The Classic of Changes in Cultural Context

Subtitled: 'A Textual Archaeology of the Yi jing.' Scott Davis. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2012, hardback, xxiv + 281 pp, 38 figures, notes, bibliography, indexes. $114.99/£71.99. ISBN 978-1-60497-808-7.


Outside of traditional exegesis, scholarly approaches to the Yijing range through the purely sinological to the philological and historical, which may explain why Scott Davis has been struggling to bring his ideas before the public for at least 15 years. Davis has a structural/anthropological approach, which doesn't really 'fit' with standard notions about the classic (or with the journals in which such research is usually published), so it's a real pleasure to see his book in print at last.

Whether treated as a divination manual or a classic of philosophy and cosmology, the basic text of the Zhouyi has been surrounded, over the centuries, by commentaries and explication that have kept it 'live' for its contemporary users and their current concerns, so modern western readers rarely realise how different archaic Chinese culture was to our own, or how pervasive its use of divination and ritual actually was. It's the anthropological investigation of that culture, based on an array of sources, western, Chinese, and Japanese, that provides the basis of Davis's structural hypothesis.

The main concern here is the composition of the book, which Davis argues must be treated as a whole, uniting both the structure and ordering of the hexagrams with their accompanying text. Rather than being a random collection of oracles, according to this notion everything, from the placing of the hexagrams and their associated texts in a precise order to the reason that particular textual symbols appear where they do, is the result of conscious composition on a staggeringly complex scale. Perhaps the implied sophistication of its archaic authors is another of the reasons why Davis's ideas have hitherto been resisted. There is, of course, an assumption here that, whatever their origins may have been, the hexagrams were ordered for the Zhouyi and their accompanying texts were written or adapted at much the same time, or at least synchronously edited together; and that what we possess today is essentially the same book, uncorrupted, that its compilers left us. Although certain readers may question the credibility of this, some of Davis's findings tend, as it happens, to suggest that that may well be the case.

Less a sustained exposition of his thesis than a collection of essays providing variations on its theme, the book explores several major topics. One is 'age sets' (significant decades in a man's life, accompanied by rituals, such as reaching manhood at 20, marriage at 30, and so on) and their reflection in the ordering of the book's 64 hexagrams and their texts. This yields some interesting insights, as for example the emphasis on royal and sacrificial symbolism in the decade of hexagrams starting with number 50, an age at which, it appears, one was likely to enter the service of the sovereign. Indeed, much of Davis's exposition concerns particular rituals and sacrifices mentioned in the Zhouyi text, the names of which have a tendency to drop out of English translations, and there's much of value to be found here alone.

Elsewhere, Davis finds startling structural symmetries in the arrangement of the hexagram figures that certainly imply conscious design, particularly with reference to what he calls the 'Big and Little' hexagrams (those whose titles include, in Wilhelm's translation, the words 'Great' and 'Small', such as 'Taming Power of the Great'). The symmetries displayed in the sequence between hexagrams 7 and 16, revolving around an axis at 11 and 12, are truly astonishing (though it has to be said that the two other sequences of 'Big and Little' hexagrams he defines are somewhat less well-evidenced). Again, the ordered arrangement of upper and lower trigrams in hexagrams 43 to 50 is startling, and these two sequences alone provide strong evidence of compositional structuring. It might also be added that anyone hoping to explain the King Wen sequence in terms of a purely mathematical algorithm will probably have some explaining to do when it comes to these sequences.

Other chapters cover the way the Yijing models the four seasons; the importance of mountains in its symbolism; the placing of its references to wine and an intriguing insight into the meaning of 'pigs and fishes' in the judgment text to hexagram 61.

While all this is backed up by fascinating anthropological material on the organisation of ancient society and its rituals, there are occasional points where the evidence seems perhaps more suggestive than conclusive, and one may wonder at the (relatively rare) use of the Image commentary to support the argument, when it's generally thought to be considerably later than the Zhouyi text itself. Nonetheless, the book certainly opens up new vistas in Changes research and is much to be valued for that.

This is, uncompromisingly, a scholarly work for specialists, requiring a good grounding in Yijing studies, and there are occasions, particularly in the more structuralist discussions, where Davis's use of academic jargon doesn't make for easy reading. Its scholarship, however, is astonishingly wide-ranging, its ideas deeply thought-provoking. Whether one believes that Davis has 'the answer' or simply 'another interpretation', his work opens up extensive new fields for study and contemplation that one hopes he and others will continue to explore. It's regrettable that the book is priced so highly that its absorbing content will be beyond the reach of most people outside the university library system, and I can only urge the publisher to make it available in paperback at the earliest opportunity.

[A shorter version of this review was written for 'Fortean Times'.]