I Ching translations

These are all the real thing! The I Ching itself, with its own unique poetry. Most of these I Ching translations will also offer you an interpretation of each hexagram and line - or at least some hints - but they begin by giving you access to the original text with all its frustrations and revelations. If you're in the least interested in getting to know the I Ching, you need a real translation.

On this shelf



The I Ching or Book of Changes

Richard Wilhelm/ Cary Baynes
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The translation for many people, and guaranteed to be found on the bookshelf of every I Ching enthusiast. This status is not undeserved: this translation is the result of a great deal of hard work and scholarship, coupled with a firm belief in the value of the I Ching itself, and as such deserving of respect. It is one of the very few complete translations, containing all of the Ten Wings, and full of helpful commentary. However, it is also firmly based on a very hierarchical, conservative reading of the I Ching, with some views - particularly on women - that are mercifully nearing extinction. In my view, not quite the ultimate authority some people take it for - but still very useful, and definitely one to own.

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I Ching: walking your path, creating your future

Hilary Barrett
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This is my own I Ching translation and commentary, so I can hardly write an impartial review. But to sum it up...

This is designed to be usable as a beginner's I Ching, and to allow a genuine relationship with the oracle to develop. As such it has a translation of the original, but not all the Wings - just the Daxiang, Zagua and Xugua (Image, Contrasts and Sequence). The commentaries on each hexagram and line are based firmly on experience.

You can find reader reviews of this one at Amazon!

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The Original I Ching

Margaret Pearson
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I’ve been looking forward to this book ever since I met Margaret and ran a webinar with her back in 2005. And late last year, it finally became available. It’s a neat little hardback with the characters for ‘yin’, ‘zhouyi’ and ‘woman’ on the front and a hexagram reference chart inside the back cover.

(Margaret wrote to explain that those two characters flanking 'Zhouyi' on the cover are actually a quotation from the Shijing, the Classic of Songs. In Song 257, there is the line
'I have gone to shelter you, but on the contrary you come and overawe me'
- where 'shelter' is the character for 'yin', used as a verb, and 'you' is the character for 'woman'. "You is usually the woman character with water radical (the two dot version), but here the water radical is missing.")

The book in brief: what you get

Issues…

To be clear – I do like this book very much; I’ve been enjoying reading it, and I fully expect to be using it in readings. But there are a couple of issues that could get in the way of both enjoyment and use for you, so let me get those out of the way before I move on to the good stuff…

It’s described on the front cover as ‘The Original I Ching’ and on the back cover as ‘based on the core text created during the first centuries of the Zhou dynasty.’ Only there’s a basic problem with going looking for an ‘original I Ching’: it’s not like researching the work of a single modern author, where if you go far enough back the variant texts will resolve themselves into a single original. Travel far enough back through Yi’s history, and you will find not a single source, but multiple tributaries. Where is the ‘original’, and how are you to know when you’ve found it?

Margaret has chosen to use a blend of the Mawangdui (MWD) manuscript, which is the most complete but not the oldest of the early versions we have, with the received text, creating a truly ‘original I Ching’. There’s nothing wrong with that, nor with choosing the MWD as a source and deciding not to look at the more fragmentary, earlier texts discovered more recently. Learning and discoveries never stop with the Yi, so if anything is ever going to get into print there has to come a point where the translator says ‘enough’.

What I don’t like, though, is that she only mentions these earlier texts in a little footnote in the introduction, and then in her commentary on hexagram 18 implies that the received meaning of corruption and the ancestral curse is altogether superseded by the ‘earlier’ MWD meaning of ‘branching out’. So all the richness of imagery that comes with the ancestral curse is lost, while she pretends that it never meant more than ‘saving insect-infested food’!

Argh, somewhat. I like working with hexagram 18 – it’s one that speaks particularly clearly and eloquently and works inner magic for people. (By the way, it seems the oldest manuscript does have it as the gu curse.) And in general, I’d rather have Margaret’s translation of the whole of the received version – partly so I could more easily compare like with like, putting her work alongside other translators’, and partly because the received version is what I use in readings, and it just isn’t practical suddenly to switch to a whole different text and turn 18 into ‘Branching Out’ or 19 into ‘The Forest’.

The second issue is also a good thing, in a way. Margaret has that essential scholar’s honesty that refuses to invent meanings to fill in gaps: she even says in her introduction that her book ‘aims to be as clear or as vague as the text itself.’ The unpretentiousness of her translation is appealing – ‘You should’ for the junzi of the Image, for instance, or ‘crossing the great river will work out’ or ‘impeded’/'on foot’ for 39. She offers lucid, intelligent explanations of recurrent phrases (like crossing the great river and yuan heng, li zhen) in her introduction.

However, when she comes to something unclear, it remains quite authentically unclear. 37.3, for instance, she translates,

‘The family goes “shyow-shyow”. Remorse and danger, but good fortune. Wife and children go “shee-shee”. In the end, distress.’

and adds a footnote,

‘It is unclear which emotions were associated with these sounds. The first may indicate anger or joy; the second may be happy.’

This is refreshingly open and completely without that irritating ‘I know what this means and I’ll make it mean it, damn it!’ translator’s attitude. However, it does often leave the reader without much of a starting point.

There’s next to no interpretation offered of line texts in general – some italicised commentary on eight of the 384, the occasional gloss in parentheses – so that often you’re left on your own to work with something like,

‘Sincerity. In peeling, danger.’ (58.5)

That’s fair enough. But at times it seems there is just no attempt to make sense in the translation itself:

‘Reversing the jaws. Gnashing at the warp at the north. Going on a campaign would bring misfortune.’ (27.2)

‘Jaws reversed: good fortune. The tiger gazes “dan-dan” (his eyes down], his face “didi” (flute-like). No blame.’ (27.4)

And for 29.4, here is all you get:

‘Six in the fourth place: (this line has to do with the bronze containers used in sacrificial rituals, replacing them with earthenware pots, and with either a wine ladle or angelica coming from a window. The one clear statement is: ) In the end, no danger [or blame].’

