Another day, another Yijing book


I've had a tower of Yijing books piling up unreviewed for several years. They just keep publishing Yijing books and the tower has gradually been getting higher. Now it's swaying. I decided to reduce the pile a little in one article, noting down my thoughts on seven very different books.


Teaching the I Ching

Geoffrey Redmond & Tze-Ki Hon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.


Although the pretext of this book is that it is aimed at university lecturers hoping to include a component on the Yijing in a course on traditional Chinese history and literature, it serves well as a useful introduction to Yixue (Yi studies) for those who want to take their interest further but don't yet want to delve too deeply into the world of academic articles, books, and dissertations. I would certainly have liked a book like this back when I started investigating the Yijing more seriously, in that it fairly accurately summarises a lot of material in an accessible way and points the reader where to look for further information. For those already absorbed in such a study, there is little new, although I was amused to read that the slogan of the May Fourth Movement was 'throwing the ancient texts into the toilet' (p 182), somehow that little tidbit had passed me by. It's a pity though that Oxford University Press has burdened the book with an outrageous 'library price' (£65? seriously?), as this prices it out of the pocket of most who would enjoy it. Sometimes academic presses don't seem to realise that they have a book on their hands that would do well in the popular market if it was only priced accordingly. Maybe there will be an affordable paperback in the future.

Chapters cover the origin of the text in the Bronze Age, women in the Yi, excavated manuscripts, reconstructing ancient meanings, the Ten Wings, cosmology, moral cultivation, up to modern times and the oracle's journey to the west. The book is very readable, the chapters by Redmond perhaps being more so than those by Hon, which are drier and more academic in tone, but no less informative. Having said that, I did find Hon's chapter on the entry of the Yijing into the modern age one of the most interesting. Tze-ki Hon previously authored 'The Yijing and Chinese Politics' (review in PDF), and Geoffrey Redmond is a medical practitioner who consults the Yijing himself. There is a lecture by him on YouTube talking about the oracle. In the last 25 minutes he gives readings for members of the audience using coloured beads with yarrow probabilities. This method is mentioned in the 'Readers Guide' at the back of the book. Redmond has also since authored his own critical translation of the Yijing (Bloomsbury, 2017), which I have not yet had a chance to study.

An aside on 'library prices'

This is what is called long-tail publishing, 'selling less of more'. How it works is that a publisher like OUP charges profiteering prices knowing that university libraries have to buy the books if they're requested. This means that they often sell just a handful of copies a year of any individual title, unless a book is picked up for a course or a student requests it. The press isn't bothered, they're happy to sit on the book because they have thousands of such books that have often cost them nothing to acquire and they have years to wait, so it still makes a profit. With print-on-demand there aren't even warehousing costs any more. It's a scandal, thankfully addressed by the likes of LibGen and Sci-Hub, pirate sites that academics themselves use. The only reason academic authors tolerate it is because of the supposed prestige of the press. But the tide is turning I think, as there isn't much prestige in being a racketeer. Thankfully not all academic presses are like this. But you can easily see which ones are by their 'library prices'.


The I Ching: A Biography

Richard J Smith. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012.


This book is published in Princeton's 'Lives of Great Religious Books' series. It seems to be a version of Smith's previous book Fathoming the Cosmos, but more aimed at a general reader and with the extensive back-matter of the former book cut. There is some new material, particularly in the second part dedicated to 'The Transnational Travels of the Yijing'. I don't know whether Smith still plans a book on the 'globalization' of the oracle or whether his material on this has been incorporated into Part Two of this book. Like Fathoming the Cosmos this work is very much a skim of several thousand years, but nonetheless one encounters interesting little nuggets. Some of the modern western material is told with a relish that perhaps is not so evident in his previous book that was more aimed at a scholarly audience. Probably for the reader fairly new to Yixue the book by Redmond and Hon above will provide a better survey of the subject as a whole, as it is more systematic than Smith's book, but both are worth reading.


The Original I Ching: An Authentic Translation of the Book of Changes

Margaret J Pearson. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2011.


An oddly cursory work, which is rather strange given the author's academic qualifications and that she is sympathetic to personal divination. Despite it being stated that Pearson spent 14 years to complete the first draft, the final book looks as if it was produced in a hurry to satisfy a publisher's deadline. Only a handful of lines are given their own comment, as if there simply wasn't time to comment on the rest. This results in a very patchy book – why are these few lines commented on but the rest not? It might have been better to remove the few line comments she did make, as in themselves they are brief and not adding much, and they just make it look like a potentially better book was planned but not to be. I just don't see the point in bothering to produce a 'scholarly' work this flimsy. The ringing endorsements this book has received from academic colleagues and even some practical users are frankly baffling.

