...life can be translucent

Thoughts on Wilhelm/Baynes

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 ‘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?

48.3, Ritsema/Sabbadini:
‘The well oozing, not taking-in.
Activating my heart’s ache.
Permitting availing-of drawing water.’

Alfred Huang:
‘Well is dredged.
No drinking.
Sorrow in my heart.
It could be used and drawn.’

‘This Well is turbid. They do not drink here.
“This makes my heart ache.” ’

‘The well is cleaned, but no one drinks from it.
This is my heart’s sorrow,
For one might draw from it.’

15 responses to Thoughts on Wilhelm/Baynes

  1. Hello Hilary,

    My brother has been casting the I Ching for 34 years and I am introducing him to your website. He would like to reply to you:

    My name is Joe Eastburn. I’m going to subscribe to your newsletter. My sister and I are here at her pad in Atlanta talking about all things spiritual, and started on the I Ching a minute ago and here I am communicating with you. Such a miracle. From just reading your thoughts on W/B, we both realized you’re an I Ching scholar. Are you saying W/B puts down more “roots” because it presents the mind with a riddle? Anyway, I grew up using Blofeld, then W/B and now Huang. Blessings.

  2. Dear Hilary,

    I read your article with interest – I think there is a strong necessity about that issue – and at a first approximation I quite agree with what you say.
    However I want to add my two pence to it.

    Just at the opposite from you, I have been “grown up” with Wilhelm, so “that” was I Ching for me. I used to read first that tranlation and then several other ones (like Blofeld, Douglas, and T. Cleary, for instance) when I was not satisfied with W.
    Then I attended to your course on line – fine – and discovered other “accredited” translations like A. Huang and Karcher, plus a comment, Sarah Dening’s, that you raccomend. Trusting your judgement finally I bought a copy of each of them and started to consult them all in comparison to W.’s transaltion.
    Needless to say I found them all illuminating and extremely useful, however…
    I must say that W. still has an important place in my readings.
    I found out that for general/filosophical/spiritual questions W. is invaluable, while for specific or practical questions (about relationships, for example) the other three ones are clearer and therefore more useful. So I think each of them has a certain area of application and can be regarded as complimentary. What do you think about that?

    By the way, dispite of the apparent diversity W.’s and Huang’s tranlations very often convey the same meaning, it seems what you may call a “classical tradition”, while Karcher is quite another thing.

    So to conclude, I’d like to remember the advice you give in your course, which sounds reasonable to me: to use the translation with which one feels more at “home” or at easy (and not forgetting the others).

    Thank you,

  3. Thanks Donato, hello Joe!

    I think W/B puts down roots just because of the quality of the language. I don’t know what that is, exactly – it’s usually rhythmic qualities that make words stick with me. I think Wilhelm might be better at presenting the mind with answers, and Karcher better at presenting it with a mind-expanding enigma.

    I agree with Donato, W/B and Huang are representatives of very much the same tradition, and Karcher is a different animal altogether. There are relatively few books outside that tradition – Wu Jing Nuan’s Yijing is another. I like bringing different versions together – the more different, the better – but I can also see the benefits of picking up different versions for different occasions. Personally, if I really want to be told unambiguously what to do, I’d reach for Jack Balkin.

  4. Hilary, I too ‘grew up’ with Wilhelm/Baynes and only relatively recently came across firstly Huang, Carol Anthony, then Eranos and finally Karcher’s Total I Ching (agree with you about the binding…was never going to survive constant use). Ritsema and Karcher’s work was vital in allowing me to understand (and therefore strip out) the heavy moralistic overlay from the Confusian commentaries. This was pretty revelatory for me, as I had always felt deeply uncomfortable with a lot of the commentaries without quite being able to put my finger on why. So much of it seemed to fly in the face of the Dao de Jing. Now it’s pretty obvious why.

    Carol Anthony’s work is dedicated and very earnest and shows some deep understanding from an overtly Buddhist position, but is often strained, repetitive and by using W/B as its base text also takes what comes across to me at least as an overly moralistic tone. But her focus on relationships can be very illuminating. I would love to hear other people’s take on her work.

    But I must agree with you, that by seeking and discovering other translations and versions, one’s return to Wilhelm often yields delightful surprises, for his language was (is) superb. Not surprising perhaps, since his version was CG Jung’s and Herman Hesse’s constant companion. Though in their era they were not as spoilt for choice as we are.

    But ‘rolling the words on the tongue’ and setting ‘fish traps for the dao’ appeals to me the most…for deep meaning and deeper insight seems to me to need time….

  5. I am very impressed with the advanced understanding that people here have of the IC… fascinating topic.

    I have always approached the IC not as a literary work but as a true Oracle… a way in which to communicate with God. As a result, I see the IC as more of a navigator for my life rather than an interesting topic of study.

    I guess i would come from a more emperical school of thought… less concerned with the mechanics and nuances of the subject and more focused on its heuristic value in getting me further along ‘the way’. To some people the IC becomes and end in itself… rather than just a means to get to a further place.

    I will say one thing…the way…is one helluva ride.


  6. I have used W/B for about 35 years. By far my most trusted teacher, guide, and counselor yet I still hunger for more naked forms of the principals. The archetypal center, no doubt, has no favorites and I am excited to find this sight which offers new development for me but I will also suggest you read the story of the W/B in the front of the book. It wanted to happen!

  7. It is my direction to reply this simple message. Once the I Ching is drawn upon in sincerity the message comes not so much from the words but from the language of the soul through which the Sage speaks. The Sage knows and understands the circumstances of the seeker including the translation at hand. Sincerity in seeking serves to deliver the message. Words are but a tool for spiritual revelation. It is important not to be took caught up in words. Myself, I have been using the Wilhelm text with Carol Anthony’s Guide To The I Ching.