I can sympathise absolutely with the feeling behind this kind of note. It arises after a few weeks or years spent looking at every meaning, usage and variant of every character in a line, parsing it every which way, maybe looking at a small mountain of sample readings and consulting the Yi to ask it what it means for good measure, and still being all at sea. (Come to think of it, hexagram 29 is an apt place for that to happen, isn’t it?) But seeing this note in place of a translation still makes me feel as though an early draft went to the printers by mistake. I feel the same way about flute-like tiger faces – oh, and the standard of proof-reading, which is really not good at all.

Good things

Let me move on to the things I particularly like about the book.

The introduction makes interesting reading. It’s permeated by an awareness that this is and has always been an oracle, not just a foundational philosophical/metaphysical text. So towards the beginning she says,

‘Over the centuries, many have found that consulting the Changes can encourage thoughtful decision-makers to see aspects of situations to which they had been blind. The natural images in the Changes, when considered as analogous to recurring human situations, can provide fruitful images for meditation as people search for ways through – or out of – their particular dilemmas.’

and

‘It is best used as part of a thoughtful process involving repeated meditation, journaling, and the advice of others. It was not intended to replace moral dicta but to assist those determined to act responsibly. It can prod us toward a deeper, more informed view of the world and our actions within it.’

And towards the end, when she offers two example readings, one is modern and the other dates from the second century – a fact she doesn’t mention until after walking you through the reading. So the reader is left with a sense of Yi’s powerful history as an oracle – which is good.

I also especially like her advice on how to divine, something she regards as being part of a process of decision-making that includes information-gathering and talking to people. (Since a classic and painful mistake is for people to use divination as an alternative to these things, this is a Good Thing.)

Her ideas for questions are reasonable, if weirdly limited – why only decision-making and no asking for advice or insight? – and she seems stuck on the idea that second hexagram equals future results (not that that’s unusual). But then she suggests that you write down your response to the reading, journal before bed, sleep on it, write more the following morning, talk with a friend for advice, keep coming back to your reading for a few days and meditate on the Image. That’s far, far more true-to-life than your average, ‘cast coins, add up values, look up hexagram, get answer’ kind of account. ‘Expect to find wisdom though not clarity,’ she says. ‘If the answer seems clear, be sure to read all sections again, carefully.’

You can tell this is the voice of someone who has consulted the oracle, not just treated it as the object of study. She even mentions in passing, in the Acknowledgements, having introduced students to the oracle and had them write essays about their reading experiences. Hooray!

There’s also intriguing insight here into Margaret’s approach to translation. She explains how the concepts of yin and yang were introduced long after the Zhouyi was written. Instead of merely mentioning this, though, she has taken care to avoid the casual conflation of solid lines with yang and open with yin (I only have to look at my own book’s introduction for a handy example of that :oops: ), remove this conceptual layer from her thinking about the text, and explore what is revealed behind it. (And she includes a lovely interpretation in passing of 61.2 and its mention of ‘yin’.) And there’s a good account here of her take on Hexagram 44 – the accounts of 44 in Karcher’s Total I Ching and my book both owe a lot to her original article on this.

The commentary on each hexagram is original, sometimes surprising (24 as an earthquake?) and often insightful. It’s mostly based on the Image, and you can tell that, as she says in the Introduction, this arises from personal daily reflections:

‘I have lived with these words for many years, writing down the characters in the morning and carrying them throughout the day, memorising them, and writing the characters over and over when I could…’

(And I do very much like the fact that she’s included the Image because it speaks to her, and never mind historical authenticity.)

She uses her background knowledge of ancient Chinese life and thought to provide a context that makes things more accessible. There are little references to Confucius and Mencius; there’s an explanation of the setting-right of the calendar in 49 and this at the end of Hexagram 56:

‘A further note: In early China, fire was used to clear mountainous land and prepare it for cultivation or easier access by humans. So for them it was a civilizing, fructifying act, not one of long-term destruction. In th same way, in being wanderers (or pilgrims), we must leave behind many ties and almost all physical possessions. But by acceding to this emptiness and vulnerability, we open ourselves to new worlds, some of which may be far more fruitful for us than our current homes.’

Margaret writes in a plain, direct style that encourages you simply to contemplate the natural imagery – the scenery of the trigrams (had you thought of 26 as ‘the skies that lie among mountain peaks’?) and also the imagery of the original. Here is the bamboo in the name of Hexagram 60:

‘Bamboo is a rapidly growing grass with hollow stems. Each hollow tube terminates in a woody membrane that blocks the hollow. These solid portions have two functions: they give strength to the plant and they are the loci for branching and other growth. Without the joints, bamboo would collapse easily, and never grow into sturdy tree-tall plants.’

She goes on to compare this to a university course being just a term long to support the development of skills and the making of better long-term choices, and to simple, frugal living. We might already know all this about bamboo plants, but I find that to have it presented to me explicitly like this keeps me from skimming past the imagery and encourages the kind of slowing down and contemplating that makes for readings that work. Without being plunged into a sea of imagery and associations (no mythic or legendary dimension here), you’re nonetheless quietly guided into a meditative approach. And this is why I expect to be picking this book up quite often, to see if it can take me back to beginner’s mind again and out of my ‘I-know-what-this-one’s-about’-ism.

Who it’s for

I don’t think this is a beginner’s book, or not on its own, because of that lack of interpretation I mentioned, and the way it sometimes extends into the translation. But alongside a book that’s more inclined to ‘tell you what it means’ line by line, this would be a good addition: an alternative perspective, a common sense approach without moralising, and a reminder that the more prolix commentator didn’t really know what it meant, either.

