The Essentials of the Yi Jing

Chung Wu, PhD. Paragon House, St. Paul, 2003. lxix + 566 pp, £19.95/$24.95. ISBN 1-55778-827-8.


I first read about this book on the website of Paragon House, the publisher. When I looked at the listing of its contents I thought, gee, this looks good. I ordered the book immediately.

When I received the book I was not prepared for a major disappointment. The book turned out to be old-fashioned, outdated, and the – mainly technical – material that comes with every hexagram makes it not very useful in the practice of divination. Most ideas and facts in 'The Essentials' are already mentioned in other books; it is hard to find anything new in it. When Wu says that

In ancient script, the character yi consists of two parts, the upper part being the character ri, the sun, and the lower part being the character yue, the moon. (p xvii)

he shows he is not up to date on the latest developments in the study of ancient Chinese – there is a lot more that can be said about the character yi (see, for instance, my own article Working with Yi, the illustrations showing that the old idea that yi is derived from a combination of pictographs for the sun and moon is a fallacy). And saying that

the Judgment of the Hexagrams is recognized by most scholars as a masterpiece of King Wen (p xxvii)

is very much behind the times. His view of the Yi is very traditional, and it makes you wonder why he found the need to put it to paper when so many have done that before him.

His knowledge of the Yi in the West is extremely limited, otherwise he would not have stated that Wilhelm and Legge were unaware of or did not appreciate the significance of cuo (inlaid) and zong (woven pattern) hexagrams (p xlvii) [See Ed's note for an explanation of these terms]. Legge and Wilhelm used the Zhouyi Zhezhong edition of the Yi and this edition does not mention cuo and zong hexagrams, which are more or less Daoist xiangshu ('Image and Number' School) ideas that did not fit in with the Confucian view of the Yi at the time. Wu's constant grumbling about the work of Legge, Wilhelm and others is irritating and most of the time unfounded, as in this statement concerning the Zagua, or Tenth Wing:

Wilhelm/Baynes translated the title of this Wing as 'Miscellaneous Notes' and dispersed its contents in the 64 hexagrams under the same heading. Wei [Henry Wei, 'The Authentic I Ching' – Ed] did not translate the Wings in his translation of the Yi Jing but translated the title of the Tenth Wing as 'Miscellaneous Hexagrams.' How can hexagrams possibly become 'miscellaneous'? All these treatments are superficial and miss by far the essence of this Wing. (p xlix–l)

And he goes on about this 'point' for a further page. But the plain truth is that 'miscellaneous' is just another word for 'mixed', which agrees with Wu's own idea about the character za that forms the title of the Tenth Wing, namely that it means 'not in order (of their appearance in the text)' (p l). That Wilhelm meant 'mixed' can be seen from the German original of his translation, where he speaks of 'vermischte zeichen'. 'Vermischt' means 'mixed'. And in the Tenth Wing the hexagrams are indeed mixed, and not solely 'presented as their antiparallel pairs' with complementary pairs substituted 'for those whose antiparallel counterparts are their own', as Wu would have us believe (p l). In actual fact, the last eight hexagrams mentioned in the Zagua are not paired and have little discernible order (as the 28 pairs themselves have no apparent logic to their sequence). Wu makes a fuss about nothing; the meaningfulness he thinks he sees that past translators have all missed evaporates when examined carefully for oneself away from the diatribe.

His lamenting of the word 'nuclear' as a translation of hu in hugua (nuclear trigram/hexagram) is hilarious and pathetic at the same time:

To my knowledge, Wilhelm/Baynes were the first to translate hu into 'nuclear'. Since then, nearly every translator of this term, as if reflexly, has joined them in unison. Unfortunately, their translated term is a misnomer, because it is inappropriate and misleading for two reasons. First, a translator has an obligation to be truthful to the original text. If he deviates from it, he should make the deviation known to the reader that the idea is his, not the author's. When the term hu gua was adopted nearly two-thousand years ago, cells and atoms were unknown to mankind, let alone the nucleus. I believe that the translator of a term should not introduce a concept alien to the originator of the term. (p liii)

Dear Mr Wu, 'nucleus' is just another word for 'centre, core, heart' or 'focus', just check your dictionary. Surely Wilhelm did not have atoms in mind when he talked about hugua. In fact, he talked about 'kernzeichen', and the German 'kern' has the same meaning as the English word 'kernel'. That Cary F Baynes chose to translate 'Kernzeichen' as 'nuclear trigram/hexagram' shows that she had the meaning of 'centre, core' in mind. Just as Wilhelm did.

On p lx Wu blunders again:

[Legge's] translation seems quite literal. This makes reading sometimes difficult, and the meaning of the text needs ample annotation, which he did not provide.

