Wisdom of Changes [DVD]

Subtitled: 'Richard Wilhelm and the I CHING.' A film by Bettina Wilhelm. 87 min. English and German, plus 2 extras. £12.99. [The trailer can be seen at the website for the film.]


In this beautifully shot and fond portrait of her grandfather, Bettina Wilhelm travels to China to filmically follow in Richard Wilhelm's footsteps, who died before she was born. She visits in particular Qingdao, contrasting modern footage with archive material. The film is narrated by Bettina Wilhelm with some fascinating diary extracts from her grandfather read, in the English version of the DVD, by Jonathan Pryce.

The film is a true biography in that quite a lot of ground is covered, yet preserving a light touch with it through the cinematography. Much interesting material emerges, such as the diary extract recounting RW's planned suicide when a young man, when he mistakenly bought Cream of Tartar instead of the poison he wanted, leading to a life-changing dream. His intuitive nature is brought out strongly, and in particular there is a beautiful quote concerning fate tied in with the top line of hexagram 28. Also a suggestion that he saw a portent of his own impending death: 'I have found very strange signs in the I Ching…' (the page for hexagram 36 appears on the screen). He was only 56 when he died, in 1930. Clearly there is much material in his unpublished diaries of great interest. Interspersed are video interviews with Richard Smith and Henrik Jäger, the latter performing the yarrow ritual and even mentioning the concept of incipience ('seeds') in passing. I was surprised though that Hellmut Wilhelm, Bettina's uncle, was not mentioned, given that he carried on his father's legacy in studying and writing about the Changes.

The film presents many family photographs, and touches on Wilhelm's career in both China and Germany, including meeting his wife Salome, the Boxer Rebellion, his meeting with Master Lao (and prescient dream before meeting him), and his friendship with Carl Jung. At the same time, echoing the theme of 'change', the contrast between the old China and the new as Richard Wilhelm experienced it after the fall of the Qing dynasty, as well as the ultra-new of today as Bettina Wilhelm finds it, is put across as a kind of a backdrop to the whole film, which I thought was rather well done.

This DVD will appeal to any who use the Wilhelm I Ching. Speaking as someone who has been inspired by his translation for a good many years, in particular his poetic turns of expression concerning fate and the real heart of the Changes, I found it quite a moving film reminding me, in some ways, why I got interested in the I Ching in the first place. I think also for people new to the book it may inspire a more serious attitude, which I sometimes think is lacking in the internet age. It is fashionable for some to publicly prefer, on the basis of little knowledge, other translations over Wilhelm's work these days, but I have always maintained that it still conveys the depth of the Changes far better than any other version, even today, despite the fact that the German translation was published in 1924 and the English translation of that in 1950. And this, I think, is due to Wilhelm's keen understanding of the nature of fate and the purpose of the book. Certainly there is room for an improved translation of the oracle itself, but Wilhelm's distinctive commentary, and his summations of neo-Confucian material, stand as a literary achievement thoroughly infused with the spirit of Confucius and old China before the change to the modern era, and one can presume much of that is down to what he learnt from the enigmatic Master Lao. There is no room to re-do that, that stands.

The DVD has two extras, a little further material from the interviews with Richard Smith and Henrik Jäger.

Richard Wilhelm's diaries and other works are archived at the Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften in München.