Making Sense of the I Ching (Classic of Change)

John Timothy Wixted

The I Ching (read in Japanese Eki-kyō) is a notoriously difficult text.  But in the study of China and Japan, it is a seminal and protean work that cannot be ignored.  So much has been written about the I Ching in Western languages, and so much of it is misleading or wrongheaded, I thought readers of Tokonoma might be interested in some suggestions about reliable translations and studies of the text, especially some recent ones.

First, a word about the title of the work.  One usually finds it referred to in Western languages as the I Ching (according to the Wade-Giles system of romanization, which was in wide usage until recently).  Yijing is the current way the title is romanized (according to the Pinyin system of romanization in use in communist China, and now largely adopted throughout the West).  But inasmuch as the text came to be known in the West as the I Ching (or variations such as I King, Yi Ching, etc.), many authors have retained the romanization I Ching so that readers know what their work is about.  In any case, the title means Classic of Change (although it is widely referred to, in accord with the most famous translation of it by Richard Wilhelm, as The Book of Changes).  As noted, the Chinese characters in its title are read in Japanese as Eki-kyō.  

Let us look at what the text originally was and what it became, both in China and Japan.  The earliest manuscript version of the I Ching, the so-called Mawangdui text dating from the 2nd century B.C., was only excavated in China in 1973.  We are most fortunate to have a complete and reliable translation of it (with the Chinese text conveniently printed alongside) in the version by Edward L. Shaughnessy, I Ching: The Classic of Changes (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997).  As Shaughnessy in that and other of his studies makes clear, the I Ching at this stage was used for divination.  

The first full-scale commentary on the text was written in the third century A.D. by WANG Bi, who interpreted the work as a book of moral and political wisdom.  (For the sake of clarification, East Asian surnames are capitalized here on their first appearance.)  Both the text and commentary are admirably translated by Richard John Lynn in The Classic of Changes: A New Translation of the ‘I Ching’ as Interpreted by Wang Bi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Thomas F. Cleary hit upon the original idea of authoring different books focusing on widely varying interpretations of the text.  He has translated a Daoist I Ching, a Buddhist I Ching, and a Neo-Confucian I Ching, based respectively on commentaries on the work by LIU Yiming (18th cent.), ZHIXU Ouyi (17th cent.), and ZHENG Yi (12 cent.) – namely, The Taoist I Ching (Boston: Shambhala, 1986), The Buddhist I Ching (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), and I Ching: The Tao of Organization (Boston: Shambhala, 1988) – as well as his own rendering of the original,  I Ching: The Book of Change (Boston: Shambhala, 1992).  These are all “wisdom books,” albeit with the parallel use of the I Ching as a text of divination always latent and sometimes enlisted.  Thomas Cleary has written two other I Ching-related books, one a tool “for whole-brain learning that help[s] the student to visualize patterns and interrelationships among the trigrams and hexagrams of the I Ching,” the other a translation of the Confucian Analects “in I Ching order”:  namely, I Ching Mandalas: A Program of Study for ‘The Book of Changes’ (Boston: Shambhala, 1989) and The Essential Confucius: The Heart of Confucius’ Teachings in Authentic ‘I Ching’ Order (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).  Cleary is a brilliant and able student of classical Chinese, whose dozens of volumes of translations are sometimes handicapped by their paucity of scholarly apparatus.  

Classic older translations of the I Ching include those into English by James Legge (1882) and into German by Richard Wilhelm (1923).  The latter was translated into English (by Cary F. Baynes in 1950; 3rd ed., 1967);  as Shaughnessy has noted, “while it cannot be used for any historical study of the text, it has the virtue of faithfully presenting the text as it was understood by traditional Chinese Confucian scholars towards the end of the Ch’ing [Qing] dynasty [1644-1911].”  Wilhelm’s translation has also been translated into Spanish (by D.J. Vogelmann in 1976).  The Wilhelm work is a rarity:  a translation of a translation (from Chinese to German to English, and from Chinese to German to Spanish) that has retained its value.

We are fortunate to have in Spanish the recent volume by the Argentine scholar, Olivia Cattedra, Oráculo y Sabiduría: Guía para el Estudio del I Ching (Buenos Aires: Edición de Autor, 2003).  As reflected in the book’s title, Cattedra has captured well the two main uses to which the text has been put.  After a long and suggestive introduction on the philosophical implications of the text, she treats the work in two other major sections in terms of its oracular and technical aspects.  Cattedra brings to her work a strong background in the traditional thought of India, her area of specialization.  (Probably for this reason, her citation of East Asian names is sometimes reversed, first name being used in citations calling for a surname e.g., “Wing Tsit” instead of CHAN, “Masayoshi” instead of KOBAYASHI).  Her work draws upon the volumes by Shaughnessy, Cleary, and Wilhelm noted above, as well additional works by these and other reliable scholars.  I found it fascinating to see, among the works cited in her bibliography, how many of them have been translated into Spanish:  not only I Ching-related volumes by Cleary and Wilhelm (both father Richard and son Hellmut), but also classic studies on traditional Chinese thought by FENG Yu-lan, Marcel Granet, and Wing-tsit CHAN.  (East Asian surnames are usually written with the last-name first for those whose writings are, or originally were, in East Asian languages, and with the surname last for those whose writings were first done in Western languages.)

For appreciation of the impact of the I Ching on Japanese thought, we are helped immensely by a recent book by Wai-ming NG, The I Ching in Tokugawa Thought and Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000).  Ng outlines the history of the reception of the I Ching in Japan from antiquity to the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), goes into detail about the uses the text was put to during the Tokugawa, and outlines the work’s influence on Japanese medicine, military thought, and popular culture.  The author makes a compelling case for the text’s importance:  the number of commentaries written on it by early-modern Japanese far outnumbered those written on other works of classic East Asian thought.  The I Ching was appropriated for political purposes (to lend ideological support to Tokugawa rule), claimed by nativist as well as Confucian scholars, and even given a Japanese pedigree (HIRATA Atsutane and his followers claimed the work was originally written by a Japanese Shinto deity, one who in fact descended to earth and advised early Chinese sages).  Ng credits the Hirata-school interpretation of the text for helping pave the way for the later harmonization of Western and East Asian learning in fields such as medicine. For helpful background information on different traditions of thought in Japan (the better to place the I Ching in context), one might read the original and helpful study by Jesús González Valles, Historia de a la filosofía japonesa (Madrid: Editorial Tecnos, 2000).