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 universe, yin and yang. These six-line sequences produce a series of 64 hexagrams, first assembled perhaps 3,000 years ago. Over the next 1,000 years, the hexagrams became standardized and named, so that by the ninth century BCE, there was a text compiling them all, each with a brief description, or judgment. That text is what we now think of as the Yijing.
Like many aids to prognostication, it is, at best, ambiguous. Try the judgment for hexagram 35 on for size (as translated by Richard Wilhelm): “PROGRESS. The powerful prince is honoured with horses in large numbers. In a single day he is granted audience three times.” The standard caveats for fortune-telling instruments apply: the prophecies need to be specific, or at least evocative, enough to inspire confidence, but vague enough to conceivably apply to a broad range of experience. This is a particular problem with the Yijing because, as Smith explains, many of its phrases and judgments are based on the history, politics, and culture of Chinese kingdoms long before the first unification of the empire in 221 BCE, all obscure to readers in later times, especially outside of China, but within China as well. Thus diviners and written commentaries were needed to help make sense of the text.
These commentaries, starting around the seventh century BCE, would over time become as important as the original text. Smith argues that without these commentaries the Yijing would have been simply one fortune-telling device among many. Most important were the “Ten Wings,” a set of commentaries that accrued to the text over the course of several centuries in the first millennium BCE and were included as part of the Book of Changes when it was canonized as a Confucian classic in 136 CE. With the inclusion of the Ten Wings — initially credited to Confucius himself, though this is no longer widely accepted — the Book of Changes became a work of literature seeking to explain the place of human beings in the cosmos. These commentaries made the Changes a religious text.
Once the Yijing had been reborn, it continued to grow in unpredictable ways. Smith documents how it changed and adapted to important roles in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet. But perhaps the most unlikely developments were due to its discovery by Westerners. The first significant mention of the Changes in Western literature is in a Jesuit compendium of 1687, and Jesuit Father Joachim Bouvet discussed the book during tutoring sessions with the Kangxi Emperor, and so impressed the Manchu sovereign that Bouvet was invited to contribute to a new annotated edition of the Changes published in 1715. Bouvet’s interest in the Changes illustrates the mutability of the text based on the interests of the reader. Bouvet was a Figurist, meaning he looked to ancient Chinese texts for clues about the existence of Christian or pre-Christian teachings in China. (Bouvet’s colleague in this was Jean-François Foucquet, a Jesuit priest who may be familiar to readers as the antagonist of Jonathan Spence’s 1987 book, The Question of Hu.) For instance, the Chinese character for boat has three components: on the left side a figure indicating a vessel and on the right characters meaning “eight” and “mouth.” As a Figurist, Bouvet took this to indicate knowledge of Noah’s ark: a vessel with eight people aboard (that is, Noah’s family).
Using this approach, which had originated with Chinese Christians starting in the 1500s, Bouvet found hidden Christian imagery in the hexagrams. Bouvet believed that the Changes and other classical Chinese texts had originated in the near East, had been taken on Noah’s ark, and then transmitted to China by one of Noah’s sons. Bouvet sought connections between the Changes and other Western texts, including the writings of the Pythagoreans, the neo-Platonists, and the kabbalah. Smith argues that Bouvet was seeking to locate the Changes’ origins in the West — at least in Western Asia. Jesuits had been successful converting Chinese to Catholicism by permitting them to retain Confucian practices like ancestor-worship, a stance rejected by other Catholic orders. If the Confucian canon had Judeo-Christian connections, the theological basis of the Jesuit position would be strengthened.
Bouvet, Fouquet, and others, including Leibniz, found suggestive parallels between Judeo-Christian tradition and ancient China, but despite all of their work, they found nothing more than interesting coincidences and suggestive interpretations. It was another group of Jesuits — who rejected Figurism — that opened the door for interpreting the Yijing for an entirely new population, simply by translating it. The first Latin translation appeared in 1723, but translations (full or partial) did not appear in other European languages until the late nineteenth century, which is when English, French, and Italian versions appeared. The Book of Changes, like other classical Chinese texts, entered Western academic circles around this time, and became the subject of serious study, recognized as an important work of world literature. Along the way, however, the life of the Yijing took another strange turn, becoming an icon to the Western counterculture.
Since 136 CE, the Book of Changes has been part of the Confucian canon, a standard of orthodoxy against which, for example, seekers of public office were measured. The Changes informed the socially conservative orthodoxy that legitimated Chinese imperial governance from 136 to 1911. In the West, though, the Yijing came very early on to be associated with challenging, or at least questioning, conventional authority. Carl Jung looked to the Yijing for evidence of his psychological ideas, particularly embracing the sexual imagery that accompanied many of the hexagrams. With the 1965 publication of John Blofeld’s pocket translation, the popularity of the Yijing exploded. The Changes found its was into the song lyrics of John Lennon and Bob Dylan (“I threw the I Ching yesterday; it said there might be some thunder at the well”). It underpinned John Cage’s compositional theory, and propelled the plot of Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novel, The Man in the High Castle. Even Nobel laureates like Octavio Paz and the curiously non-Nobel laureate, Jorge Luis Borges, based works on the Changes.
Smith defines a classic as embodying three features: it “must focus on matters of great importance”; “address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways’”; and “be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound.” These three features imply a fourth, that the work will have great staying power, he argues, and the Yijing fits this bill. Despite its now-obscure references to specific political struggles of Ancient China, it has become a book for all ages and all times. Non-specialist readers may be put off by the dense and detailed explication of the Yijing’s political career in China, but the author rewards their patience by illustrating the book’s travels across East Asia and then to the West. He concludes with some musings about the book’s future, beginning with the assertion that it will “serve as a source of inspiration for creative thinkers, East and West.”
Chinese imperial orthodoxy tried to straitjacket it to Confucian doctrine. Scholars in Vietnam used it to critique French colonialism in the eighteenth century. Japanese scholars saw in its pages a reflection of Shinto. Some Jesuits attempted to claim it as a precursor of Christianity. Yet the Yijing remains free and frustratingly difficult to master. So, while the title seems at first jarring, in the end, Smith’s book demonstrates that if the Book of Changes is anything, it is alive.