The Original I Ching Oracle

Rudolf Ritsema and Shantena Augusto Sabbadini. Watkins Publishing, London, 2005, paperback, viii + 851 pp, £19.99. ISBN 1-84293-149-0.


Back story

This very thick book is a reprint, with slight revision, of a book entitled I Ching: The Classic Chinese Oracle of Change that came out under the authorship of Rudolf Ritsema and Stephen Karcher, as a hardback from Element Books in 1994. Some may be confused, since another similar book with the same title was published by Vega in 2002 under the sole authorship of Stephen Karcher, which was described as a 'revised edition'. Mr Karcher explained to Harmen Mesker in September of 2002 why Mr Ritsema's name had been dropped:

[The Revised Edition] is an extensive revision of the first edition (probably better thought of as the Eranos Edition, rather than Ritsema/Karcher). It is an attempt to respond to comments and suggestions made by users over the last 7 years. Mr Ritsema and I have more or less parted company, each having a 'right' to use the the original material. He has independently published Italian and German small press editions of the original text, but has steadfastly maintained he was not interested in revisions of any sort. When a publisher made me an offer for the English original, and encouraged me to make the revisions (which I consider truly improve the book and its usability), I took the opportunity. For many practical as well as philosophical reasons, it seemed best to issue it under my name and with a new ISBN number.

The original Eranos Yijing, compiled under the auspices of the Jungian Eranos Foundation, an East-West research centre in Ascona, Switzerland, was substantially Mr Ritsema's work; Mr Karcher assisted him in preparing it for publication. Mr Karcher revealed in May 2003 (in a discussion on Hilary Barrett's Clarity website) the nature of the rift:

At the end of this time [8 years at Eranos], I was summarily dismissed, for Mr Ritsema wanted to take sole credit for the work, unilaterally invalidating the publishing contract with (since defunct) Element Books. We finally reached a formal agreement that each of us could use the material in the way they saw fit.

And so we come to today, and the issue by Watkins Publishing of the original Eranos Yijing, free of the kind of 'creative' revisions that Stephen Karcher introduced, some of which certainly improved it, but others just gave it Karcher's spin. Presumably the inclusion of the word 'original' in the title of Ritsema's new edition is meant to signal a return to the original purity of the Eranos edition, as much as a claim to represent the Yijing itself in some kind of original form. Karcher's name is replaced by that of Shantena Augusto Sabbadini, who had previously assisted Ritsema with the Italian edition of the Eranos Yijing. Karcher is briefly described as 'the American poet' who collaborated with Ritsema on the 1994 English edition from Element (in which Ritsema was billed as the 'orientalist' of the pair) and the earlier provisional version directly published by Eranos, entitled 'Chou Yi: The Oracle of Encompassing Vitality', which was available on mail-order to those who knew about it from Eranos mailings. The American poet's 'revised edition' is not mentioned, despite that fact that both books are now in the marketplace together, which is liable to cause puzzlement among those unaware of the back story.


The new book

As in the 1994 edition, the Yijing is given a word-by-word translation, in the same order as the Chinese text, with each Chinese character always translated by the same English 'core-word', printed in bold red type in contrast to the black roman of everything else, which many times leads to awkward and often unintelligible phrasing. A range of alternative meanings for each core-word is then given in a section called 'Fields of meaning', in the style of a dictionary, so one can in theory attempt a personal translation that makes sense if the core-word version doesn't. There is also a concordance at the back alphabetically organised by these same bold red core-words.

Frankly, this work can only be of interest to those who want to experience the illusion of feeling close to the Chinese of the Yijing but without the bother of learning Chinese. The trouble is, it leads people to overestimate the potential for making a personal translation without understanding the language. Since the 1994 edition many have at first been excited by the prospect of seeming to translate the Yi for themselves, but the excitement soon runs out of steam, since the chances of producing an accurate translation of the Chinese by this method is akin to giving someone a pile of bricks in the expectation they will be able to build a house. So I see this book as a reference work best used in conjunction with other materials, rather than a useable version of the Yijing in itself, although it is certainly intended by its authors to be used alone in direct consultation.

