Infinite Interpretations in the I Ching

The I Ching or “Book of Changes” is an odd divination text that has evolved over time. It was changed and expanded from the early Shang dynasty (1600 BC) to the Zhou dynasty (800 BC), until it became an essential text of Eastern cosmology. It is considered one of the five “Chinese Classic” texts of ancient Confucianism. It contains 64 hexagrams, with names like “force” or “pervading” and so on.

The I Ching experienced a resurgence in the West during the so-called counterculture revolution in the 1960s, but it was first translated in the 17th century by Jesuit missionaries who immediately interpreted the cryptic hexagrams to represent Christian allegory. At varying points throughout its evolving history, the I Ching has been interpreted by Christians, Buddhists, Confucians, and other groups.

Here are some quotations in no particular order from the Richard Wilhelm translation:

Under heaven thunder rolls:
All things attain the natural state of innocence.
Thus the kings of old,
Rich in virtue, and in harmony with the time,
Fostered and nourished all beings.

At the foot of the mountain, thunder:
Thus the superior man is careful of his words
And temperate in eating and drinking.

The back
Is still
As a Mountain;
There is no body.
He walks
In the courtyard,
No Harm,
Nullum malum.

I struggled to grasp the meaning of this text with its varying hexagrams, images, numerology, divination, judgements and so on. It is a text with no beginning and no end -it relies heavily upon the physical presentation of the text (i.e. the form over the content). Unlike a text of Western philosophy, the I Ching has no core message, or at least it requires a subscription to the belief in esoteric mystical truths of “the East” -something which Enlightenment thinkers were all too easy to accept. Apparently, in the early 18th century Leibniz argued that the I Ching represents the argument for Deism through the use binary numbers: the unbroken closed circle (or “zero” or “nothingness”) cannot be unbroken save for divine intervention. Others like Hegel Jung, made attempts to make sense of the “yin” and the “yang” dichotomy.

According to David Hawkes, a celebrated Oxford scholar and translator, on his deathbed he claimed: “Be sure to let your readers know that every sentence can be read in an almost infinite number of ways. That is the secret of the book. No one will ever know what it really means!”

For this reading, I used a few translations but most notably: Richard Wilhelm’s and Cary F. Baynes translations of the classic “I Ching: Or, Book of Changes” 3rd. ed., Bollingen Series XIX, (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967, 1st ed. 1950). © by Panther Webworks for this online edition January 1, 2007.

It was Richard Wilhelm’s 1924 German translation of the I Ching and especially the English translation of the German by the Jungian Cary F. Baynes in 1950 that transformed the text from archaism into international celebrity.

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