Ta Chuan: The Great Treatise

Stephen Karcher. London: Carroll & Brown, 2000. Hardback, 160pp, illus, index. £15.00. ISBN 1-903258-05-7 (US edition, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2000).


I've always thought Stephen Karcher a hard man to categorise. At one end of the spectrum, he's written for the serious Jungian journals, was sometime director of the Eranos I Ching Project, and was author with Rudolf Ritsema of the Eranos I Ching, a work which, despite mixed reviews, certainly showed serious intent; at the other end, works with titles like 'The Lover's I Ching' and 'The I Ching Kit' are unlikely to endear him to the academic community. Somewhere in between are a couple of basic, user-friendly introductory works which are better than much else in this area (The Elements of the I Ching, How to Use the I Ching). So what's one to make of Karcher and his work? Almost unique in that he makes his living by writing and lecturing on the Yi and other divination systems, we have to keep in mind that his work is, generally, presented for a commercial market; and maintaining integrity in the face of publisher-pressure for 'saleability' is a difficult trick. So how does he do?

Looking at his latest, Ta Chuan, I'd say pretty well. A lengthy introduction is followed by the translation, to each chapter of which is added the author's own commentary. And there's much to enjoy here. The translation is very readable, while the commentary and introduction are often insightful, and would certainly give anyone unfamiliar with the text a good basic grasp of the ideas being dealt with. Karcher is writing from a specific viewpoint, of course, which sees the Yi and its associated divinatory practice as both a beneficial source of advice and a path for spiritual development, so this isn't, and obviously was never intended to be, an 'academic' translation. Karcher is trying to present the 'heart' of the material in a slightly modified translation rather than a literally precise version which, given his agenda, is a perfectly legitimate approach; and he does it with felicity and intelligence. Surveying the commercial Yi-product of the last 30 years or so, I begin to suspect that this may actually be the best way to present the subject to a non-academic Western audience; it's certainly better than the more frequent dumbing-down process of rewriting the text entirely to make it accessible to the 'lowest common denominator' reader. Of course, readability of the translation and commentary apart, Karcher's biggest problem here is that this is a work on the philosophy of the Yi, rather than a consultable divinatory text; whether this will sell to his customary market as well as his other books remains to be seen.

Naturally, purists will find material to object to. For example, Karcher's translation of 'ji' and 'xiong' (translated by Wilhelm as 'good fortune' and 'misfortune' respectively) as 'the Way is open' and 'the Way is closed' will irk some, as will his occasional manipulation of the text so that quoted passages of the Yi precede their commentary rather than follow it, as in the original. Occasional 'supplied words' are intended to make the concise language of the original read more easily, but such things as these are obviously intended to give the text greater accessibility.

Most of Karcher's readership, if they've come across this text before, will probably have seen it in Wilhelm's translation, where it's treated as an entirely Confucian treatise. Quite plainly it's eclectic rather than simply Confucian, and Karcher's commentary to each chapter begins by classifying it: 'This is a Taoist teaching', 'This is a Confucian teaching', 'This is common to all'. This may be oversimplifying things a little (the text is probably even more eclectic than that) and occasionally requires a little special pleading: an obvious reference to Confucius' favourite disciple Yan Hui sits rather uncomfortably in a chapter described as a 'Taoist' teaching. However, it certainly brings home the composite nature of the text to the general reader, and emphasizes the necessity to look at the text with fresh eyes, rather than simply (and lazily) classifying the work as a homogeneous 'Confucian Commentary'. Perhaps slightly more problematical is Karcher's obvious equation of Taoist = good, Confucian = bad. It's no doubt a sincerely held viewpoint, and it's perhaps not quite so explicit as I've stated it here; but even so, that may be simplifying things a little too much.

A few words should be addressed to the publisher. Carroll & Brown more commonly operate as 'book-packagers' for other publishers, and are thus responsible for the illustration and overall design of the book. Fortunately they are a great deal better than some packagers, and the book is lavishly produced and illustrated in full colour throughout with excellently tasteful photographs. There are faults, though: an illustration of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove on p 15, with a caption suggesting that they retreated from the horrors of the Warring States period, is mistaken; the Seven Sages lived several centuries later in the Three Kingdoms period. A transparency on p 49 has obviously been 'flipped' for design purposes, resulting in the Fu Xi trigram arrangement being reversed. These are forgivable. The illustration on p 22, however, where hexagram 11 is shown and captioned as hexagram 24 (24 being referred to in the accompanying text) certainly is not, and should have been picked up by someone. Equally unforgivable is the publisher's decision to omit the bibliography and textual discussion from the British edition (though they're present in the US edition). This is a gross disservice both to the reader and the author and is, frankly, disgraceful.

All this aside, reading through this new version of a familiar text, I found it to be a work of considerable charm and obvious affection for the subject-matter. In the end, this may give us a way to categorise Stephen Karcher after all: he's obviously a man who loves the Yi and its tradition, and who sincerely believes that it can be of value and assistance to those of us trying to navigate the complexities of life in the 21st century. That should, perhaps, override any slight misgivings we might entertain about commerciality, a 'popular' approach, or the book's minor defects.

[First published in 'The Oracle: Journal of Yijing Studies' Vol. 2, No. 11 (September 2000), pp 47–48.]