I Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom

John Minford. New York: Viking, 2014, hardback, lxv + 855 pp, $39.95. ISBN 978-0-670-02469-8.


John Minford, professor of Chinese at The Australian National University, has produced a new translation of the I Ching aimed not at a scholarly readership but rather the interested user of the oracle. Minford describes himself in a lecture on Youtube given in 2010 as 'a reluctant academic'. He says he chose to study Chinese by putting a pin in the prospectus at Oxford University, disappointed he wasn't qualified to study forestry. He sees this as an act of divination. In the lecture he talks of being nearly finished with his translation of the I Ching, but the I Ching kept telling him otherwise. In the introduction to the book he gives sample I Ching readings of his own. In an interview after his translation of Sunzi's 'Art of War' was published in 2002, when asked if there was a classical work he always wanted to translate but never got around to, he said:

I have always wanted to do a new version of the extraordinary I Ching, the Book of Changes. That is the book that fascinates me most of all. It is one of the main books that got me into Chinese in the first place. Even more than Sunzi, this is a true Book of Life. There is definitely room for a lively new version, one that goes back to the divination roots of the text, and puts the commentary tradition in its proper context, for our time. Maybe one day...

The book is split into two parts. The first and largest part translates the I Ching in a traditional manner, treating the text as a book of wisdom. This is the book as it has been handed down the ages. The second part translates the I Ching as a bronze age divination manual, or the 'original' oracle as reconceived in modern times, so all the more modernist renderings come in here, such as 'Dodder' for hexagram 4 rather than 'Youthful Folly', and 'Rats' for hexagram 15 rather than 'Humility'. Some of these 'bronze age' readings are certainly justified, others seem like following fashion. I still don't know as I would follow Arthur Waley's reading of 'dodder' for hexagram 4, it just doesn't seem to make any sense to me and is highly speculative.

The idea of treating the I Ching as two books, a posited original text and a traditional inherited text, effectively allows Minford to have two cracks at translating the oracle. While I can understand why he wanted to produce two separate translations, it has to be said that what has been discovered about the ancient text in recent times cannot help but affect our understanding of the inherited traditional text. To keep that understanding hermetically sealed away while carrying on translating the text as if these modern discoveries never happened is translating a text that no longer exists. One cannot say that for several thousand years such and such a hexagram meant one thing, but originally it meant another thing, without addressing the question of what it means now, now we know both what it is likely to have meant originally and what it meant for centuries after that meaning was lost.

So essentially we have a translation of the oracle as it was understood a century ago and a translation of the oracle as we today suppose it was understood three millennia ago, but not a translation of the oracle that has assimilated both to become the new 'inherited text'. I wonder how much longer these two outlooks are going to be kept separate, because it is essentially artificial. The only way to produce a truly contemporary translation of the I Ching is to allow some modernist readings to overtake traditionalist readings, while rejecting others as outmoded cultural artifacts of their time that pale in significance compared to traditionally evolved understandings, though of course still worthy of a footnote. That would be to continue the work of 'inheriting' the text and blossoming its commentary for the current age, rather than leaving it stuck moribund in two time-frames that are dead and gone.

In the first part, intended for use in personal consultation, Minford quotes a number of other commentators, primarily the Daoist alchemist Liu Yiming (who Thomas Cleary translated, badly, in 'The Taoist I Ching', and called 'Magister Liu' by Minford), the contemporary Taiwanese scholar Chen Guying, and Professor Mun Kin Chok, who is professor emeritus of marketing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Prof Mun has produced his own English translation of the I Ching geared towards business practices, in the book 'Chinese Leadership Wisdom from the Book of Change' (2006). Minford says he has 'benefited greatly from Professor Mun's down-to-earth approach' (p 786) and he quotes from it liberally in the lines to encapsulate the divinatory sense. Also featuring are the views of the Buddhist Ouyi Zhixu (Cleary's 'Buddhist I Ching'), and François Jullien's summations of Wang Fuzhi, as well as others. Minford has also scattered fragments of Chinese poetry where the poet has taken inspiration from a particular hexagram, such as Tao Yuanming, Yang Wanli, and Xie Lingyun. I like the inclusion of Chinese poetry a great deal, as it serves to put across the I Ching as a living book that has affected people's lives, such that they want to allude to it in their own writings.