Just one example of use is given: a woman they call Nora (pp 22–21) apparently has her life set in order and her elderly mother put away in a home all on the basis of a rather fractured and senseless single-moving-line oracle made up from their bold red core-words that is coaxed in explanation until it sounds as if it possesses perfect clarity with Eranos expertise. Now you go away and do the same with the other 383 moving lines.

As if the rigmarole of constructing one's own working oracle from a jumble of words in a kit-form Yijing were not enough, the range of meanings included for each character – the Chinese characters themselves are not included, only the pinyin – is far from exhaustive, archaic meanings in the early Zhou dynasty frequently being absent. And, given that the 2005 edition is supposed to incorporate 'a number of significant improvements' on the 1994 edition and 'all the insights developed in a decade of research' (p 51), I was surprised to see in particular that one major flaw is still present from the original edition in hexagram 55 that inspired for me a trail of enquiry that led to my own book 'The Mandate of Heaven' (2001), about which I wrote in the preface, so what their 'decade of research' actually entailed if not reading new studies of the Yijing from other authors I have to wonder. In that hexagram, part of the repeated text in the second and fourth places reads (with their bold):

The sun in the center: viewing a bin.

The four bold words represent in order the four single Chinese characters ri zhong jian dou. 'Sun center' is actually 'noon' or 'mid-day' (ri means both 'sun' and 'day'), though without some familiarity already with Chinese you might not guess this from the book, with its method of dealing with characters singly without further explanation in cases like this. But perhaps this is all part and parcel of the Eranos method, and it's not actually about Do-It-Yourself translation but just dissolving the Chinese text into constituent particles in a soup to swirl about your mind, to take the grit of it into your oyster-like psyche and spin a pearl of wisdom around it, regardless whether it bears any relation to what the Chinese says.

But taking the book as if it is meant to be a raw-ingredient 'translation' with polishing to come via the insight of those who apply their crystal-ball gaze to it, then just this example represents a serious flaw in the approach straight away with the simplest of Chinese. More seriously, the meanings of the core-word 'bin', which is the character dou, have not been revised since the 1994 edition, only this range being given: 'measure and container for grain; wine cup; hold; contain'. Dou is actually a fixed measure, from an acorn cup still used in Chinese apothecaries for measuring out small quantities of powdered drugs, to a water dipper or ladle, to a measure of grain. But what is missing from Ritsema's list is its only relevant meaning in the context of hexagram 55: dou is the Big Dipper constellation in Ursa Major. In other words, the line refers to a total solar eclipse at noon during which the sky is so darkened that stars appear, which one could not possibly realise from this book, meaning that whatever personal significance one can draw from 'The sun in the center: viewing a bin' would inevitably be divorced from the actual sense of the Chinese, yet readers would imagine that they were somehow precisely in touch with it.

This is just one example to illustrate a general principle that applies to the Eranos approach. This approach essentially consists of removing the human intermediary of a skilled translator and placing that function in the hands of unskilled readers who do not know the language, in the hope of 'avoiding as much as possible any a priori interpretation' (p 51). But what the book gains as a result of that noble intention is lost by the text ending up with a computer-like unawareness of its own senselessness, as if it has simply been assembled by a program and never afterwards given human scrutiny for defects such as I have just described.

As a bridge to the Chinese the book has some value, but it has to be said that those who have gone far enough in their studies to be looking for bridges will soon buy a Chinese dictionary or two, start to learn Chinese, and look up characters directly. And Bradford Hatcher has freely available on the web a character-by-character translation with a range of meanings for each, as well as character numbers in Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, enabling easy look-up.

In 1994 the Eranos Yijing initially seemed a bit of a breakthrough in bringing the possibility of a personal translation closer without knowing Chinese, but 11 years on it has been superceded by freely available materials on the web, and the shortcomings of the Eranos approach have gone unaddressed, despite the 'significant improvements' claimed to have been made but neither detailed specifically in the book nor apparent to this reviewer.



Watkins Publishing is to be commended for making available once again in English Rudolf Ritsema's magnum opus in a form that has his approval and that of the Eranos Foundation. Mr Ritsema was born in 1918 and first encountered the Yijing in 1944, through his analyst, which gives him a remarkably long period of study of the oracle. He wrote many articles on the subject, published in the journal 'Spring', and the Eranos Yijing is undoubtedly an important and sincere work. But those who buy and use the book would be advised to understand from the outset the nature of its limitations and not rely upon it exclusively.