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The Chameleon Book

When did you last encounter a Yijing translation where the introduction engendered such curiosity that you were itching to read it through?

Quite. I’m sure this isn’t supposed to happen, but with the Chameleon Book, Freeman Crouch’s translation, I find it does. He reads the Yijing as a historical document, but goes beyond the relatively-familiar story of Wen and Wu, into the first generations of rulers after the conquest. He tells their story in his introduction, and connects it to the story of Yi the archer shooting down the suns (a huge eye-opener for me). And he promises that references to all these things will be found in the hexagrams.

There are quite a few I Ching books out there that try to tell it as a story. They don’t, as a rule, have the same honest grounding in text and scholarship that this one has. Nor is this a re-hash of anything: you won’t find these ideas anywhere else.

There are vivid, evocative historical connections. On hexagram 17, Sui, for instance:”When Wu captured Great City Shang, one of his first acts was to perform a ritual called sui. It was important to do this quickly, so much so that he did it before changing from his battle dress. I believe that the sui ritual had to do with taking the succession from the Shang line.”

(And he goes on to find historical references for the ‘little boy’ and ‘grown husband’.)

– and there are, just as prominently, vivid and keen suggestions for what these might mean for a modern diviner. Many of these bring the hexagram’s themes sharply into focus. Hexagram 18, for instance – and I’ll type out most of the commentary here, so you can see how ancient history and modern divination come together:

“A Gu-curse is an ancestral curse. What could an ancestral curse be like to us moderns? Inherited problems: the sins of our parents, the mismanagement of our managers.

This is a prospective, a reading made in the Zhou capital, not long before the Jia-day on whic the army of the Zhou were set to marching. When Wu took responsibility for the government of the center, the curses of the ancestors became his responsibility.

So. You are laboring under a curse. You own these problems. Where you like it or not, they are squirming right there on your plate.

Work is the word used for the healing process: you have to work the curse. So the emphasis at a moment of Curse of the Fathers is on working out, or working through the curse that you are laboring under.”

I find this to be really good commentary, focussed and to the point. I don’t feel the same way about his take on every hexagram: there are inevitably “Why did he miss that?” moments, and “Wherever did he get that from?” moments.

I dare say this is mostly just the sign of an original translation meeting a diviner who’s getting a little set in her ways. Maybe it’s also the result of a translation that casts the spotlight on a single layer of Yi, which is an altogether multi-dimensional and multi-layered creature. Some other dimensions are bound to fade from view. Yu and Feng Fang have disappeared from Hexagram 8, for instance, and more generally the sense of the regular cyclic time of farmers has faded away in the grand teleological glare of conquest and politics. All the romance and marriage has become political allegory, too. And I’m also not convinced by his approach to the structure. The line that casts light on 4.3 for me is 3.4, not 3.3. If you draw the hexagram, mark the line and turn the piece of paper round, you can see why.

But, if I can just leave the Grouchy Diviner to mumble in her corner for a moment, the Chameleon Book is a delight. The translation is punchy and captures the free, open nature of the oracle.


‘No plain without a hill – no go without a return –
Hardship? Make a reading. No dishonor.

Don’t worry. You’ll probably capture something to eat.
There will be blessings.’)

I love Freeman’s approach to translation. He regards the Yijing as a work of literature, and this naturally gives him a great respect for the original. Not just respect for what he feels it means, but for the words themselves. So, for instance, he translates the same character with the same word wherever he can, because in poetry, such echoes are meaningful. (This makes me want to jump about and cheer.)

He also respects it for what it does, as an oracle. So he says he aims to translate “in such a way as to make it possible to ‘tune out’ my interpretations and still use the text to develop other lines of thinking”.

After the translation comes the appendices: one on translation, one on divination. He has some good things to say about both, especially about what to do when the oracle doesn’t appear to be ‘working’. (Quote: “Sometimes you need an oracle; sometimes you need a nap.”)

And then come the endnotes, where you will always want to have a bookmark. (I wish they could be footnotes instead – maybe in the second edition?) Notes on translation, on interpretation, on alternative readings, textual echoes and wordplay, and more. I’m a glutton for all these things.

To sum up… it’s hard to imagine this as a book for beginners (though that might be my limited imagination talking), but anyone with an interest in Yi’s sources and its inner workings, and in having new light cast on their readings, should have a copy. It’s not often you get the opportunity to pack so many new ideas into so little shelf-space. You can get it here.

(This is a review I should’ve written years ago. Better breathtakingly late than never, I hope. Sorry, Freeman.)

3 responses to The Chameleon Book

  1. Freeman Crouch has very generously made his ‘Chameleon Book’ fully available free of charge here. I’m not sure that will post as a link, but if it doesn’t, just type Freeman’s name or ‘Chameleon Book’ into Google Books. Of course, many people will want to own the book to read and study, so by all means buy it through Hilary’s link to Brazos Media. No doubt that will encourage the author to consider a second edition.

  2. Thanks for the link. Generous indeed – though until such time as Google turns the references to endnotes into clickable links, I think I’ll be happier with the paper version.

  3. His is one of three that I use.
    Sometimes he is really accurate and
    insightful, as in discussing Hexagram


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