I Ching: The Classic Chinese Oracle
of Change

Rudolf Ritsema & Stephen Karcher. Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1994, hardback, 816 pages. ISBN 1-85230-536-3.


This is an unprecedented book. It is not so much a translation of the I Ching as a halfway house between the ideograms and a Chinese dictionary. After a stilted makeshift translation of each phrase, the components of it are isolated in turn in the order in which they appear in the same 1715 text used by Richard Wilhelm, transliterated according to Wade-Giles, then the range of possible meanings is simply listed. All Neo-Confucian commentary is excluded, only the divinatory texts are retained.

It is called a translation but is more like a translator's crib-sheet. The pictorial content of each ideogram is outlined, although the ideograms themselves are not reproduced, apart from the hexagram names as decoration, which, annoyingly, overprint the text. The book also includes the first English I Ching concordance, made possible by ensuring each ideogram is translated throughout by the same key word, printed in bold to distinguish it from the additional meanings.

If in a future edition the ideograms of the text were to be included, this book would serve as an excellent I Ching dictionary. As it is, Ritsema and Karcher wish it to be seen as an I Ching to consult in its own right, and propose a radical reassessment of how the Book of Change should be used. So it must be reviewed accordingly.

Frankly, a simple glossary of lexical meanings is too fragmented a form to be evocative of imagery to the extent an eloquent turn of phrase is. Ritsema and Karcher argue the form is quite deliberate and represents a step forward in translating the I Ching. They claim that by excluding all a priori assumptions about what the text means, refusing to choose a slant to put on it, and simply supplying the bits without comment, this allow one's own insight to be freshly minted from raw materials without first being pre-digested by, say, a Neo-Confucian outlook. It's a school of thought that shares no similar qualms, however, about placing this very notion of philological cleansing firmly into the psychoanalytical framework of the Jungian Eranos Foundation, of which both Ritsema and Karcher are pre-eminent dignitaries.

Studying the introductory case notes, I was impressed by the way the analyst was able to beat a path through the psyche of the client by using the 'oracular core' of the I Ching as a 'psychological tool'. But attempting to do this on my own I found in situ decipherment too dawdling a process for intuition to take hold; sheer stultification found me first, and I turned to Wilhelm for relief. I have a lot of time for Neo-Confucianism.

Despite this initial bad reaction, I have found the book of use outside of actual consultation for, as it were, 'reading between the lines' of the divinatory text, much as Ezra Pound translated. On occasion images have indeed formed that enabled me to see something of the original power of these cryptic pronouncements when freed of the way one has got used to seeing them. It is a process much like the construction of Dada poetry, or William S Burroughs' 'cut-up' technique, a method of literary skrying, hence true divination. It is certainly possible to discover unexpected connections by carrying juxtapositional shifts of words through the mind, sifting sand, until one gets the flash of a striking image. From this point of view, it is a book that repays time spent with it. But I doubt it is realistic to expect people to go through this rigmarole when they turn to the I Ching for counsel in a state of distress.

Down the ages, placing the accent solely on divination has traditionally been seen by scholar-philosophers of the I Ching as losing the intent of the sages. This is why the Neo-Confucian commentary material exists in the first place, to elucidate this point through ethical imperative. Divination imagery alone does not necessarily make this clear, one can easily stray off into an area better described as clairvoyance.

It should not be forgotten that it is the Neo-Confucian commentary that is responsible for the I Ching attaining a reputation as a Book of Wisdom rather than a grimoire of archaic imagery spells, potent though they are to effect change. Divination, devoid of the self-developmental angle, as it tends to be, was regarded as 'forgetting the root but preserving the branch'. In this respect, it remains to be seen whether grafting the I Ching's 'oracular core' onto a rootstock of depth psychology will take and flourish as a hybrid with its own ethic, or wither through future neglect. For all Neo-Confucianism is an a priori assumption of meaning, it has at least stood the test of time.


Ed's note – The above work is out-of-print, but a revised edition is available under the authorship of Rudolf Ritsema and Shantena Augusto Sabbadini.


The Classic of Changes: A new translation of the I Ching as interpreted by Wang Bi

Richard John Lynn. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, hardback, xii + 602 pages. ISBN 0-231-08294-0.


This is an incredible work. It is the long-awaited English translation of Wang Bi's commentary on the I Ching, including both hexagram texts and the Great Treatise, plus Wang Bi's own essay on the I Ching, the Zhouyi lueli. The text of the I Ching as Wang Bi knew it is reproduced in a serif typeface, whilst his own comments are contained in bracketed Gill Sans, which sets the two layers of the text apart perfectly yet still preserves it as an integrated whole.

Richard Lynn chooses the more modern pinyin transliteration system, as opposed to Wade-Giles, so the person formerly known as Wang Pi becomes Wang Bi.

Those I Ching aficionados who have heard of Wang Bi most probably first came across him in Hellmut Wilhelm's book 'Change' (pp 86–88), where in just a short extract from his 'General Remarks' he comes across as a formidable philosophical thinker, deeply in touch with the Tao. It was Wang Bi's efforts that first wrested control of the I Ching out of the hands of the diviners to show it in its full glory as a Book of Wisdom. So it is timely that this work should appear on bookshop shelves at the same moment as the Ritsema-Karcher translation, which espouses a powerful argument for a return to the original divinatory function of the I Ching.

Before reading Lynn's translation I have had a tendency to regard the Wilhelm-Baynes text as definitive, which would not be bettered. This was, after all, Wilhelm's intention. Now, however, I have no hesitation in saying that Lynn and Wilhelm go together like yin and yang.

Wang Bi, who died at the age of 23 in AD 249, is an interpreter of the I Ching of equivalent calibre to Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi, who were responsible some eight hundred years later for the commentarial tradition from which Wilhelm eventually derived. So this is the first translation to seriously compare ideas, not just paraphrase words.

This is particularly interesting where Wang Bi departs from the accepted nuances of meaning extant in Wilhelm, yet quite clearly is still coming from the same place. Whilst Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi had the advantage of having Wang Bi's commentary to hand, and obviously studied it, they were not afraid to iron out what they may have seen as the earlier master's youthful exuberance. For though his insights flowed directly from the ideas, in one's early twenties it is still possible to get carried away.

The thing that strikes me most profoundly about Wang Bi is that his words are so utterly consistent, there is not a shred of make-believe or self-deception in his outlook. That having been said, comparing his commentary with that of Cheng Yi/Zhu Xi, one gets a sense of the danger the two later and older men detected – staunchness has no give, it can become harsh. As it says in the Tao Te Ching: 'Soften the glare.' This appears to be what Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi did.

Richard Lynn has made this interconnection between the earlier and later commentaries especially easy to study by extensive footnoting of divergences and agreements. Wang Bi's two most important successors, Kong Yingda and Han Kangbo, are cited, as are Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi, all from primary sources. Reading the latter two it is fascinating to observe just how faithfully the Wilhelm-Baynes translation transmits the subtle shading of what they had to say, particularly at those places where Wang Bi prefers a stronger colouration.

Lynn is an inspired translator, his care in documenting his source material goes way beyond the call of duty. All in all, the kind of book we have been waiting for after a decade of insipid I Ching pot boilers.

[Both reviews first published under the main title of 'Two contrasting recent translations of the I Ching' in 'The Oracle: Journal of the I Ching Society' Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 1995), pp 15–18.]