ in the absence of reliable guidance would, I hope, find more sympathy with your readers than misinformation presented, no matter with what good intentions, as fact.

T.H. Barrett
School of Oriental and African Studies, London WC1

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