Someone wrote to ask what I think of the Wilhelm/Baynes translation.
I have mixed feelings about it. For a lot of people, I know, asking ‘what do you think of Wilhelm/Baynes?’ is much the same as asking, ‘What do you think of the Bible?’ This is the edition the great majority of Yi-users grew up on; it’s basically the edition responsible for making the Yijing known in the West. If it weren’t for Wilhelm, I don’t suppose this website would exist.
So the Wilhelm/Baynes edition has been hugely influential, and many people still more or less equate the I Ching with W/B. It would be hard not to, even for people just getting to know the oracle now: the W/B is still the bestselling I Ching at Amazon.com, still likely to be the only one on the shelves at a bookstore. And I have long since stopped being surprised at people who quote Wilhelm’s commentary and firmly believe they are quoting the I Ching itself. Some people use the book for decades and never succeed in differentiating between oracle and commentary.
Is that a problem? Well, yes. The words of the oracle answer your question; the words of the commentator explain what he thinks that answer means. Now Wilhelm has the weight of a great tradition behind him – we’re not just looking at an individual’s personal opinions – but for all that, his work still has prejudices and limitations that the oracle itself does not have.
For example – at 37.2, Yi says simply
‘No direction to pursue,
Stay put in the centre and cook.
Constancy, good fortune.’
– or words to that effect.
Wilhelm (/Baynes) says:
‘She should not follow her whims.
She must attend within to the food.
Perseverance brings good fortune.’
He has quietly added â€˜she’, ‘must’ and ‘should’ out of his own perceptions, and put a whole different cast on the thing as a result. And this, of course, is before we get to his commentary, which begins:
‘The wife must always be guided by the will of the master of the house, be he father, husband, or grown son. Her place is within the house.”
Again, this is not just Wilhelm’s voice, but that of a long interpretive tradition. The difficulty arises when people adopt that widespread belief that this is the I Ching: its words, its morality. It becomes more than a problem of interpretation: it’s caused many women, down the years, to discard the book altogether. ‘The I Ching’s the book that says my place is in the kitchen, firmly under my husband’s thumb. I’m an independent woman, so this book has nothing to do with me.’ It’s remarkably hard to convey the idea that although there is a book with ‘I Ching’ on the cover that says exactly this, it isn’t what the I Ching says.
Wilhelm’s work both represents a tradition and is a product of its time. Naturally, there have been discoveries made since the 1940s that affect interpretation, and someone who reads nothing but Wilhelm/Baynes will miss out on all the richness of these stories and images. Actually, someone who picks up an I Ching book at random will most likely be in much the same boat, as a huge volume of paper has been consumed by derivatives and paraphrases of Wilhelm.
I had the great good fortune to ‘grow up’ on the Eranos I Ching, which gave me the firm idea from the outset that Yi was a world of images and possibilities, not something that could be encompassed by a single perspective. And yet… even though I didn’t get a copy of Wilhelm/Baynes for some years, it’s having a pervasive influence on me. On more than one occasion, I’ve wrestled for some time before finally coming up with an interpretation I can be happy with – only to find that Wilhelm had it waiting for me all the time. And the sheer quality of the language has a staying power all its own. Which of these puts down roots in your mind?
‘The well oozing, not taking-in.
Activating my heart’s ache.
Permitting availing-of drawing water.’
‘Well is dredged.
Sorrow in my heart.
It could be used and drawn.’
‘This Well is turbid. They do not drink here.
“This makes my heart ache.” â€™
‘The well is cleaned, but no one drinks from it.
This is my heart’s sorrow,
For one might draw from it.’