I think it’ll be especially useful for non-beginners who have a store of their own ideas and could do with coming back to basics. And it would also appeal to anyone who’s averse to over-complication and drawn to the natural imagery of the trigrams.

You’ll find it at Amazon.com, and in Canada and the UK.


The Buddhist I Ching

Thomas Cleary
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This doesn't contain all of the text - it omits contrast and sequence, as well as the other wings - but what is translated is clear and succinct. The translation is interspersed with, and influenced by, the commentaries of Chi-hsu Ou-I, which have interesting things to say about the line relationships, but concentrate mainly on the significance of the texts in Buddhist spiritual practice.

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The Taoist I Ching

Thomas Cleary
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Another intriguing addition to an I Ching library. This contains only the judgement, advice, contrast and lines - as you might expect, none of the neo-Confucian commentary. As the Taoist interpreter, Liu I-Ming, had apparently despaired of interpreting the contrast and advice sections in combination with the earliest strata, these are dealt with in separate sections of the book. The translations are very similar to those in the Buddhist I Ching, varying only in accordance with differences in interpretation. The commentaries of Liu I-Ming offer a fascinating insight into Taoist alchemy and metaphysics, and they can be very revealing - but they're not for the faint-hearted. This book isn't really meant to be used in divination, but more as a work of philosophy.

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The Classic of Changes

Richard John Lynn
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This is an excellent, scholarly work. It includes all the wings, translated into clear and sometimes very poetic language, along with the commentary of Wang Bi, the earliest I Ching commentator. Of course, the chosen school of interpretation influences the translation - that is true of every translation. But unlike most, Lynn provides very useful, detailed footnotes explaining this, covering many different interpretations. Not an 'instant I Ching', but a solid and invaluable resource.

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The I Ching

James Legge
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The earliest translation into English, and a good, solid work of Victorian scholarship. This is a complete translation of all the Wings, observing classical Chinese traditions. Legge himself thought the use of the I Ching for divination to be so much poppycock, and says so at regular intervals in his comments. The disadvantage of this attitude is that he is inclined to say 'this makes no sense' rather than trying to make sense of it; the advantage is that, having no particular axe to grind and only the scrupulous regard of a scholar for the accuracy of his work, he does produce a good, honest and comprehensive translation with informative commentary.

The Legge I Ching is also available free online from here.

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Zhouyi, the Book of Changes

Richard Rutt
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This is a huge, scholarly study of the probable original meanings of the earliest stratum of the I Ching, the Zhouyi. Many of the translations offered here are quite different from the traditional meanings, and it is up to the reader to find the connections. Rutt also includes translations of all the later Wings of the I Ching, but he keeps these separate from the Zhouyi texts. The introduction and notes offer fascinating insights into the lives of the first users (and perhaps the authors) of the I Ching. This book is intended for study rather than divination, but can nonetheless be thoroughly stimulating and interesting to imaginative users of the I Ching.

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Ta Chuan, the Great Treatise

Stephen Karcher
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The Great Treatise is one of the less well known wings of the I Ching: it's not part of the divinatory texts (apart from a few passages which Karcher regards as historical readings), but rather an ancient guide to the I Ching: what it is, its source, what it can do. Karcher calls it 'the key to understanding the I Ching and its place in your life.' It is very wide ranging: readings from the Master; Taoist spiritual insights; the cosmology behind the yarrow stalk method; Confucian understanding of the line relationships. All this is interspersed with Karcher's own commentary (very helpful), and includes a fascinating introduction to the treatise and to the I Ching as a whole.

The most striking thing about this book is its beauty: the wonderful photographs of the natural world, the Chinese characters, and the overall sense of spaciousness and calm. The Ta Chuan is not an easy work, but this translation makes reading it a pleasure.

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I Ching, the Shamanic Oracle of Change

Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay and Zhao Xiaomin
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This intriguing version of the I Ching offers four main sections: an introduction, translation, 'modern commentary' and a section on the original title ideograms.

The introduction reads the I Ching as a historical epic: every hexagram is tied in to real events, adding intense colour and life especially to those hexagrams that Palmer sees as the pivotal points in the story. There's also a good, readable history of the I Ching and suggestions on less ceremonial ways to consult, including the 8 coin fortune tellers' method.

The translation itself is clear and simple, going back to the ancient roots of the text (the later Wings of commentary are not included); the 'modern commentary' is succinct and often very helpful. But by far the best and most moving part of the book - the part I bought it for - is Jay Ramsay's contribution.

Ramsay is a poet who has learned the I Ching from the inside out, through experience. Every hexagram in this book has his poem inspired by it on the facing page - and these poems are always good, often breathtaking. They add a whole new dimension to the experience of divination. In addition, Ramsay has contributed his own introduction, describing his experiences with the oracle, which is fast becoming one of my favourite pieces of writing on the I Ching.

In conclusion - the introduction is interesting, the translation intriguing and sometimes strange, the commentary is helpful - and buy it for the poetry!

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Understanding the I Ching

Tom Riseman
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I should say straight away that this is not intended for the advanced student to bolster their three-shelf I Ching library. This is not a vast academic tome, or a controversial new translation. It is a simple and very genuine introduction to the I Ching, all of 154 pages long, that will enable you to make helpful, meaningful divinations even if you've never done so before.

