The Way of I Ching

Stephen Karcher. London: Thorsons, 2002, xxviii + 196 pages, £7.99. ISBN 0-00-713604-8.


Stephen Karcher is a well-experienced I Ching diviner, with associations with the Jungian Eranos Foundation, who has written a number of I Ching books now, some a bit similar. 'The Way of I Ching', in Thorson's 'Way of…' series, is in fact a reissue of his 1995 'The Elements of I Ching', in the 'Elements of…' series from the now defunct publisher Element Books.

'The Way of I Ching' is unusual among beginner I Ching books in that it is actually quite good, and at least the author knows the subject. I might quibble about a point of history in the introduction in which he suggests the I Ching originated from the shamanic tradition, as opposed to having its roots in the practices of Shang Dynasty kings and their diviners, but in general the book is useful and insightful in practice.

Where this I Ching differs from many is in its emphasis on the actions of 'the spirits'. While Karcher uses this device a little too often and in a formulaic manner, he is essentially right that this was the early belief about how the I Ching 'worked'. The ancient kings consulted it to discover what 'The Ancestors', i.e. the dead kings before them, thought about their plans. He also restores the concept of the 'angry ghost'. I was very pleased to see this in hexagram 18, which is indeed about a curse laid by the ghost of a dead ancestor who is causing mayhem because he or she is angry at being ignored (i.e., not receiving sacrifices), but when the motif began to crop up in other hexagrams I thought it inappropriate and liable to confuse.

Down the centuries the accent on ghosts and spirits was removed from the I Ching, such that if you look at the most popular (and still the best) English translation, that of Richard Wilhelm and Cary F Baynes, you will find little about spirits, rather the tone is ethical and philosophical, some would even say moral.

One thing needs correcting: Karcher suggests that the method of consulting via coins is not as good as the yarrow rite because the yarrow's probabilities of yin and yang lines occurring is asymmetric, whereas it is symmetric in the coin ritual (yin and yang equally likely), and therefore not representative of how it should be. This is a common fallacy, because in fact the yarrow rite as we know it today is a late reconstruction and is not necessarily performed as it was originally [see Steve Moore's review of Stick Dice and note on Yijing probabilities]. The way to perform the original rite has been lost. In fact, the oldest extant method we have is the coin method. I use coins myself, without any sense that it is an inferior method. Where the yarrow rite really scores is that it is more meditative and encouraging of deeper contemplation, and it is not impetuously resorted to, but whether yin and yang lines were originally intended to have differing chances of arising is quite unknown. To my thinking, their chances ought to be equal since they are polar opposites. In practice, of course, whatever method you use you obtain the hexagram you need.

[Written for 'Light: Magazine of The College of Psychic Studies'. November 2002.]


A note on Alfred Huang’s I Ching books

I don't value Alfred Huang's books greatly. His history in his translation of the Yi is unreliable and there are clumsy errors. For instance, in hexagram 35 he is aware that it is the Marquis of Kang who is receiving horses, yet in his commentary he writes that it is King Wen receiving the horses. I particularly don't like the way he has taken the traditional history and attempted to make it sound like it is referred to throughout the Yi without offering any evidence but merely stating that this is so. This is the poorest thing about his work, and he departs from the degree to which traditional Yijing scholars have ever been willing to link the conquest to the hexagrams. That he does this without evidence and simply on his sayso is pretty poor. (The Mandate of Heaven deals with the evidence to link the Yijing with its traditional foundation in the conquest of the Shang, offering a completely different picture of what actually happened.)

Huang's knowledge of Chinese history and myth is restricted to the usual repeated stories regurgitated seemingly without any awareness of the advances made in Yijing research in the past 70 years. What is worse, he doesn't really appear to understand the material, he simply appends traditional historical snippets to the hexagrams whether they apply or not, and sometimes quite frankly makes up history, or, to be fairer perhaps, misremembers it and in the process elaborates in a manner that cannot be justified by the original sources (none of which are cited either, though recognisable to those familiar with Chinese history).

His book on Yijing numerology similarly contains errors. In his analysis of Shao Yong's square Huang misses the fact that the gua on the 111000–000111 diagonal (bottom left to top right) are composed of complementary trigrams. Given that he's pointing out things to notice about the square there's a lot he doesn't mention, calling into question how deep his understanding of it actually is. [See the article on Yijing hexagram sequences for further details on the Shao Yong square.] Some hexagrams in his diagrams are also incorrect – given such complex material, one would have thought the book would have been given a better proof-read to eliminate such glaring errors that will cause confusion among those not advanced enough to immediately spot them and mentally correct them. Many of the things he deals with are better dealt with by Prof Ed Hacker, and the diagrams in Diana ffarington-Hook's books and Chu and Sherrill are better.

It was a good idea to gather such material into one book, but he cites no sources and the book is essentially rehash of already extant material with much repetitive padding and little original to say, apart from the secret method of constructing hexagrams on the fingers he says was taught to him by a blind fortune teller he shared a prison cell with. What a pity though that for something as potentially interesting as that he just skips over it. (Jou Tsung Hwa mentioned the same method on pp 30–31 of his 1984 book 'The Tao of I Ching: Way to Divination'.)

People say they like his Yijing, but I wonder myself whether they have bought into the idea that Huang is an authority and have simply believed it on publisher's hyperbole, not knowing any better. Certainly it is a nice looking Yijing, but the content isn't particularly great to the discerning eye. Wilhelm-Baynes is still the best English translation, and, given that this work dates from 1924 in the German, it is surprisingly accurate in terms of being true to the actual traditional history, although of course it came before the insights that have been made available through the Shang oracle bones so supplementary texts that deal with this subject are useful (mainly Rutt, Marshall, Kunst [thesis], and Shaughnessy [thesis], to an extent Gotshalk, though I have great reservations about his 'rearrangement' of hexagram line statements). Despite some errors in the Zhouyi part of Wilhelm-Baynes, the book's great strength is Wilhelm's beautifully expressed encapsulation of the commentaries of the Song dynasty philosophers Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi, which do not depend on the Shang discoveries. It is a true traditional Yijing, Huang's I'm afraid is somewhat of a pretender to the throne and certainly not the 'definitive' edition it claims to be. It is not even complete, for instance both the Dazhuan and the Shuogua commentaries are omitted, despite the fact that the book's title is 'The Complete I Ching'.

[Originally written in response to a request for my opinion on Huang's books on a newsgroup.]