The Photographic I Ching

Photographs by Gary Woods, new interpretation by Dhiresha McCarver, Virgin, London, 1996, 208 pages, £12.99.


In his PhD dissertation on the Sung dynasty commentator Cheng Yi, Kidder Smith remarked on the 'paradoxical generosity' of the I Ching, in the way that the book mirrors with unusual clarity the concerns of its interpreters. I suspect this may be true far beyond the Chinese context in which the remark was originally made; unfortunately, though, when this insight is brought to bear on English-language books about the Changes, then outside the academic field those concerns are all too often trivial, commercial, moralistic, or leadenly dull. I always hope, of course, to find some hint of the enormous breadth and depth of learning in the Changes tradition, some sense of the history of a scholarship stretching back millennia, some philosophical or poetical insight, some wit. Unfortunately none of these are to be found in the current offering, the most distinguishing characteristic of which appears to be its wearying banality.

Simply as an object, with its almost square pages, its heavy-gloss art-paper, large type and full-page photos, one somehow gets the impression that this was originally projected as a 'coffee-table' book, but that the content, or rather the lack of it, has somehow caused it to shrivel with embarrassment to mere paperback size.

Woods' photographs can perhaps best be summed up by saying that there is very little to say about them. In themselves they are frequently so oblique as to be incomprehensible without a caption, and their supposed relationship to the accompanying I Ching text is completely baffling. But then the biggest problem with the book is, in fact, McCarver's text; if she had managed to produce anything remotely resembling imagery in her word-work, there might have been something with which the photos could match. As it is, it's hard to imagine any picture corresponding with the dim twaddle on offer here.

Whatever faults the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching may have (and undoubtedly they are not few), it does at least have moments of purest poetry which sing to the soul in a way that few other editions can match. The top line of hexagram 18:

He does not serve kings and princes,
Sets himself higher goals.

with its concise yet marvellous image of worldly renunciation, McCarver manages to turn into a lengthy piece of torpid moralising:

Do not become complacent. Withdraw from the situation if you have nothing more to contribute; but do not sit back and criticize.

It comes as no surprise to find, on the back cover, the book classified as being in the 'Mind, Body, Spirit' field. This is one of those vacuous New Age editions where the imagery of the original is entirely dispensed with, and replaced with dim platitudes and a 'we must all try to be nice to each other' outlook. All symbolic content must be interpreted for the ignorant reader, and whatever flexibility of application might be allowed by retaining those original images is discarded, even to the point where the initial meaning of the text is distorted beyond recognition. So what is, in a historical context, the sound advice of hexagram 30, line 6 [Wilhelm]:

The king uses him to march forth and chastise. Then it is best to kill the leaders and take captive the followers. No blame.

is rendered as:

The change is complete. Show generous consideration to all people who have been affected. Make the transition as smooth as possible.


Here we have a text for hexagram 1 which makes no mention of the dragon whatsoever; hexagram 7 without corpses – and as for the wagon full of devils in hexagram 38 – exorcised out of existence.

It has to be said, of course, that McCarver is not claiming comparison with Wilhelm, but basing her work on Legge. This is, perhaps, a curious decision, considering Legge's general attitude to the book, the difficult literalness of his translation, and his disparaging attitude to divination; but Legge is 99 years in the grave and long out of copyright, of course. McCarver even says: 'I have taken the conscious decision to write my interpretations in a form which reflects Legge's translation as closely as possible.' I can only reply that this reflection is not apparent to this reader, and if this is what she produces by conscious decision I hate to think what she might produce by accident.

I shall pass over McCarver's curious notions that the I Ching was an ancient oracle 'originally involving the use of bones', or that yang and yin are 'primal forces' rather than relational concepts. There is a curious symmetry here between the high-quality print-package and the low-quality content; but perhaps we once again have an example of the I Ching clearly mirroring current concerns: flashy, commercial, disposable, worthless – truly an edition for the 90s. Any further summary seems superfluous.

Do not buy this book.

[First published in 'The Oracle: Journal of the I Ching Society' Vol. 1, No. 4 (Winter 1996/97), pp 24–26.]