The book begins with a short and sweet introduction - no revolutionary insights, no academic abstractions, just a straightforward account of what the I Ching is, what it does, and how to use it. It's a shame in a way that Tom Riseman portrays the legendary history of the I Ching as being literally true, but this doesn't interfere with the purpose of the book. There is a very interesting little section on the use of the I Ching in history, by such characters as Mao Tse Tung! (What makes this all the more interesting is that the communist authorities apparently did their best to ban ordinary people from using the book.) And I really appreciate the sensible but reverent way he writes about a personal approach to the oracle. There's a good, clear description of the 3 coin method, the most popular way of consulting the I Ching, and some insightful comments on how to interpret your answer. 'Each hexagram,' he says, 'represents a unique, complex type of energy, like a musical note formed by thousands of harmonies.'

Tom Riseman is clearly aiming to provide a simple way for people to begin divining. But this isn't just a mechanical, 'throw some coins and become an instant prophet' book. For instance, he doesn't just say 'start drawing your hexagram from the bottom line', but 'it starts from the bottom, since all organic life grows upwards.' A small difference, but it gives you a more vivid sense of what is really happening when you consult the I Ching.

The most important part of the book has to be the translation, and this does not disappoint. It is a real translation, not just a 'modern interpretation', and includes the most important texts: the Judgement, Image and Lines. (But not any of the other Wings - no cosmology, no metaphysics or social history, just divination.) Each hexagram begins with an introductory paragraph explaining its meaning in terms of the constituent trigrams, and suggesting what kind of augury it is. Then comes the Judgement, Image and lines, translated to be immediately readable but without 'simplification'. Each is clearly marked off from its own succinct paragraph of commentary from Riseman. I'll admit I approached this book with low expectations, looking to find the usual modernised generalisations. Not so! It is short, doesn't elaborate, but it packs a lot of very good sense into a small space - and you won't be drowned in complications. These interpretations pass on not only the advice in the hexagrams and lines, but also - and much more importantly - a sense of the energies that make up the whole, dynamic situation.

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I Ching: The Classic Chinese Oracle of Change

Stephen Karcher
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This is a 'fully revised edition' of the I Ching with concordance by Stephen Karcher and Rudolf Ritsema, commonly and affectionately known as 'R&K'. I owe a huge amount to that book: its uniquely liberating approach really launched my own relationship with the I Ching. Certainly without it I'd never have started Clarity.

The revised version keeps the great strengths of the original. First and most important, its character-by-character translation, with every word glossed for all its associations and native imagery. This lets you discover symbolic themes running through your answer - with a traditional translation, you'd never have known they were there.

Then there is the concordance. Every character is always translated with the same word - and you can turn to the back of the book and find a list of all the places where a given character occurs. Then open an ordinary translation, and find all the different ways in which this word is translated!

I would use this translation before any other. But if you prefer to begin with something a little more comprehensible, you could still use this as a wonderful reference book. Open it and find out which words in your translation are really in the I Ching, and which are part of the translator's understanding. Discover which characters are repeated in your answer, but translated differently in your traditional version. Immerse yourself in the underlying web of images and grasp the meaning of your reading for yourself.

This book also has an excellent in-depth introduction, written both to be intelligible to beginners, and to open new possibilities for the more experienced user. Yin and yang, key words from the I Ching, trigrams and the Five Elements (or 'Five Transformative Moments'), how to consult with coins, yarrow or sixteen tokens - it's all there. There are also five intriguing example readings - not easy to describe, you'll just have to get the book!

The original version had its problems. Basically, it was so free and open as to be very hard to understand. In the revised edition, this problem is largely overcome. In the first place, the text has been edited to be that bit more intelligible. Secondly, there is now clear, succinct commentary on the hexagrams and lines. This builds on the commentaries in Karcher's supremely useful How to Use the I Ching, but goes a lot further, giving us the benefit of many of Karcher's more recent discoveries in I Ching mythology and belief. (He has a complete new I Ching coming out later this year which explores all these ideas in much greater depth. Watch this space…)

This I Ching is still about as far from an 'instant answers', 'fortune cookie' style translation as you can get: it opens the way for you to create your own understanding. But it is now a lot more user-friendly in giving you a place to start. The revised edition is a wonderful I Ching for anyone who would like to get closer to the oracle than ordinary translations allow - experienced user or courageous beginner. Dive in and enjoy!

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The Original I Ching Oracle

Rudolf Ritsema and Shantena Sabbadini
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The Original I Ching Oracle is Ritsema’s revised version of the Eranos Yijing, first published in 1994 with Stephen Karcher, as ‘I Ching, the Classic Chinese Oracle of Change, the First Complete Translation with Concordance’ - the book I really have to thank for this website and my work.

I’ve been comparing Ritsema/Sabbadini side-by-side with the original ‘R&K’. The introduction says that it contains ‘a number of significant improvements,’ ‘incorporating all the insights developed in a decade of research’, but it doesn’t seem all that different. The presentation is better, the Tuanzhuan has been demoted to a position after the line texts, the section on constituent trigrams has been lengthened. And yes, some words do have new translations.

There are a few significant changes to hexagram names: Hexagram 1 is Energy now, Hexagram 2 is Space; 57 is Root (I like it); 11 is Compenetration (I had to look that up). Some core words have gained ‘variants’: the most noticeable of these is that zhi is now translated as ‘to [x] belongs’ in places, which makes some parts read better. Sometimes the choice of core word is different, but the overall meaning of the translation is hardly ever changed.

The introduction, though, is all new, and it’s good reading. (There are extensive excerpts available at Shantena Sabbadini's website.) The most interesting, challenging part is the single sample reading (I wish there were more of these). But it’s also good on the nature of yi, on the edge between chaos and order, and synchronicity.

Ritsema depicts ancient Chinese as an ‘imaginal language’ with ‘minimal grammar’ - though I believe it does have a little more syntax than he lets on. ‘The imaginal fields of single ideograms stand next to each other as islands in an archipelago or as figures in a dream.’ And this feeds into the book’s core idea of what the oracle is and how it works:

‘…like dream images, the images of the Yi Jing do not have a unique a priori interpretation. Depending on the context, they can be read in many different ways. And the context is given by the consultant’s situation and question.’

