Zhouyi: The Book of Changes

Richard Rutt. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1996, hardback, xii + 497 pages, £50.00. ISBN 0-7007-0467-1.


Up until now, to acquire an academic understanding of the I Ching outside of the oriental department of a university has required becoming acquainted with innumerable sinological journals, books, and PhD dissertations. Richard Rutt's new book, 'Zhouyi: The Book of Changes', is the first work to present the fruits of such a study in a comprehensive fashion. By bringing together much of this scattered information in one place, Rutt offers an overview of the last fifty years or so of I Ching scholarship, which would otherwise require a tremendous amount to work to search out from scratch.

Richard Rutt, the former Bishop of Leicester, who was introduced to the I Ching as a missionary in Korea in the fifties, waited until his retirement to research and write this splendid book. It is just a pity that the pricing policy of the Curzon Press effectively banishes the book to academic libraries, as at £50 it is priced out of the pocket of most who would really appreciate it.

I confess to being a little unnerved when I first scanned its 500 pages, as I myself have been engaged on an intense search through sinological literature for a number of years looking for material casting light on the meaning of the I Ching. Time and time again I saw he had dug out gems that had caused me such delight to come across on my own, so I can vouch for the thorough job Rutt has done. And being an I Ching aficionado he has an eye for what's truly relevant, whereas many purely academic sinologists seem to lose sight of what's important and confine themselves to a narrow field which gets narrower and narrower all the time.

One advantage of studying the I Ching at a 'sinological level' is that to understand it well necessitates a broad learning in the field of ancient China. Richard Rutt demonstrates that he has this admirably. He has a confidence with his materials that only comes from a deep assimilation of their meaning, and it is quite evident he has read practically everything of importance. Rutt, as he comes across in this book, is primarily a synthesiser of other people's work, as opposed to an original interpreter.

This is perhaps the place to explain, for those who don't realise, that the I Ching familiar to users of Wilhelm-Baynes consists of the original 11th century BC Chou I embedded in a collection of much later commentaries known since the Later Han as the Ten Wings, dating from the 3rd century BC. Rutt concentrates on the Chou I, which in pinyin romanisation is Zhouyi, translating the Ten Wings separately as an appendix.

Rutt's book is in three parts. Part 1 is a lengthy introductory section of 200 pages. In this he brings together an immense amount of up-to-date information. Here he includes a new translation of all the references to the Chou I contained in the Tso Chuan, a chronicle of the period 722–464 BC. This was previously only available in James Legge's translation (of the Tso), which is very hard to get hold of (Kidder Smith [PDF] translated some of this material in the 'Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies' 49). [Ed's note – see 'Links' for further details of divination records in the Zuozhuan.] Rutt also provides a thumbnail sketch of the history of the I Ching and, most informative, a history of its translation into European languages, including Latin. A chapter on Bronze Age China weaves together details culled from the Odes and archaeology books and journals to form a picture of the time from which the Chou I originates.

Sometimes in his introductory section Rutt presents ideas that have not yet been fully investigated as if they were established facts – leaving aside that 'facts' are merely the accepted fiction – such as the so-called 'pa kua numerals', supposed references to trigrams and hexagrams on Shang and early Western Chou oracle bones and bronzes. Very little has been written on this topic, all of it vague and unconvincing. He also seems to accept Edward Shaughnessy's dating criteria for the composition of the Chou I, from his 1983 PhD thesis, which relies on dating a handful of two-character expressions to the reign of King Hsuan (r. 827–782 BC). These could easily be interpolations by an editor working then. This is not to mention that Shaughnessy appears to have a vested interest in dating the text to this time, as he believes he has detected an allusion to contemporary events (a very lame one). Sarah Allan is quite damning about Shaughnessy's more recent standards of scholarship in her review of his 1991 'Sources of Western Zhou History'. She accuses him of writing to a hidden agenda under the guise of objectivity, suspecting his interpretations of problematic bronze inscriptions are made solely in order to establish his own research on military history and chronology as authoritative (SOAS Bulletin, Vol. 55). In my reading of Shaughnessy's books and papers I too am inclined to think that he pushes his own pet theories against the grain of the evidence.