The translation itself is average, leaning on Lynn and Shaughnessy, and sometimes ignores the received reading and substitutes the Mawangdui reading for no apparent reason beyond personal preference, creating a mishmash text. A single commentary covering the entire hexagram is given, which now and again has a little flair but is not much use for precise practical consultation focusing on the changing lines.

The much-trumpeted emphasis on gender-neutral language belies the fact that we know well enough when a man or woman is being referred to. If the Yi is going to be translated as a historical document of its time as opposed to an appeasement of modern taste then it has to be conceded from the outset that the junzi, often translated as 'noble man', would never have been a woman. But then her initial published work on the Yijing prior to this book concerned a not very convincing interpretation of the female in the judgment of hexagram 44 as a royal princess, as opposed to a more literal 'strong woman' who is not regarded as suitable marriage material for the man evidently divining the matter there. Hard to say what 'strong' means here, but the likelihood is that it meant 'a lusty woman' and the judgment is advice to the man consulting to avoid the temptation to think there is more in the dalliance than is there, and by extension to any matter being consulted about. It's the classic hexagram for affairs. And let's not forget that the title-tag of hexagram 44 really is 'Copulation', just as Joseph Needham translated it and everyone else side-stepped. Wilhelm's 'Coming to Meet' was a euphemism. (Pearson has 'The Royal Bride'.)


Sixty-Four Chance Pieces: A Book of Changes

Will Buckingham. Hong Kong: Earnshaw Books, 2015.


Will Buckingham has written a really enjoyable book of 64 short stories inspired by the hexagrams. Each is introduced by a few words talking specifically about the Yijing and the circumstances in which the story came to be written, sometimes referring to his travels in China and elsewhere. These pieces are just as whimsical as the stories themselves, and often quite informative. This would be a good book of short stories even without the dimension of Yijing.

Buckingham sees the Yi as 'a machine for creating stories' (p 323). He expands on this theme in his story for hexagram 62, amusingly playing around with the idea of short stories as little machines and novels as big machines. There are a few interconnected themes in the stories, as a sort of shared backdrop.



Richard Berengarten. Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2016.


This is a poetry book, with a poem for every judgment and every line of every hexagram. 450 poems. Nearly 600 pages. It's a crazily ambitious work and beautifully written. Each poem consists of six three-line stanzas, all short lines. Berengarten doesn't particularly recommend you read it and compare it with the Yijing, but rather just read it as a poetry book. He himself thinks of it as a single long poem. But if you do compare it it's certainly possible to see the subtle influence of the specific hexagrams. I read a few of the correlated poems when consulting the oracle myself and could see a connection in the underlying emotion. Berengarten is an established and prolific poet. Reflecting his serious interest in the Yijing, is the preface by Edward L Shaughnessy. Berengarten mentions that he plans to publish a book of essays on the history of the Yi, the difficulty of the text, and relations to poetic thinking.

I enjoyed many of the poems and thought they had a very fresh taste, with down-to-earth language. Rarely striving for literary effect, just natural. Interesting to see some of his influences too, pointing to the life lived outside of the literature. The poems of hexagram 52, for example, were based on a meditation retreat run by Shi Jing of the British Taoist Association, who also features in the poem for the top line of hexagram 33, 'In Epping Forest', p 270. This is a delightful poem, not least because I have seen Shi Jing walking in Epping Forest myself. I may as well quote that poem as an example of the style:

In Epping Forest

Jing walks his border collie

in Epping Forest, throwing

sticks for his dog to catch.


Under an oak he sits

to meditate. Collie rests on

forepaws and haunches.


Lone walkers, children,

couples pass. A boy calls,

'Oy, aintcha cold, mister?'


Smiles open and spread

through him, then join up

a single smile.


Stepping on his right

shoulder, a squirrel leaps

from ground to tree.


A heron swoops

to her fish pool, breaking

her own reflection.

Berengarten first started using the Yijing in 1962 at Cambridge and in more recent years has read widely about the Yi's history, delving into the scholarly texts. It will certainly be interesting to see his essays relating the Yi and poetics, the postscript of the current book already dealing with this topic.


Self-Transformation and the Oracular

Allan W Anderson. Xlibris, 2009.


I first came across Allan W Anderson when he eloquently introduced the 1995 film on Nisargadatta Maharaj, Awaken to the Eternal. He also engaged J Krishnamurti in 18 hours of conversation on film in 1974. Anderson, who died in 2013, was Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. The book, the dedication page of which reads 'For Serious Students', is subtitled 'A Practical Handbook for Consulting the I Ching and Tarot'. Anderson regards the end-point of self-transformation as the nondual, and goes into detail about how to achieve this through both oracular methods related to each other.