And more radical assertions later:

‘There are no rules for interpreting these texts. They do not have an intrinsic meaning, independent from you and from your question.’

and

‘Remember that the answer does not reside in the words, but arises in the process those words trigger in you.’

It’s a very unusual approach, and goes a long way to explaining what’s unique about this book: there is no commentary whatsoever from the authors. A brief sentence outlines the subject matter of each hexagram, always beginning ‘The situation described by this hexagram is characterized by…’ - ‘a central idea or long term goal, around which a wealth of experiences accumulate [sic]’ for 26, for instance. And that is all the explanation you’ll get. If there is ‘no intrinsic meaning’, then there’s nothing to write commentaries about.

Continuing with the introduction - it offers good advice on what the oracle does and doesn’t do: it mirrors the present, but

‘we do not assume that the Yi Jing can foretell the future, because we do not assume that the future is univocally determined. A latent tendency in the present situation may actually develop into an actual consequence: but that is in no way a necessary conclusion…’

And the oracle doesn’t tell you what to do - much as we might wish it would - any more than dream images tell you what to do. This is all very clear, powerfully stated, and a fine antidote to the insidious ’slot machine for answers’ mentality of divination.

(Which makes it unfortunate, and odd, that when the querent in the sample reading asks simply ‘What about taking this job?’, the moving line is interpreted as telling her what she ‘should’ do - in fact as being a series of imperatives, rather than a description.)

There is much good advice on how to go about a reading - think first, ask specific questions about emotionally significant things, don’t ask yes/no or either/or questions, and so on. And a description of yin and yang, of lines, trigrams, and the three coin and yarrow methods to generate a primary and ‘potential’ (no longer ‘related’) hexagram. There’s also an account of the Yi’s historical development that doesn’t stop at the Zhou conquest, and makes interesting reading.

Utterly bizarrely, the introduction maintains that the original Zhouyi text is the first two Wings. (It isn’t.) And it says the Earlier Heaven trigram arrangement is older than the Later Heaven one - which is a bit more understandable, but also not true.

The text of the oracle itself is almost identical to the 1994 version - which, in turn, is very like Karcher’s re-edition of it (reviewed immediately above). The basic difference is that Karcher’s comes with slightly more fluent English, and with his introduction to each hexagram and advice for each line.

Both work on the same basic translating principles of the original Eranos edition. Each Chinese character is represented throughout by the same English word, which is listed in the concordance. Ritsema/Sabbadini call these ‘core words’, and they’re printed in bold red type. A few conjunctions and prepositions have been added, in lightface, to make the text read a little more smoothly. Each passage from the Chinese is then followed by its ‘fields of meaning’: a thesaurus-style listing of possibly meanings simultaneously present in the word. For example, the field of meaning for ‘losing’ is

‘be deprived of, forget; destruction, ruin, death; corpse; lament, mourn, funeral. Ideogram: weep and the dead.’

(Not all the accounts of ideograms will be accurate, as Ritsema has chosen to stick to traditional etymologies instead of more recent discoveries. These may well ‘describe the “aura” surrounding these terms in Chinese literature and poetry’ post-121AD, but that won’t necessarily be the same as their ‘aura’ in the time of the Zhouyi.)

The use of the ‘core words’ makes for an English version that is only half-way to a translation, but provides ways to get to know the oracle that are just not accessible through other books. Simply being able to recognise whenever the same Chinese word occurs - within a reading, or between readings - is hugely valuable. Working from a good, traditional translation - such as Wilhelm’s - you would never know that the top line of Hexagram 42, Increase, speaks of a lack of heng - which is the name of its opposite hexagram, 32, Persevering. The translation ‘he does not keep his heart constantly steady’ offers you no way to tell that this has any connection with a hexagram called ‘Duration’. But in the Eranos book you have

‘Abstaining from augmenting it.
Maybe smiting it.
Establishing the heart, no persevering.
Pitfall.’

The original version, and Karcher’s re-edition, tell you that ‘persevering’ is the name of hexagram 32. Ritsema and Sabbadini have for some reason removed this fact from the ‘fields of meaning’ attached to the line, but the use of the same word is still apparent for any reader to identify.

The subtitle for this edition is ‘the pure and complete texts with concordance’. And it is ‘pure’ in the lack of commentary, the absence of interpretive tradition. But I wonder whether they haven’t over-purified somewhat - no longer identifying hexagram names when they occur in other hexagrams being just one example. Yi is a multi-layered, multi-coloured text, and I’m not sure that systematically bleaching it of myth and legend does it any favours.

The Han trigram associations are left in - emphasised, in fact, with a section in the introduction on the Universal Compass, and a long passage on the outer and inner trigrams following directly after the tuan (Judgement) text for each hexagram. But the life and thought of ancient China isn’t there: the ‘decade of research’ obviously hasn’t been in that direction. Not only is there no new information compared with the 1994 edition - no Prince Kang in Hexagram 35, still, let alone King Wu or the Dipper constellation in 55 - but some of the minimal historical information that was in the first edition has inexplicably been ‘purified’ out. Line 11,5 is about Diyi, penultimate ruler of the Shang - but readers of the new Eranos edition will have to make what they can of ‘Supreme Burgeoning converting maidenhood’. The only exception to this seems to be hexagram 36, which has a nice passage on the end about the imprisonment of Wen and Jizi.

I’m very glad to have a copy of this book, not least because my copy of R&K is falling out of its binding. And I would still recommend it as the best way to leap into Yi at the deep end, without any commentary-lifebelts to get between you and the experience of divination. I don’t know of any other English version that will leave you so completely on your own - which offers a unique way to develop a personal relationship with the oracle. Not for everyone, of course, and not the whole picture, but a great gift to Yi-ist(e)s all the same.