No annotation in Legge?! Wu must have forgotten his glasses when he read (if he ever did) Legge's translation. If there is one reason to buy Legge's translation it is for the lengthy footnotes that accompany every hexagram, and give detailed explanations of every text, from a Confucian point of view.

And Wu goes on and on. Wilhelm, Legge, Lynn, Cleary and other translators did a really bad job when they translated shou in the extra line text of hexagram 1 as 'head(s)', giving translations like 'There appears a flight of dragons without heads':

If the translators had paused for a moment to reflect on the apparent conflict between their renderings and traditional Chinese thinking about the dragon, they could have discerned something seriously wrong here. Evidently, they had not. (p lxiv)

According to Wu the character shou can only be translated as 'leader'. But Wu does not seem to be aware of the fact that 'head' in English (and many other languages) also means 'leader', just like the Chinese character. Translating shou as 'head' captures not only the physical part of the body, but also the meaning of 'leader'. All the translators Wu criticises remained faithful to the multilayered meaning of the Chinese original. Only Mr Wu chose to limit the scope of this sentence by narrowing shou down to 'leader'.

Wu does not check his own assumptions, and his lack of knowledge about the Wade-Giles transliteration is amusing. He states:

When Wilhelm's translated work in German was published in 1924, he used 'I Ging'. Since the German 'I' is pronounced like the English 'Yi', the transliteration was fine. When Baynes translated Wilhelm's work into English in 1950, however, the American translator dutifully retained the 'I' in 'I Ging' in the title. (p lxix)

But Cary Baynes clearly says, 'Wade's system of transliteration has been used in putting the German version of Chinese words into their English equivalents' (Vol. I, p xxiii of the 1950 edition).

Up until now I have only dealt with the introduction. What about the rest of Wu's book, his translation of the Yi? Wu himself says about his work:

(…) literal translation of the original text is not obligatory in the present work. However, the essence of the text will be reproduced truthfully. Alteration of some passages will be done, when advisable, and noted accordingly. (p xxiv)

As I skim through his translation I do not always find these 'alterations' noted. For instance, in hexagram 1 line 4 the Chinese text does not speak of a dragon, but Wu finds it necessary to mention him in his translation. The dragon is the major theme in the line texts, and it is understandable that Wu introduces him here, but the original Chinese text of that line does not mention a dragon. If Wu changes the text he should note such an 'alteration'. His version of the Yi is not a faithful translation, but not an interpretation either, and it is precisely that which makes me uncomfortable with his rendition. It is neither fish nor fowl. He has a tendency to add lots of words to make his translation sound right. Too often he puts form before function.

The commentary he adds to his translation is mostly of a technical nature and describes the relationship between lines and trigrams, but it lacks advice for the seeker who uses the Yijing in problematic situations. Only on a few occasions does he provide a philosophical standpoint, and these few occasions are quite brief in comparison to the technical commentary. Take, for instance, his straightforward non-technical comment on hexagram 37 line 1:

In the beginning, it is advisable to lay down a principle that everyone should observe. In this way everyone would work toward the same goal. Certainly, it is a lot harder to correct when things go wrong than to prevent them from happening. (p 342)

This is half as long as a typical comment on technical matters such as line positions and nuclear (sorry Mr Wu) trigrams to explain why the text says what it says. Such commentary deals with the same kind of material as the Xiaoxiang, the commentary on the lines from the Third and Fourth Wings. Here is an example from the third line of hexagram 22, 'Adornment' (translation italicised):

Third nine. He appears to have adorned and moisturized himself. Perseverance will bring good fortune. The third nine is part of both the inner Li (brilliant colors for adorning) and inner derived Kan (water for moisturizing). The third nine and second six are 'in the same boat', in that they are properly placed, but unresponsive to their respective correlates. Only through cooperation with the one below and perseverance can he (as well as his partner) overcome the unfavourable situation. (p 260)

Because of all this technical stuff and the lack of good advice his commentary is often boring and of hardly any use to a diviner. You can only be interested in it when you want to explore the Yi from a xiangshu point of view. But for students who want to explore that field the Ten Wings already provide enough material. The synopsis at the end of each hexagram sometimes gives interesting points of view, but mostly it is comparable to the introductions that Wilhelm and others give at the beginning of each hexagram.

But I also have some good things to tell. Wu has translated the Ten Wings as well and he has done a good job with that. The Fifth Wing in particular is well annotated. It sometimes differs greatly from other translations, such as Wilhelm or Rutt. Take for example this extract from Part II, section 8, of Wu's translation of the Dazhuan (p 66):

The Yi Jing reveals to us the rules that guide our daily conduct both in private and in public, so that we know when to heed warnings. It further shows us the nature and cause of anxieties so that, even in the absence of a teacher or guardian, we would feel as if protected by our parents. At first, we follow its interpretations and gradually comprehend its doctrines. Later, we learn how to live by its principles. If a person is not receptive to its Dao, it will not do any good.

