Richard J. Smith. The I Ching: A Biography. Princeton University Press. 2012.

Princeton University Press has continued with its interesting ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’ series.  Whilst we do not normally think of a system of divination as coming under the heading of religion, the Chinese regarded the I Ching as an integral part of Confucianism.

One irritating thing to be mentioned at the outset is that the I Ching may also be called the Yi King or the Yijing.  This is due to the different ways of transcribing Chinese, the formerly common Wade-Giles system having been largely supplanted by Pinyin.  These are, in any case, of little use towards learning the pronunciation, as there is no one way of pronouncing Chinese: there are eight major dialects, which are practically different languages.  Whilst Smith’s book is entitled I Ching, throughout the text he uses Yijing.  It would be more helpful to the English reader if one system was always used – it is not obvious, for instance that jen and ren are the same word (a term in Confucian philosophy).

The I Ching (I find this spelling easier) consists of hexagrams, six-line symbols where every line may be solid (yang) or broken (yin).  This, naturally, gives a total of sixty-four (left).  They are supposed to derive from the very ancient oracle bone divination, wherein pieces of tortoise shell or cattle scapulae were heated until they cracked, and the diviner would interpret the cracks as yielding “answers to questions dealing with topics such as family matters, sacrifice, travel, warfare, hunting and fishing, and settlement planning.”  It is not clear how this could give rise to the hexagrams, except perhaps through some common system of numerology.  But in both cases the basis is a randomisation system.  The diviner will select a hexagram by shuffling yarrow stalks, the traditional method, or by tossing coins, a method simpler and now more popular in the west, where New Age shops usually sell Chinese coins for the purpose.

Around 800 BC a commentary was written, less than 4,200 characters long, giving a ‘judgement’ for each hexagram, and a further set of comments for each line, known as ‘line statements’.  This was written in an archaic language, hence there are differences in translation.  The fifty-second hexagram, for example, which goes, from top to bottom, yin, yin, yang, yin, yin, yang, is called ‘Gen’, which is variously interpreted as Mountain, Restraining, Keeping Still, Bound, Stabilising, Limited, Immobile, Steadiness”.  In the third century BC further commentaries, known as the ‘Ten Wings’, were added.  That for Gen begins: “The image of this hexagram is the mountain, the youngest son of Heaven and Earth.  The solid line at the top represents the yang (active principle), because it strives upward by nature.  The broken line at the bottom represents the yin (passive principle), since the direction of if its movement is downward.  Thus there is rest because the movement has come to a normal end.  In its application to man, this hexagram turns on the problem of achieving a quiet heart and mind.”  The diviner was somehow supposed to relate this to the question that had been asked.

Though the ‘Ten Wings’ became the official comment, recently archaeologists have discovered several other versions, which were generally written on slivers of bamboo, which tend to survive much longer than paper.

Accounts of I Ching became included in history books.  In 645 BC Duke Mu of Qin planned to attack Duke Hui of Jin, whose territory lay on the other side of the Yellow River.  His diviner Tufu, came up with hexagram eighteen, Gu, the judgement of which reads in part: “Favourable for crossing a wide river.”  I take it that this proved correct, although Smith does not specifically say so.

Later scholars had a variety of views, some rejecting the divinatory and numerological interpretations of the I Ching.  Cheng Yi of the School of Principle felt it was “above all a moral document, to be used solely for cultivating sageliness within and then manifesting it in service to society.  In his highly influential commentaries, Cheng steadfastly refused to see the Changes as anything more than a text encouraging right behaviour, although in his private conversations he was somewhat ambivalent about the numerology of scholars such as Shao Yong.”

From about 1400 onwards Chinese culture, and Confucianism in particular, were exported to Korea, Japan and Vietnam.  Smith documents the little known facts of the reception of the I Ching in these countries, and backs this with a lot of research, as when he writes: “It is sometimes said that Vietnamese scholars were not as preoccupied as their Chinese counterparts with philological and metaphysical debates.  But based on my own perusal of dozens of Yijing-related handwritten manuscripts in the Hanoi National Library that were produced in the late Le period or the early Nguyen dynasty (1802-1943), it seems clear that the authors were genuinely interested in these topics, especially metaphysics.”

The I Ching arrived in Europe in modern times along with other Chinese traditions such as Feng Shui and acupuncture (martial arts came mainly by way of Japan), and influenced such diverse individuals as occultist Aleister Crowley, psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and the composer John Cage.  Of course, it became popular during the hippy era, being referred to in songs by Bob Dylan and John Lennon.

Although this book is largely readable, Smith does sometimes disburden himself of rather awkward sentences, such as: “T’oegye, often considered to be the most influential philosopher in all of Korean history, vigorously defended most of Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucian ideas, including the notion that the principle of things had priority over the material force (qi) of which they were constituted.”  Nevertheless, for its material on the (ironically) obscure history of a well-known text, it is to be highly recommended. -- Gareth J. Medway


  1. The celebrated American science-fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was also influenced by the I Ching and used it frequently as a divination tool.

  2. Anonymous25.9.12

    This is discussed in the book under review