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Yi, or the Yi

A while ago, I received an email politely suggesting I stop referring to the Yi simply as ‘Yi’ without an article. The writer maintained that since the oracle is ‘not a person’, it would be better not to give it a ‘pet name’; this was not good English usage when talking about a book.

I welcomed the email as it made me aware of something that has become a habit. (I also welcomed it because it challenged my use of English, which is something I’m tremendously persnickety about. I mean, it’s something about which I’m tremendously persnickety.)

On the one hand, he was quite right to say that the Yi is not a person, but a book. And on the other hand, in the experience of people who have conversations with this oracle and get to know its very distinctive voice, it is a person. Stephen Karcher refers to it simply as ‘Change’; I’ve known people who talk about ‘Uncle Yi’ or ‘Grandmother Yi’ – and also people who hear it as a plural voice somehow and describe their readings with the words, ‘they said…’. The Dazhuan itself says that Yi is like your parents drawing near.
No one would refer to ‘Daode’ or ‘Shi’ as if they were using a personal name, because the Daodejing and Shijing are simply books. But the book that is the Yijing is also an oracle known as Yi – or perhaps the voice of an oracle known as Yi? Hard to know how to describe this… but people do have a different kind of relationship with oracles…

15 responses to Yi, or the Yi

  1. The writer of the email clearly doesn’t know how the term ‘Yi’ came into being. ‘Yi’ is not a ‘pet name’ for the Yijing, it is an abbreviation, just as the Beijing University (‘Beijing Daxue’) is referred to as ‘Beida’ or the Hanyu Da Zidian dictionary is named ‘Handa’. Throughout Chinese history the name of the Yijing has been shortened to ‘Yi’, the Shijing to ‘Shi’, etc. When the ancients quoted the Yi they often started the quote with ‘Yi yue’, ‘(the) Yi says’. That we refer to the Yijing as ‘Yi’ is only the result from this, as more and more Chinese material about the book enters the West. We follow Chinese custom, that’s all.

  2. On occasion I have told friends about your lovely use of very English words (so English, in fact, that I take the pleasure of looking them up in a dictionary). As far as I’m concerned, you’re totally forgiven if your using “Yi” without “the” is not 100% conforming to language rules that unpoetic people want to enforce.

  3. Ha! I like how Harmen kept it real and within the confines of proper grammar usage. Me, I just went into my usual tangential thoughts in your FB entry… Let’s blame you and Scott Davies for the prompt… lol!

  4. In Dutch, people say “de I Tjing,” as in “the I Ching.” Shortening that to “de I,” as in “the I,” doesn’t sound right, but “de Yi” would be possible. The sound of just “Yi” is a bit weird in Dutch, at least to my ears, so I don’t think people would say “ik raadpleegde Yi,” as in “I consulted Yi,” while it grammatically would be correct, seeing Yi as personal.

  5. In Spanish we have a similar problem as the one Ewald describes above. As Charly explained in the forum thread, we use “el I Ching” where “el” = “the”. Also, we pronounce our vowels hard, where “i” sounds like the English “e”. Further, our “y” (which we call a “Greek I”) has a sound very similar to the English use of “sh” (as in she), sooo, pinyin sounds don’t work very well in Spanish. The closest sound in Spanish to the English/Pinyin pronunciation of “yi” is “lli”

    Confused enough already? 🙂

  6. I love your use of the personal Yi. I find the conversations I have with Yi (see, I’ve even started doing it myself) startlingly direct and personal, far beyond my experiences with other oracles,so this way of speaking fits perfectly, for me!

  7. In Italy “i” is a masculine plural article, like “los” in Spanish, translated in English as “the”. So, more often then not, Italian people talk about “i Ching” = “the Ching”. 😀
    Even when they know very well that “I” is actually a Chinese word, and not an article, they automatically treat it as the Italian “i”, and consequently use the plural form of any verb referred to the “Ching”, as if they were “ChingS”!
    Using the pinyin instead of the Wade-Giles doesn’t help at all, since the letter “y” is not even in our alphabet, and we pronounce it exactly like “i”.
    So, here in Italy, nobody ever dares shortening “I Ching” into “I”, nor “Yijing” into “Yi”, with or without article, it would sound too confusing.
    Ah, yes, I forgot: “the Yi” in Italian is “l’Yi”, and it sounds exactly like “lì”, which means “there”! 😀

  8. I think I mostly call it the I Ching or the “ching”. Might work nicely in Spanish–”El Ching”.

    Nope, sorry… 🙂

    1st, “ching” is actually the old Wade/Giles romanization of the Chinese character ?, which means “classic, canon, etc.,” and popularized by the Wilhelm/Baynes translation, as far as the Yijing is concerned. Pinyin is the current and most popular romanization in use. In Pinyin, ? is rendered as “jing” thus the compound word ?? / Yijing is formed. Nothing wrong with calling it “jing.” I actually use the term “classic” all the time when referring to the Yi.

    2nd, “El Ching” for Spanish usage is too close to the slang “el chingado,” which means, ahem, “the f****ed up” LOL!

    Ah, the joys of translation… 🙂

  9. Mr Mesker seems quick to presume the ignorance of others. Having been a student of classical Chinese for forty some years, I am well aware of the points he mentioned in his note. He seems to think I object to the use of the term Yi instead of Yi Jing; not at all. My suggestion is simply, and soundly, based on the need for a definite article in English before such nouns as the Yi Jing, abbreviated, quite properly, as the Yi. It is a matter of English usage and no more than that.


  10. Mr Suzhou misses the point: the fact that the Western usage of ‘(the) Yi’ stems from the Chinese usage of the word means that there is no difference between ‘Yi’ or ‘the Yi’. Saying that we should use an article is as silly as saying that we shouldn’t talk about ‘Wikipedia’ but about ‘THE Wikipedia’.

  11. Actually… as far as English usage goes, when referring to a book, Suzhou has a point. We wouldn’t say, ‘I read Bible yesterday evening, and Bible says…’

    However, those who use ‘Yi’ without the article tend to be referring more to what speaks through the book than to the book itself. We also wouldn’t say, ‘I talked with the Bob yesterday evening, and the Bob says…’

    So in the end it’s not so much a question of English usage as one of deciding quite what we mean by ‘[the] Yi’. Suzhou – would I be right in imagining that you simply mean the book, and that you don’t consult it as an oracle?

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