The I Ching: A Biography

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am


The I Ching: A Biography
by Richard J. Smith
Princeton University Press

Like some of our foundational cultural texts, the I Ching is a product of collective effort. Its long life over the past 3,000 years has generated an inordinate amount of exegetical and critical scholarship, and our experience of the book is characterised by two difficulties: its cryptic formulations, and the massive amount of secondary literature that contributes to the growing repertoire of the classic Chinese text.

Richard Smith's slim volume explains, with admirable clarity, how the hexagrams work and how such basic concepts as yin, yang, and qi have defined Taoist thinking and, more generally, Chinese culture.

The I Ching is a book of divination, a metaphysical exposition of the original life forces, and everyday wisdom.

The chapter on the influential readings of the I Ching is a good example of Smith's critical and textual scholarship. Taking into account a diversity of factors, including 'philosophical and religious affiliations, intellectual fashions, class status, gender, personal taste, family ties, and other variables of time, space, and circumstance' it's a breathtaking overview of the history of the I Ching, which is balanced with the accounts of its specific uses, such as the Kangxi emperor's efforts to read and master the book for statecraft.

Distilling a large amount of information, the author offers a charming biography of the I Ching - its growth, its dissemination, and its transformation. 'Biography' is an interesting organic metaphor describing the making and growth of this cultural canon.

The author's narrative of the book's 'transnational travels' is especially fascinating. Its global dissemination through translation contributed to early cultural and intellectual globalisation.

It's important to acknowledge the historical role that foreign missionaries have played in domesticating the I Ching in their native languages.

The author's case studies of the I Ching in modern Western culture show just how much we are in need of ancient wisdom for an understanding of the limitations of modern life.

English poet John Keats' 'negative capability' is invoked to characterise the classic text's philosophy of life. Keats celebrates contradictions, irreconcilabilities, and inconsistencies as a necessary condition of understanding and knowledge, but the guiding principle of the I Ching is to overcome such contradictions, to create a new totality and oneness out of opposing forces or agents, such as the dialectical pair of yin and yang.

To avoid the daunting technicalities of the I Ching, readers may want to begin with the conclusion of this biography, which offers an overview of the book's dramatic life. It's unwise to predict its future, but there is one thing Smith is certain about: the I Ching will continue to fascinate readers and to be creatively used by them.