The standard of accuracy throughout Rutt's book is astonishingly good, making it an exceedingly trustworthy source. Everyone makes mistakes, and Rutt is no exception, but I must admit that I have struggled with whether I should mention any lest it detract from the excellence of this book, and besides, it seems a little like 'the mosquito biting the iron bull', but in the interests of learning I note that cinnabar is mercuric sulphide not oxide, and the character tao, which Rutt says occurs three times, probably relying on Kunst's glossary, also occurs in the judgment of hexagram 24. It would be too nit-picking to dwell on any others.

The second section of Rutt's book, in my view the most valuable, is his new translation of the Chou I. This is very much a translation belonging to the 'Modern School', that is, the 20th century reassessment movement that sees the book as a mish-mash of random references to sacrificing captives and assorted peasant omens without a great deal of narrative structure informing it, which I would emphasise is still an interpretation, for all it is presented nowadays as established beyond all doubt. In my opinion, the Modern School in its dissection of the parts often lacks a vision of the whole, and though its contribution to the understanding of the I Ching has been great, perhaps even exceeding that of any school down the centuries, I feel it has also committed blunders that the school of the next century will have to challenge and iron out. Richard Rutt appears to accept the interpretation of the Modern School and produces through his translation an excellent rendition of its insights, often using just the right word, such a pemmican, woodsman, bast, and harpoon (arrows for shooting game-birds in ancient China were attached to cords for easy retrieval; harpoon is good in that sense, though it's hard to disassociate the word from whale-hunting).

Rutt separates the various components of the hexagram and line statements through use of roman, italic, and capitals, corresponding to the oracle, indication, and prognostication, respectively. Whilst I accept the distinction between the actual oracle and the prognostication on it (auspicious, disastrous, etc), in a number of cases I would say Rutt makes an indication out of part of the oracle. An indication is something the oracle or omen means or points to or indicates, such as 'It furthers one to see the Great Man', or that an old willow putting forth shoots at the base of the trunk indicates that an older man will get a young wife, a sight to cheer an aged Chinaman on a spring morning constitutional. In cases like these it's a perfectly reasonable characterisation of the text. But to see the indication as a formulaic component of the Chou I is a modern fad stemming from the classification of characteristic parts of oracle-bone and bronze inscriptions. Shaughnessy added a 'verification' as a further sub-division of the prognostication in 1983. Of course, once you get it into your head that hexagram and line statements have component parts you see them all over the place, and misemploy what is simply a literary technique to aid understanding by looking for ingredients you believe to be inherent in the compositional make-up of the text itself.

Rutt falls into this trap by splitting up, for instance, the first line of hexagram 2 into 'Frost underfoot again' as the oracle and 'solid ice comes soon' as the indication. This is trying too hard. Of course frost underfoot indicates that solid ice is not far off, but it is simply overzealous to split the sentence into two component parts in order to point it out. His distinction between oracle and indication in many hexagrams appears to me quite arbitrary, and Rutt does not explain by what authority he has subdivided the text in this manner. It may lead some to think that such divisions appear in the original Chinese, which is not so. The recognition of prognostication words was a significant step forward, but notions of indication and verification meddle more than they aid when they seek to persuade that they are something more than just the recent invention of scholars.

Most ambitious is his attempt to provide English rhymes for words thought to rhyme in the Chinese of three thousand years ago. Kunst in his PhD thesis mostly only highlighted the postulated rhymes by marking the Chinese characters with letters A, B, and C, based on Karlgren's reconstruction of ancient sounds, which is undergoing revision. Though to an extent this work is theoretical, the Chou I undoubtedly had a significant proportion of rhyme and Rutt's attempt to render it is a unique contribution to the subject. He admits himself that at times translating the Chou I into rhyme may verge on doggerel, but puts a good case for this being an accurate portrayal of the original. To give an idea in this review, a few examples. For the second line of hexagram 1:

Lo, on the fields a dragon bides.
To meet with great men well betides.

I suspect he might have had ones like that in mind when he mentioned doggerel. But I do like the stumbling, fumbling, grumbling, and rumbling that characterises hexagram 39. Kunst also provides a partial attempt at rhyming in English for this hexagram with a less successful hobbling, bobbling, and wobbling. Even better is the second line of hexagram 53:

Wild geese settling on the rocks;
feed and drink in honking flocks.

(Though I can't see why he feels the first clause is the oracle and the second the indication the way he has translated it. It could be called an indication only if the eating and drinking is not by geese but by villagers who are celebrating the favourable omen for the safety of the young officer from the village away at the war, recently married to the young girl in the judgment.)