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The Tao of Organization

Thomas Cleary/ Cheng Yi
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Despite the title, this is an I Ching translation: Cleary's translation of both the Zhouyi texts and Cheng Yi's commentary. It's not so much an ideal first I Ching translation, more a tonic addition to any collection. So, what does it have to offer?

The introduction

There are basically two ways of finding the hexagram to describe your situation: trusting the universe to provide it, and using a random method of divination; or analysing the situation for yourself and constructing a hexagram based on this analysis. Thomas Cleary is more interested in the second approach. In this introduction, he provides many fascinating methods to accomplish it, and suggests a program of study that incorporates analytic readings.

But the insights in this introduction actually have a much wider application. There are characterisations of yin and yang (pointing out popular errors on the subject) and detailed descriptions of the role of each hexagram line. I've found that all of this - but especially the line information - can be very useful in a hexagram received through traditional divination.

The translation

The translation is limited to the original Zhouyi texts - the Judgements and line texts - without any of the Ten Wings. But there is also Cheng Yi's commentary on each hexagram and line. He concentrates intensively on the relationships between the lines, and with unusual clarity draws together and accounts for every part of the text in a logical structure. Every hexagram, I've discovered, can be read as a map of the dynamics of a relationship.

The back cover of this translation says it is 'of particular interest for its application to business strategizing'. In fact, I've found it to be of particular interest for its application to all human relationships. Wherever people interact - in business, marriage, families, friendships… - Cheng Yi's commentary can come in useful.

I already have more translations of and commentaries on the I Ching than I care to count. But I value this one for its down-to-earth quality. The Well can be a transcendent Source, but it can equally be mutual help between ordinary people. Offerings can mean raising your spirit and your perceptions into communion with something higher - but perhaps the attitude of sincerity they create in your relationships with other people is just as important. I wouldn't have chosen this as my first or only translation, but it does combine extremely well with the more 'spiritual' and personal versions, such as Stephen Karcher's, or indeed Cleary's own Taoist and Buddhist I Chings.

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The Complete I Ching

Alfred Huang
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This translation is from an eminent Chinese scholar, and it shows. It is truly a labour of love, written out of a deep reverence for the I Ching and an understanding of the importance of divination. His translation brings the oracle to life, and is much more optimistic, and less moralistic, in tone than some English versions. It contains all the most important divinatory texts, though for some reason he omits the 8th and 10th Wings. I particularly appreciate the attention he pays to the original ideograms of the titles and his vivid accounts of the line relationships, which on occasion have turned out to be uncannily accurate. Huang also supplies a handy reference with each hexagram to its opposite, mutual gua (aka nuclear hexagram) and inverse, as well as the steps of change for the lines.
Overall, this is a refreshing, reliable book, infused with a sense of the movement through the hexagrams.

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I Ching Plain and Simple

Stephen Karcher
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Note: this is a re-publication of How to Use the I Ching - new publisher, new title, same contents. Grab a copy of whichever version you find.

For me at least, Stephen Karcher is one of the most interesting I Ching translators working today. He combines serious scholarship with a profound enjoyment of myth and symbol, and a strong belief in the value of divination. This is the best of his works that are currently available: it's inspiring and user-friendly in equal measure. It has an excellent introduction, with easily the best explanation I've seen of the methods of consultation and how to generate the various hexagrams.

Karcher's view of the I Ching is fresh and unconventional: he is strongly averse to the more rigid Confucian interpretations, and in this edition omits the commentaries on the Judgements and lines that embody them. His own commentaries are thoughtful, original and full of useful insights. The result is a very easy to use, helpful and liberating translation.

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Yi Jing

Wu Jing-Nuan
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NB If you can't get hold of this book from your nearest Amazon bookstore, try Dr Wu's books page

There's a long, intriguing introduction before the main part of this book, which is a complete translation of the Zhouyi (that is, the names, judgements and line statements). Browse on into the final chapters and the appendix, though, and you find that this is one of the very few I Ching books to include the complete I Ching, with all its traditional Wings. The translation throughout is fluent and straightforward.

The introduction begins with a deeply poetic elaboration of the traditional account of the beginnings of the I Ching, beginning with Fuxi. Wu is prepared both to embrace the myth and its meanings, and to move smoothly from myth to history when this better serves as a foundation for understanding. If you are most concerned with historical accuracy, this is not the best introduction to read first - but perhaps there are more important things… Wu's work is solidly grounded in etymological research, but this is not allowed to dry up the Well of symbolic riches. This book is meant for use in divination.

Wu says he has aimed to present 'the simplicity of a Daoist translation with a ground of shamanistic practice, and the concomitant complex levels of meanings.' Certainly his simplicity and especially brevity are striking. If you're used to long, moral expositions on the lines, for example, his approach will come as something of a 'culture shock.' But I find these brief, information-packed comments are much more authentic in divination. There is that much less to be dismantled before you find your own answer. True, this approach leaves more of the imaginative work to you, but then divination is not about reading the answers from a book. Wu gives you stimulating information and ideas to work with, and involves you closely in discovering your own meaning.

Wu reads the Yi as I might read poetry, reflecting on how themes are developed and drawing conclusions from each hexagram's internal patterns: this is an approach I very much enjoy. I also like the honesty of the translation, showing the hand-written Chinese character along with the English version. Combine this with Wu's elucidation of the characters themselves, and you can actually see the images unfold.

Wu's version goes beyond the neo-Confucian interpretations of Wilhelm, Legge or Huang, on the basis of historical and intuitive understanding, but without angry polemics against them. Spiritual and magical understanding take over from moral injunctions. Sometimes I find I prefer the traditional interpretation of a line, usually for its greater complexity; even then, though, Wu is invaluable for what he adds to my understanding of the symbolism and atmosphere of the hexagram as a whole.

