The I Ching: Text and Annotated Translation

Liu Dajun and Lin Zhongjun; translated into English by Fu Youde, revised by Frank Lauran. Shandong Friendship Publishing House, Jinan, 1995. 142 pages. ISBN 7-80551-696-0. Current price in London about £5.00.


The blurbs tell us little about the four men who wrote this book. Liu Dajun is a university professor, but we are not told his field of study; Fu Youde, the translator, researches in Jewish culture; and Frank Lauran was an American who worked at Shandong University. There is no information about the experience of any of them in studying ancient Chinese literature or history. Professor Liu first thought of translating Zhouyi into modern Chinese in 1970. He completed his first draft between 1973 and 1976, then paused to rethink it. He finished his second draft in Summer 1984. Soon after that he first obtained the Wenwu transcript of the Mawangdui manuscript, which he took into account in preparing his third draft, ready at the end of 1987. Finally Mr Lin began to collaborate, and the fourth draft was published in the middle of 1989.

At this point the idea of translating the book into English was broached. It is quite possible that none of the authors knew that Yijing had been translated into English before, even though they were working in Richard Wilhelm's corner of China. Fu Youde drafted an English translation that was revised by Frank Lauran and published in 1995. It arrived in England about a year later.

So here we have a translation of a translation, a work that suffers the usual disadvantages of having been translated into English by a non-native speaker of English, in spite of the care lavished on it by a native English-speaking copyreader: it has a familiar unfinished feel. What can such a book offer the English student of the Yijing?

Each chapter covers one hexagram, providing first the normal Chinese text of Zhouyi (the Ten Wings are not considered, and there is no general introduction about the meaning or use of Yijing).

Then comes Fu Youde's English version of Professor Liu's modern Chinese translation of that hexagram. This translation is in the same tradition as Legge and Wilhelm, though in detail it often differs from them both. Hexagram 38:3, for instance, appears as:

The Ox held up its horns when seeing the cart dragged. The driver of the cart is punished by having his face tattooed and nose cut off. He ends well although he suffers much pain earlier.

(Those who know no Chinese and compare translations must notice that the same ideas occur in nearly all translations, but with different grammatical relationships. They are not all equally acceptable, and they do not often throw new light on the meaning of the text.)

After the translation come the notes on it, which are not very illuminating. They contain many Chinese characters, mostly with useful pinyin transliterations; otherwise they rarely consist of anything more than slightly variant repeats of the translation. The note on the same oracle, 38:3, for example, says:

Jian yu ye, qi niu che the ox held up its horns when seeing the cart dragged. Yu cart, carriage, ye drag, draw, che set horn upright; synonymous with [untransliterated character]. Qi ren tian yi the cart driver suffered the penalties of tattooing the face and cutting the nose. Tian have the prisoner's face tattooed as a punishment for his crime; it was also called mo xing in Zhou dynasty. Yi cut off one's nose.

For the English reader this adds nothing to the translation. In the Chinese book, of course, it may help to explain the modern Chinese translation. Even so, the translator does not go far in his explaining. In one place he says that zhen means both 'divination' and 'faithfulness', but he does not say why he chooses 'divination' in some places and 'faithfulness' in others. Again, he translates Zhongfu, the tag of hexagram 61, as 'Faithfulness in one's heart' but gives no justification for this carefully precise translation of characters which seem to say nothing about the heart.

Frequently recurring phrases are translated with reasonable consistency throughout, though omens about crossing 'rivers' in the plural coexist with omens about seeing a great 'man' in the singular; and the man who is 'not a robber, but a wife-seeker' (how did he come to lose her?) is sometimes plural, though in the text there is nothing to indicate either singular or plural in any of these cases. Occasional notes that promise something more interesting tend to peter out, like the suggestion that the true meaning of Huan (hexagram 59) is 'to shout in the offering of a sacrifice', which is not fully examined.

About twenty of the notes mention the I Ching on silk, meaning the Mawangdui manuscript (in catalogues of the Mawangdui excavations all writings on silk scrolls are called boshu 'silk manuscripts', to distinguish them from other objects found in the same grave, rather than to distinguish the Mawangdui text from other texts of Zhouyi). These twenty or so notes refer to a similar number of characters out of the very large number in the whole manuscript that differ from those in the received text. The note usually says only 'identical meaning for a different character', without further comment or evaluation. The few places where Mawangdui suggests a significantly different translation are not noted; and the Mawangdui order of the hexagrams gets only a passing mention in the preface, with no description or comment.

The original purpose of this book was to meet the needs of Chinese readers. When translated into English it is of value only insofar as its meaning and approach make it significantly different from existing English translations of Zhouyi. Alas, it is very like what we have often read before.

Whatever anybody writes about Yijing is worth perusing, and I do not count as wasted the time I have spent with Professor Liu's book. I have had a conversation with an old friend, pleasant but not stimulating. For newcomers to the subject it will be as useful as most translations and more useful than some, but only for the bare text of Zhouyi (the absence of introductory material is a serious lack); for omnivorous seekers of Yijingiana it will be an inexpensive addition to the collection – the first one from China in English for over half a century; but if one's book budget is restricted, it might be better to save the five pounds toward something more substantial.

[First published in 'The Oracle: Journal of the I Ching Society' Vol. 1, No. 6 (Winter/Spring 1998), pp 20–22.]