Rutt's translation overall is pleasingly concise, carefully crafted, and bears much study, and his claims for it are modest: 'It should be clear that the translation is a possible one, not to be staunchly defended at all points.' Readers familiar with the Modern School will not be surprised to see hexagram 4 as the parasitic plant the dodder, 15 as a rat, 16 as an elephant, 23 as flaying, 30 as an oriole, 31 as chopping, 32 as fixing (Arthur Waley thought hexagram 32 was about stabilising an omen), 33 as a pig, 36 as a crying pheasant, 52 as cleaving, 57 as food offerings, 59 as gushing, and 61 as trying captives, but may find innovative 18 as mildew, 22 as bedight, 43 as skipping, 47 as beset, 49 as leather, and 55 as thick.

As with all translations there will always be things one could take exception to, such as 'Blood falls as rain' in the top line of hexagram 2, which is what Rutt regards as the 'original oracle' on the basis of a postulated rhyme, a large assumption that shows the danger of being too set on the notion of rhyming. Literally it is: 'Their blood is black and yellow.' And I wonder why he decided to render the same phrase in hexagrams 43/4 and 44/3 differently simply to suit varying speculative ideas of the meaning of the lines in the two contexts. If an identical phrase is used in the Chinese then I feel it's important not to mask this, particularly, I would have thought, if you're keen to represent potential rhymes faithfully. What rhymes better than an identical sentence? [Updated author's note, March 17 2001: Richard told me later that he had missed the fact that the phrases were the same in 43/4 and 44/3.]

The section of Rutt's own notes on his translation is by far the outstanding feature of the book. This is an excellent place to start for anyone thinking of doing their own research, especially as he includes notes obtained from prominent Modern School scholars in China, whose works are not available in translation. I also like his concentration on the natural history of creatures mentioned in the text. I was particularly fascinated by his note in the appendix identifying the 'measuring worm' of the Great Treatise, II, v, 3, as the caterpillar of the geometer moth, the looper, or inchworm. Did not Confucius recommend a study of the Odes because of the large number of animals and birds mentioned in it? This is a sadly neglected area of I Ching studies and I was overjoyed to see Rutt addressing it with such obvious enthusiasm.

The third section, the appendix, is a new translation of the Ten Wings. The chief advantage of Rutt's work here is that he clearly distinguishes between the Wings, which in Wilhelm-Baynes are split up all over the place. 'A Sinological maze' belonging to 'the Department of Utter Confusion', in Joseph Needham's famous phrase. Rutt gives a far better feel for these commentaries as they were originally written, and, for users of Wilhelm, it fosters a greater sense of familiarity with the book to know what came from where. Many people who have been using Wilhelm for a good number of years still seem uncertain what exactly they are consulting, not realising, for instance, that the text termed 'The Image' in Wilhelm is not a part of the original Chou I at all but was written seven or eight centuries later. Confusion is certainly rife. A good example is Carol Anthony, who in her preface to the third edition of 'A Guide to the I Ching' attempts to correct other people's misapprehensions over who wrote the line statements and the comments on them (the large and small type in Wilhelm), but somewhat embarrassingly gets it completely wrong, even after pointing out that her authority is Richard Wilhelm's own introduction, which she appears to have misread.

Trusting that I will not commit a similar faux pas, the large type assigned to each line is the original 11th century BC text, said to have been written by the Duke of Chou, the small type is Wilhelm's own encapsulation of, primarily, the most important Sung Dynasty (AD 960–1279) commentaries, which became the traditional understanding Wilhelm wished to impart. (Anthony, if I read her right, supposes the large type is by King Wen and the small type by the Duke of Chou). It is probably true that most users of the I Ching aren't that concerned to know this kind of information, but for those few who are Rutt's translation of the Ten Wings will go some way to alleviating the confusion that really gets going in Wilhelm's Book III. It is certainly the clearest and most accessible translation of the Ten Wings yet produced. Rutt makes a good point when he says that a study of the Ten Wings, though they cast little light on the original meaning of the Chou I, is necessary 'because they illustrate, as nothing else can, the climactic changes in the Chinese approach to the Zhouyi after the Bronze Age, changes that need to be understood if the Bronze Age document is to be rediscovered'.

Without a doubt, Richard Rutt has researched and written a book that has been waiting to be written for a long, long time, and he was clearly the right man for the task.

[First published in 'The Oracle: Journal of the I Ching Society' Vol. 1, No. 6 (Winter/Spring 1998), pp 14–18.]