If you are buying your first I Ching, this one could work well for you: it does contain all you need, although you might find that it is easier to start with a version with rather more explanatory text. It certainly makes an excellent addition to a collection (it is always near the top of my own pile of translations!), largely because of the vivid contrasts between the hexagrams. They don't all steadfastly convey the same moral message. Some are about savage punishments, others about artistic and spiritual heights or extraordinary shamanistic power. The Yijing as seen by Wu is a dramatic adventure more than a book of wisdom.

Total I Ching: Myths for Change

Stephen Karcher
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The introduction
 
Stephen Karcher is an author whose introductions you do not want to skip. This one is essential reading if you are to make full use of the rest of the book, as well as being fascinating in its own right. It describes Yi's birth and evolution, and moves on to map out the physical and mythological landscape for the oracle as a whole: the world of spirits and human intermediaries; the annual cycles of ritual and sacrifice integrating spiritual and physical realities; the vital connection to the ancestors.
 
Then come the 'Tools for Change'. This begins with the same basics that most I Ching books do (two kinds of line, hexagrams, trigrams, relating hexagrams...), though with some revitalising differences even here - trigrams, for instance, are the 'Eight Helping Spirits'. Then come the more subtle, fruitful tools that you will not find discussed in any detail (often not at all) in other books: Pairs, Steps of Change and Change Operators, building up to a complex 'reading layout'.
 
But probably the most important contribution of the book is not any of this, but the new understanding it suggests of the web of interconnections within the I Ching. You can see more detail on what this is and how it works at the Great Vessel website. The introduction shows how pairs of hexagrams lead to pairs of lines, and how these connect to pairs of 'step of change' hexagrams and thence to specific events and years of your life. This sounds simplistic, literal-minded, associating hexagrams 19-20 with your experiences when you were 19 or 20. Believe me, it can also work with chilling accuracy.
 
And finally, the introduction provides the basic essentials: how to form a question, how to cast a hexagram with three coin, yarrow or 16 token methods, a miniature 'glossary' of key omen words, and a guide for reading and responding to your answers. This section also includes advice on which sections of the book to omit if you are only looking for a quick reading.
 
The translation
 
You can get a good flavour of the text of the book from that I Ching Community page, where Stephen has included some substantial quotations - though you might also need to read the introduction if you're not to drown in all the imagery.
 
The whole translation is arranged by Pairs: before you begin on hexagram 21 or 22, you read the 'Paradigm' for the landscape they define together as 'inspiration' and 'manifestation', and the 'nodes' and 'shadow site' they connect with. Then, for each hexagram, there are 'myths for change, the story of the time' - a sometimes dizzying wealth of historical, ritual and mythological associations. The great majority of the oracle's text is here - Judgement, Image, Contrast, Sequence, lines and their commentary - as the introduction says, in a 'poetic rather than a historical translation'. The 'Scholar Speaks' is a paraphrase and interpretation of the Commentary on the Judgement; the Shaman Speaks is the Image, followed by commentary that integrates it with the Shuogua and with Five Element theory.
 
Wishlist
 
The translation is very poetic and free - and, for me at least, too free to use on its own. There are many places where Karcher (often following the best scholarly opinion) has altered or added to the text to make better sense of it, and to identify these you have to compare it against a word-for-word translation, like LiSe's or Wu Jing Nuan's. I understand why he's done this, but I feel I need to have straightforward access to the Yi's actual words before crossing over into interpretation. This is one reason why I wish the book were crammed with scholarly footnotes - though I realise not everyone shares my footnote fetish ;).
 
The basic parts of the commentary - those that you're directed to if you are looking for a quick, concise reading - are almost identical with the commentary in the I Ching with Concordance. There are some changes, and there are more clues to the direction of Karcher's thought in the elaborations on the translation, but I would have loved to have seen more hints on incorporating new understandings from the paired line omens and 'stories of the time'.
 
Presentation: there are no hexagram names or numbers at the tops of the pages, which makes it harder to use. Also, I have a nasty feeling that the paper and binding will not stand up well to the intensive usage I'll be inflicting on my copy.
 
(Or in other words - I'd like the book to be twice as long, and printed and bound at twice the expense!)
 
Summing up
 
The 'tools for change' set your individual readings in a broader context and gives you much more sense of what they are about on a larger scale - in other words, you can connect the oracle's words with real-life issues with greater specificity. But by setting each Pair in the context of its web of interconnections and echoes around the whole oracle, the Total I Ching also enables you to connect the particular issue you asked about with key events in your own life.
 
What makes this into a real, potent experience (not just another 'system') is its integration with the 'stories of the time'. Drawing on the work of many scholars (there's a considerable Bibliography), not least on Steve Marshall's Mandate of Heaven, Karcher sketches in an overarching structure of human development, through its successive sacrifices and transformations. Accessed via the echoes and interconnections of the 'tools', these answer the old question 'Where am I?' with great precision and depth. Seeing Yi as an interconnected whole is bound to mean seeing your life as an interconnected whole. It reveals blind spots, shatters defences, and greatly heightens your sense of owning it all in the present moment.
 
Total I Ching wouldn't be the obvious choice for a quick, 'instant advice on what to do' consultation, of the kind where you dip in, consult, and then carry on with life much as before. Nor is it just 'another one for the collection': I doubt it will be out of my hands for long enough to find a space on the bookshelf. It has challenged and expanded my ideas of what the oracle can do, and I've barely scratched the surface.

The Laws of Change

Jack Balkin
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First, this is a beautifully produced book: strong binding, silky paper, and the sense of a job done carefully, attentively and well. The same feeling stays with me from the Introduction right through to the Bibliographical Essay on page 625. The introductory section and the translation and commentary are equally thorough, conscientious and thoughtful. It's also all highly intelligently expressed, and very clear.
 