  8. I am both touched and fascinated by everyone’s thoughts on Wilhelm/Baynes. I received the coins and the book as a gift from my best friend 37 years ago (1976), and used it as my personal oracle for about a decade, at which point it gave me false advice when I was trying to buy a house, so I threw it away (although it had given me much-needed help during that decade).

    But my biggest problem with the I Ching was not the book (I can still remember the commentary on a situation where a woman approaches a man: “the situation is very dangerous!” or words to that effect, showing the patriarchal bias of Confucian values). My biggest problem was with the spirit entities who controlled the coins. I had joined a Spiritualist Church 2 years earlier and was training as a platform medium, and the spirit “guides” or entities who came into my life (and have never completely left it) have made me regret my joining. I know my coins were controlled by entities, because one day while I was cleaning a coin at the kitchen sink, I was wondering if the coins were influenced by an outside power, and accidentally dropped a coin on my shoulder; it rolled down my arm, across my hand, then over to the stacked pile of the other 2 coins, JUMPED UP INTO THE AIR, and landed on top of the other two coins, forming a perfect stack of three coins. I did not imagine this. It really happened, and my question was answered.

    Fast forwarding to August 2010: I felt a need for otherworldly guidance, purchased a new W/B online and polished up one side of each of three pennies (for yin and yang), and got back in the groove.
    Quoting from my daily journal, August 23, 2010:
    “I asked the Ching: will a human voice music module bring me more joy?
    #24 Fu/Return (The Turning Point)
    The time of darkness is past. Winter Solstice brings the victory of light. Return. Success. Going out and coming in without error. Friends come without blame. To and fro goes the way. On the seventh day comes return.”

    I then have one month of sheer misery, from friends, neighbors, my dentist and new associations.

    August 27, 2010:
    “When I look out the window after sunrise (7:30 am) I see a hexagram as clouds (unmistakeably). I see no other clouds in the sky.
    #14 Possession in Great Measure.
    Supreme success. The image – Fire in heaven above: thus the superior man curbs evil and furthers good, and thereby obeys the benevolent will of heaven.”

    September 23, 2010:
    “Lying on my bed, I am overcome with worthlessness and hatred. Finally, the source: the Ching’s hexagram #24 Fu/Return, return of the light, spontaneous associations in the open. It’s a farce….I must get rid of that I-Ching book….. I take it to the dumpster and dump. My peace returns.”

    September 24, 2010:
    “The cloud hexagram – #14 Possession (in Great Measure) – was not true. Since that event I have had debilitation in great measure: loss of energy, health, and money.
    The only answer I can come up with is that it’s my karma…. I’m always going to be mislead by spirit entities. The I-Ching may be truthful to most people, but it will always mislead me. It’s not that a paragraph didn’t apply, but that the central theme of the hexagram was the exact opposite of the truth. The Ching is of no overall value to me….”

    The Ching is not my oracle. I use astrology as my oracle.

    But the Ching has returned to my life in a subtle and profound way.
    On February 24, 2013, I visit the new Museum of the White Mountains, one day after it opened in Plymouth, New Hampshire. I am awestruck by beautiful one- and two-century-old paintings of the White Mountains, especially of Mount Washington, the highest mountain in the eastern U.S., and I realize that the mountains in general and in particular Mount Washington (which I had climbed many times as a young man) pulled me to NH when I moved here 25 years ago. Then the hexagram name “Keeping Still, Mountain” comes to me again and again. The artists and poets, quoted in the museum, agree that the White Mountains gave them stillness, quiet and peace. This potential I have not yet reached. But this is why I moved from the intellectual, cultural and spiritual excitement of Massachusetts, to a little town on the edge of the White Mountain National Forest.

    And for the first time, my life makes sense, and I leave the museum with tears in my eyes.

  9. Thanks for sharing the story, Benjamin. It may surprise you, but I actually agree that for some people, some of the time, the best place for the I Ching is the dump. Or the charity shop, anyway… I’ve been known to recommend to someone that he take his copy there. ‘What can I receive from you now?’ is not a bad question to ask the oracle.

    About Hexagram 14 – it might be worth noting that it deliberately does not talk about harvest (in Wilhem-Baynes language, about anything that ‘furthers’).

  10. A few hours after I submitted my last comments, I noticed a coincidence of names and numbers:
    “Keeping Still, Mountain” is hexagram #52, Ken; currently I live at 52 Prince Haven Road in a housing development that was carved out of Keniston Woods.
    Sometimes I wonder if the Universe is actually perfect just the way it is.

    In the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 29 (transl. by Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English), Lao Tsu wrote
    “Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
    I do not believe it can be done.
    The universe is sacred.
    You cannot improve it.
    If you try to change it, you will ruin it.”

  11. Sorry just testing. Re the I Ching, you have to be able to apply it in context as I think a lot of its advice is on what I’d call ‘the heroic scale’. As an example I had to put in a new light fixture after the quake of 1995 in Kobe, Japan. I was not at all sure I had put it in right (the way things fit together in Japan is very different; doors open outwards, screws go in the opposite direction)and I couldn’t ask anyone as the phones were down. Ah, ask the oracle! And I got Hexagram 46, line 2. What a great answer!

  12. Yes, I know what you mean about scale. Being able to gauge that – and to see the same patterns reflected between large and small scale – is a great help.

    And now you have me looking at 16.2, trying to see the relationship with fitting a light after an earthquake. I’m stumped so far… help?

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Office 17622,
PO Box 6945,
United Kingdom

Phone/ Voicemail:
+44 (0)20 3287 3053 (UK)
+1 (561) 459-4758 (US).