THE BIOGRAPHY HAS BROADENED in recent years. Once primarily reserved for narratives of great men, then a much wider cross-section of society, the genre has now jumped species. Susan Orlean wrote one on the German shepherd Rin Tin Tin, and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, won a Pulitzer Prize. Despite the genre’s name, which means literally “writing about life,” the subjects of biographies need not even be living (at least not in the organic sense) as in the rich tradition of biographies of cities (for instance Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography). Princeton University Press has continued this process with its series, Lives of Great Religious Books. Launched in 2010, each title in the series is “a biography.” A biography of a book.
The application seems fruitful. Books lack heartbeats, but they are certainly alive. Books, like history, are always a negotiation between source and interpreter, and religious books are especially subject to interpretation (the Vatican’s recent vitriol towards Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by the American nun, Sister Margaret Farley, being just a recent reminder). Yijing, or Book of Changes, may be among the most open-ended. Richard J. Smith, one of the world’s most prominent and accomplished scholars of the Changes, has contributed a slim volume that explains the life of this protean text, from its hazy origins in China some 3,000 years ago, to its place as an icon of the Western counter-culture in the twentieth century.
As if presaging the book’s ambiguity, even rendering its title into English introduces confusion, as it is commonly spelled in two different ways. The title of Smith’s book refers to its subject at “I Ching,” using the Wade-Giles Romanization system devised in the nineteenth century, and by which many Western readers may recognize it. Throughout his biography, however, Smith uses the now-standard pinyin Romanization system: Yijing. Whether rendered Yijing or I Ching, the title is pronounced the same way (“ee jing”) and designates the same characters meaning “the Classic of change (or changes).”
However one spells it, the Yijing defies easy explanation, so I was both excited and curious to see how Smith would tackle the task of explaining it to a general readership. His 2008 book, Fathoming the Cosmos, is the standard scholarly treatment of the Yijing’s origins and development, but its 422 pages are aimed at a scholarly audience, and the twists and turns along the way are subtle and daunting, even to specialists. This new book could not be called simplistic — the political and philological debates surrounding the Yijing are explained in some detail — but it is concise. Readers learn in just a few paragraphs how first-century political struggles, for example, or the role of Buddhism and numerology during the Tang and Song periods influenced interpretation of the Changes.
The Yijing is often described as “a divination manual.” In its earliest form, the text presented a set of hexagrams — a sequence of six lines, either broken or unbroken — comprised of two trigrams — sequences of three lines. These lines represented the two opposing and complementary principles that structured the...read more