Part I of the book is over 100 closely-printed pages long and comes in six chapters: 'Introduction', 'The Philosophy of the Book of Changes', 'How the Book of Changes works', 'The Symbolism of the Book of Changes', 'How to Consult the Book of Changes', and 'A Short History of the Book of Changes'.
 
The Introduction's explanation of the mechanics of hexagrams and readings is (like everything else in the book!) exceptionally clear. He states firmly that it is a mistake to use the book to try to tell the future:
'The Book of Changes is best understood not as a fortune-telling device but as a book of wisdom that can help people think imaginatively and creatively about their lives.'
It is a book of wisdom, containing a single, uniform philosophy, and the purpose of divination is 'to help the questioner confront the book's philosophy in practical, concrete contexts.' This enables you to assimilate that philosophy one small piece at a time. But Balkin is too canny to fall into either of the pits that generally seem to await those who decide they know Yi's philosophy: he neither suggests that understanding this supersedes divination (emphasising that 'the best way to truly understand the Book of Changes is to use it'), nor do his commentaries try to make every line say the same thing.
 
The next chapter introduces this philosophy. As you might expect, it is a very good introduction to some central Yijing concepts that you'll meet repeatedly in divination, illustrated from hexagram texts. It also shows unmistakable signs of practical experience in divination: for instance, he points out that Yi doesn't compartmentalise what works and what is right in the way we would normally do - and that the same hexagram can refer to external or internal circumstances - and that in any case this distinction exists more in our own minds than in the Yijing.
 
Your reaction to Chapter 3 will depend on what you believe yourself about how the Yijing works. The first sub-heading shows where Balkin is coming from:
'Why does the Book of Changes seem to give relevant answers to questions?'
His answer would be a combination of human ingenuity, ambiguous oracle texts, and a question-answer format for divination, and he goes to considerable lengths to expunge any hint of magic or spiritual communication from the business of divination. Balkin usefully points out that there is nothing whatsoever you need to believe in order to benefit from divining with the Yijing: his book could prove a sturdy bridge into its world for people who are frightened off by mention of 'spirits'.
 
Chapter 4 covers yin and yang, the trigrams, the associations of each line position, and corresponding and ruling lines; there's more detail about these last two in the 'history' chapter, when he discusses Wang Bi. Chapter 5, on how to consult, offers robust, good advice on what kind of question to ask, and what to do (and what not to do) with the answer. He recommends the six-coin method that always generates one and only one moving line: a method you're unlikely to choose if you believe there is a specific message that Yi needs to convey to you, but that makes a lot of sense if, like Balkin, you are only expecting random stimulus to self-examination. But he is nothing if not thorough: there follow detailed accounts of two coin, three coin, yarrow, simplified yarrow, sixteen token and playing card methods (!), plus Alfred Huang's method for reducing the number of moving lines - and more. 
 
The history chapter also gives you vastly more information than your average I Ching book - from the legendary version, through textual evidence for accurate dating, through the changing meanings of characters and composition of the Wings, and even a history of interpretive traditions with detailed accounts of the ideas of Wang Bi and Zhuxi. I can't think of any other published book with so much I Ching information in one place. 
 
And so on page 119, the translation begins! (And it is a translation, without compromise: not a 'modernisation' or 'simplification'.) It includes only the Zhouyi texts and the Daxiang - the same as you will find in Book I of Wilhelm. Balkin considers the other Wings to be more 'cosmological' than ethical, and hence outside his remit. As for the experience of using it... well, if you own Stephen Karcher's Total I Ching, imagine its complete opposite. Karcher expects you to absorb the imagery and 'roll the words in your heart' so that an answer takes form within you. Balkin expects you to read the words like an instruction book, and go and act accordingly. (To be fair, he does say in his introduction that you should feel free to ignore his commentaries if the imagery takes you a different way - but they are not easy to ignore!)
 
With this book you will never be left to wonder what the imagery means. There's no ambiguity, no fluff: the line means this, so you should go and do that. There is not the slightest tendency to gloss over or subtly omit the difficult parts, either. First any awkward imagery is explained; then there is a direct, second-person set of instructions. Hexagram 43 line 3, for instance (very awkward stuff about power in the cheekbones and being soaked by rain):
' "Powerful in the cheekbones" means talking too much or talking at the wrong time. To meet with rain and become soaked means to suffer the indignity of misunderstanding and disapproval from others.'
And the instructions follow. Alternative readings for the translation are explained in footnotes to each hexagram - something RJ Lynn does, too, and I wish every translation would follow suit.
 
If you're familiar with Wilhelm, some of the commentary will sound very familiar: there are parts that are basically just rephrased and elaborated from Wilhelm/Baynes. But overall this book is not just (yet) another Wilhelm remix - far from it! There's also considerable use of modern scholarship (though nothing radical) - and then there's Balkin's own insight. There are interpretations here that were entirely new to me - including some real light-bulb moments, like the idea that the light of clear perception in hexagram 30 liberates the potential of a situation in the same way that fire releases latent energy in wood.
 
I use this book in my own readings when I need an incisive answer to propel me into action - though not when I need to take time and space to find my own answers. And when giving readings I find it enormously useful as a source of direct, straightforward explanations: this is the translation I quote more than any other (out of over 30 on the shelves), just because I can rely on Balkin to put the message into words better than I can. I wouldn't use it if I wanted to hint, or expand possibilities, or invite a querent to discover the right application for themselves.

I think you'll find this book especially useful...

 
This book sits on my desk just behind the original Ritsema/Karcher edition, next to Wilhelm and Total I Ching. If you're at all interested in practical divination, it deserves a place on yours.
 

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