Richard Rutt on p 428 of his Zhouyi translates this as:

Going and coming within limits
gives warning without and within,
shedding light on trouble and its causes,
      not as a guide or teacher,
      but like a parent at one's side.
First study the statements,
and ponder their purport;
then principles will emerge;
      but if one is not the person intended,
      the dao will not apply automatically.

Though Rutt's translation is closer to the original, Wu's translation is not necessarily wrong, it is just different. For many beginners it can be a good introduction to the philosophy of the Ten Wings because it is written in a clear style and is well annotated, whereas other translations (like Rutt's) are terser and not accompanied by explanatory commentary.

The bibliography mostly consists of old books, Wu made no use of the latest works that explain the history and nature of the Yi from a more modern point of view. The same goes for the 'General References' (text in Chinese). The list of 'historical personal names cited' is handy, but some of the entries are boiled down without capturing the essence. To sum up Ma Rong (79–166 CE) as

A Yi Jing scholar who advocated that King Wen wrote the Gua Ci, and his son, the Duke of Zhou, wrote the Yao Ci. (p 538)

does not do justice to a man who exercised great influence in the study of the Yi. The glossary suffers from a similar absence of real detail. 'Dao' for instance is defined as

a way or principle that permeates throughout the universe

If you are looking for a book that can help you interpret an answer from the Yi you will most likely not find it in 'The Essentials of the Yi Jing'. But if you are interested in technical information and concerned with the structure of hexagrams, you might find this book an interesting read, provided it is your first entrance to the material. Much of what is covered in it is already mentioned in other books. The most valuable part is the translation of the Ten Wings.


Ed’s note: Cuo and zong hexagrams

Cuogua – 'inlaid hexagrams' – refers to two hexagrams where the nature of their relationship is that all six lines in one are the opposite of those in the other, such as hexagrams 27 and 28. Yin and yang lines in one are yang and yin lines, respectively, in the same positions in the other. You would say, for instance, that hexagram 27 is the cuogua of hexagram 28, or that hexagram 28's cuogua is hexagram 27. One hexagram becomes the other by changing all the lines. 'Inlaid' is a good way to see them, as you can imagine pushing one hexagram into the other, the yin and yang lines slotting into each other, as it were. In English studies of the Yijing such hexagrams are said to be 'complementary' (yin and yang are the complement of each other as well as being polar opposites). In Chinese studies they are also known as 'laterally linked hexagrams' (pangtonggua).

Zonggua, which literally means 'woven pattern hexagrams', are simply two hexagrams that are the inverse of each other, such as hexagrams 3 and 4. You would say that hexagram 3 is the zonggua of hexagram 4, or that hexagram 4's zonggua is hexagram 3. One hexagram becomes the other by being turned upside down. They are also called fangua (turned-over hexagrams) and fugua (overturned hexagrams).

The latter term fugua is used incorrectly by Chung Wu (p lix), which is likely to confuse anyone attempting to understand these terms. Instead of making it clear fugua is another name for the inverse of a hexagram, and despite the fact that he translates it as 'inverted hexagrams', he asserts that it means to change over the upper and lower trigrams to form another hexagram, a procedure he says is inversion. This is quite wrong. When you form another hexagram by swapping over the upper and lower trigrams it is known as liangxiangyi, 'the two images change over' (eg, if you take hexagram 20 and change over the trigrams you get hexagram 46). There are quite a few Chinese synonyms for this, but none of them are fugua. One would have thought the name alone would have alerted Wu to his error, but it appears that he may have taken as his authority the error of another Chinese writer on the Yijing. When I mentioned this anomaly over fugua to Harmen it sent him scurrying to his library and he noticed that a book by the contemporary scholar Huang Yuanbing, 'Yixue Tanyuan Jingzhuan Jie', published in 1977, also makes the same mistake, and this book is listed in Wu's bibliography. Further research reveals that the error is gaining ground among other Chinese Yijing authors who one might have thought would have picked up this mistake. But, that said, it should be noted that Stephen Field, in his review of Chung Wu's book in 'China Review International' (Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 2004, pp 202–209), also missed it and reported Wu's erroneous assertion as a fact.

Finally, a few words on Wu's bizarre translation of zonggua as 'antiparallel hexagrams'. He apparently favours 'antiparallel' from its usage in his own academic discipline of biochemistry, but actually that usage bears little resemblance to the idea of turning hexagrams upside down. His 'explanation' of the term is in a manner that appears to justify its use, but is nonsensical, in that he says that antiparallel hexagrams 'are parallel to each other, except in opposite directions' (p xlvii). Antiparallel in its purest sense is a term in trigonometry, where it attains a precise clarity, but again has absolutely nothing to do with upside-down hexagrams. (For the Chinese characters of the technical terms used on this page, see the glossary.)