Liu Yiming's alchemical pronouncements on the I Ching have never appeared to me to be very profound, just generalistic and vague, and Mun's insights on the lines from a business perspective are sound enough but fairly standard interpretations. Minford defers to their views throughout, his own comments being more infrequent, but very welcome are the quotations from other diverse voices, and little gems from his own studies in Chinese literature (Minford is known for his previous translations of the last two volumes of Cao Xueqin's novel 'The Story of the Stone', Pu Songling's 'Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio', as well as Sunzi's 'The Art of War'). This creates quite a rich and sometimes quirky commentary, such as this referring to the fourth line of hexagram 29:

This Yin Fourth Line "meets" the next Yang Line, looking to it for support, humbly offering homage "through the window." This expression is alluded to with ironic wit in the preface to the sixteenth-century pornographic novel The Lord of Perfect Satisfaction, as a humorous euphemism for the unorthodox "entry" into the Imperial Palace (a Pit of Danger if ever there was one) of Mr. Xue Aocao, a man endowed with a monumental penis (no humble offering, his). Xue had been summoned to court to please the insatiable Empress Wu Zetian. The I Ching, as well as being a Book of Wisdom, could also serve as a Commonplace Book of Mischief!

A curious aspect of part I is that Minford has given the Latin of various parts of the translation. He feels that we should appreciate the incantatory aspect of our own western tradition, and indeed the first translation of the I Ching into a western language was Latin. This perhaps underscores that the book is very much a personal appreciation, as these portions of the text are not needed, but are there rather because Minford likes them. Minford's writing is very much enthusiastic and wanting to be all-inclusive of interesting things, so this spirit carries it along, where the parched scholasticism of academia would soon have flagged for fear of stepping off a narrow path. Yet one nonetheless has the authority of a solid translator with great scholarly experience. There hasn't been an English translation of the received text of the oracle of this pedigree since Lynn's with Wang Bi's commentary in 1994 and Rutt's as a 'bronze age document' in 1996 (I don't include Margaret Pearson's seemingly rushed and slight work 'The Original I Ching' of 2011 nor Edward Shaughnessy's translations of alternative silk and bamboo texts).

The Ten Wings have not been translated as a whole, although portions of them have been inserted as commentary in the hexagrams. The text he translates as 'On the Judgment' is Wings 1 and 2, the 'Tuanzhuan' or 'Commentary on the Judgments'. The text he translates as 'On the Image of the Hexagram' (same as 'The Image' in Wilhelm) is from Wings 3 and 4, the 'Daxiang' or 'Large Images' part of the 'Xiangzhaun' or 'Commentary on the Images', with the text he translates under the lines as 'On the Image' also from Wings 3 and 4, the 'Xiaoxiang' or 'Small Images' commentary. Various bits from the 'Dazhuan', or 'Great Commentary' (Wilhelm's 'Great Treatise'), Wings 5 and 6, are included sporadically here and there. Wing 7 commenting on the first two hexagrams is entirely included. Samples of Wing 8 commenting on the trigrams has been included for the eight 'double trigram' hexagrams. Wings 9 and 10 are not included.

The translation of the oracle itself, namely the Zhouyi comprising the judgments and line statements, has a freshness and clarity about it and reads well, parsed into centred short lines on the page. Part I is overall a good new presentation of the traditional oracle that should certainly join the small handful of books that are worthy of consulting time and time again.

In part II Minford presents a translation of the Zhouyi from the perspective of the current findings of modern research into the oracle, some of this still speculative, and some already attaining an academic consensus without great examination (such as the aforementioned 'dodder', the parasitic plant, of hexagram 4). This part faithfully represents the original sacrificial and divinatory jargon of the oracle that is so prevalent in Shang oracle-bone inscriptions. While most of this will be familiar to those with an interest in the modernist take on the Yi, the introduction of it following the traditional rendering of the Yi is bound to introduce a lot more readers to this most fascinating side of Yijing studies. The reconception of the 'original' oracle is still, perhaps rather paradoxically, a work in progress. In time, just as the traditional oracle must have evolved from an obvious precursor or 'original' oracle, perhaps the 'modern' oracle that aims to be truer to the 'original' will also evolve layers and layers of understanding.

There are some curious readings in part II. I'm not sure how he gets 'A crippled soothsayer scorched by the sun' from three characters in the fourth line of hexagram 14. He seems to be following Gao Heng's suggestion, but I'd like to see some justification for it if it's going to be repeated, particularly as it's a hard line to understand. In part I he translates the same line as: 'No sense of self-importance.' I think I would translate it as 'Not so forceful'. Hexagram 27 he translates as 'Breasts', but doesn't say where he gets this reading from. It leads to some odd line translations such as 'Pendant breasts', 'Stroked breasts', and 'Shaken breasts'.

Part II is a good representative compendium of recent ideas, but as Minford says of it himself: 'Nothing I have done is in any way original. I have relied heavily on other scholars...' (p 502). Although he mentions his sources here and there, this section could have done with more extensive notes, like Rutt's book, but he does plan to add footnotes to his website so maybe he will cover it there. Again there are scattered quotes from other literature, but this time contemporaneous with the Zhouyi, mainly from the Shijing (Book of Odes), oracle-bone and bronze inscriptions, and the later Zuozhuan.

In conclusion, this is a nicely produced book with an enthusiastic spirit and scholarly credentials. A recommended addition to the book shelf.