The book examines in particular nuclear hexagram structures and how the tarot spread known as the 'Celtic Cross' might be correlated to hexagram lines and these nuclear structures. It is not entirely clear how the nondual 'perspective' could come about by going into the minutiae of various tarot cards and hexagrams – save that familiarity with oracles can sometimes enable one to see through some illusions – but there's no doubt that Anderson engages on a complex argument that will be of use to those studying both oracles together.

Further material concentrates on the idea of building a 'personal destiny profile' based on asking six questions. Anderson draws a distinction between destiny and fate: 'Unlike fate, destiny carries with it an imperative' (p 56). Fate and destiny are tricky words to get a handle on their ramifications; the more you think about them the more they appear different, but then it will all come full circle and they'll mean the same (often it boils down to an innate desire for life to mean something, destiny, rather than be just a mechanical outcome, fate). This material is certainly interesting, but the fact that neither fate nor destiny has any place in nonduality is not really discussed. In this, Anderson is still dealing with the appearance. I myself wonder whether nonduality and the oracular are in any way compatible, since the assumptions and concerns of the oracular are very much in the world of duality for all they aim at some partial transcendence of temporary dualistic illusions. Still, this has no bearing on Anderson's conviction that the oracular is fully capable of this transformation without the necessity of it being discarded in the light of the nondual, and the theme of nondual awareness is continually returned to even if the relationship with the oracular is not precisely delineated. But in terms of Anderson's argument over destiny versus fate, I will have to disagree that the sentence 'he failed his destiny' (p 56) is in any way meaningful and say that one cannot fail one's destiny, since if one fails it then it wasn't one's destiny. But all the same I have a gut instinct of what he means.

I can't actually think of any other author who is quite so fluent in going back and forth between hexagrams and tarot cards, nor any other book that has really investigated this. I gather this kind of methodology was taught by Dr Anderson to students on his course 'The Oracular Tradition'.

There are extensive appendices to accompany this book that have been published separately as 'Volume II', in ebook form. These are essentially for those who have decided to study Dr Anderson's system in fine detail, consisting mostly of data. I was particularly interested in the section containing the questions put by students to the Yijing in his classes, for example:

What is the nature of the Felidae (cats)?
    Answer: 41

What is the nature of the Canidae (dogs)?
    Answer: 23

Many of the questions ask the nature of various mythological figures or about the meanings of symbolism (such as the snake), and also which hexagram most adequately describes death (hexagram 40 changing in 1st and 3rd places to 34, in this consultation). Not a single personal question. There is more on Anderson's classes and teaching style in the book below.


Reflections on the I Ching

Allan W Anderson. Xlibris, 2010.


This second book by Dr Anderson – 'For serious and practicing students' – has three sections. The first consists of four essays exploring causality in the hexagrams, identity and contrariety, freedom, and the meaning of ming 命 (mandate; fate/destiny) in the Yijing, with particular reference to self-cultivation. Anderson sometimes asks the oracle itself for guidance as a part of writing these essays. Two of the essays were previously published in 'Journal of Chinese Philosophy'.

Section 2 is an extended essay entitled 'The I Ching and Self-Change'. Here Anderson further explores his main topic of self-cultivation with the oracle, which he regards as 'a species of doing nothing' (p 73), ie wuwei. Anderson discusses various Biblical analogies including the 'Book of Job' in relation to self-transformation, as well as, unusually, wuwei in Carlos Castenada

Section 3 is entitled ' A Christian Looks at the I Ching' and consists of four lectures given to Bible students in 1971. Here Anderson asks the oracle questions and engages in dialogue with students. I found this the most engaging section of the book in that it gives a good idea of how Dr Anderson conducted his courses. Here he emphasises that 'The I Ching is a practical manual for one who wishes to make adequate passage from birth to and through death.' And he further states: 'Destiny is an achievement. Fate is just a happening.'

As in the previous book, Anderson is very keen to delineate differences between fate and destiny. It has to be said that the whole notion that there is a destiny over and above the fate of the xiaoren, the 'little man' with petty concerns, is built into the Yijing. I used to distinguish between fate and destiny myself, following the idea of Mencius that it is no-one's proper destiny to stand under a wall on the brink of collapse (seeming to imply that if they do then that was their fate). However, in the non-volitional outlook of nonduality any difference that may be detected is academic and really only categorising appearances. Still, it is a fruitful question to consider.

Dr Anderson was a great believer in destiny, despite his interest in the seemingly contradictory idea of nonduality and the teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj. It is worth noting, also, that Anderson's response to a student who says that the Bible forbids fortune-telling relies on the distinction he upholds between fate and destiny (pp 183–184).

On p 191 there is a nice aside to his students:

Did I tell you about the time once when I became so overjoyed with the experience that I had been having with this Oracle – well, I can see from your faces that I didn't tell you, so ... Well, I just had to thank it. And so I just wrote out my gratitude for all that it had done for me and meant for me. Would you like to see what it said back?

He then tells them what it said back. That's just delightful.